Next week, Hadassah will celebrate its 100th anniversary in the Steel City with an event honoring several local citizens.
Prior to the Oakland-based gala, four past presidents of the women’s Zionist organization gathered to reflect on their decades of involvement. Lifelong friends Mimi Ginsberg, Roz Markovitz, Marlene Silverman and Bernice Meyers sat down at a coffee shop in Squirrel Hill to reminisce on fundraising luncheons and trips to Israel. While the memories were sweet, more serious were the women’s hopes, as each one pondered and projected Hadassah’s next century in Pittsburgh.
“Hadassah has changed, but some things remain the same,” said Silverman, of Churchill.
Founded in 1912 by Henrietta Szold, Hadassah initially “focused on raising funds to provide health care, education and professional training for Jewish women and girls living in Palestine.” However, within five years of the organization’s inception, Hadassah’s Pittsburgh Chapter “had grown to over 500 members whose work helped support four hospitals, several clinics, visiting health care services, nursing schools and two infant welfare programs in Palestine,” according to materials from the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center.
From its early days, Hadassah’s Pittsburgh presence continued to expand. By the time that the four past presidents, who each served in succession to one another during the 1970s and 1980s, became involved, regional membership had grown to more than 4,000.
“When I was president we were very concentrated on membership. Even though we only had 40,000 Jews [in Pittsburgh] at that time, we had 4,800 members, which per capita was amazing,” said Meyers, whose tenure as chief ran between 1984 and 1986.
Increasing membership to 5,000 was critical as it ensured a presence on the organization’s national board.
“We wanted to become recognized on the national board because we wanted a say for how things were taking place. We never made it to 5,000, but they gave us observer status, and from that time on we have been represented on the national board,” said Meyers.
But apart from meetings or policy making, Hadassah provided a forum for friendship.
Ginsberg became active around 1950 “as a newlywed” after moving to Squirrel Hill. In 1951, shortly after becoming a mother, Ginsberg received a visit and gift from the local leader of Hadassah. She then increased her involvement and eventually became president of the group.
“I had a lot of fun,” she said. Back then, “our biggest project was the blintz project.”
While stationed at the Three Rivers Art Festival, the volunteer corps sold thousands of the thin pancake-like creations.
“We raised $35,000 the first year in 1974,” said Ginsberg.
Other efforts followed, said Markovitz, who succeeded Ginsberg as president. “There were fashion shows of Israeli designs,” where talented students from the Alice L. Seligsberg Vocational High School for Girls, which was later known as the Seligsberg-Brandeis Community College, showcased their creations.
Similarly, local groups hosted regular bingo games or sold cards. “They were always raising some sort of money,” said Markovitz, who dates her membership in Hadassah to 1959.
Silverman, who became involved in Hadassah in 1960, recalled luncheons so large that the legal capacity would be exceeded. “There were so many people who came to the Hilton we had to have it on two days because the Hilton couldn’t fit,” she said.
“We had like 1,000 people,” echoed Meyers.
Helen Ohringer, Gertrude Hoffman, the Ratner family and Fan Eggleston “were all major fundraisers” for Hadassah, noted Markovitz.
And while Hadassah provided a framework for friendship, it was also about the cause, she added. “I think you have to understand we grew up before Israel was a state. I remember when it became a state and I remember at that time you just didn’t go to Israel. … You couldn’t; it was the early 1950s, and the only way you could express yourself, the only way I could express myself, was through Hadassah, which was a very powerful way for me to feel connected.”
Membership in the organization is “something which people held close to them,” explained David Schlitt, director of the Rauh Jewish Archives. “Every significant collection that I have brought in with women who were involved in the Jewish community, Hadassah has played a prominent role.”
That is part of the reason why next week’s award is so significant, said Nancy Zionts, an honoree at the centennial celebration. “I was raised in a Hadassah family in Montreal and married into a Hadassah family in Pittsburgh.” Receiving such recognition from Hadassah is “really quite meaningful. It allows me to think of my mother, my grandmother and great-grandmother. And it goes up the chain on my husband’s side as well,” as his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were members of Hadassah.
Moving forward, the connection to Hadassah remains, she noted. It is “something I share with my children as well. My children are life members of Hadassah. My husband is a lifetime associate of Hadassah; it’s part of a family business.”
“You can tell the strength of Hadassah in Pittsburgh by the amazing, strong women leaders that Hadassah played a part in developing — leaders who are now chairing boards of directors for all kinds of both Jewish and secular charitable organizations in Pittsburgh,” observed Adam Hertzman, director of marketing at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and a third-generation life member of the organization.
These days, membership in Hadassah’s Pittsburgh region is around 3,500 people, said Meyers. “Like many other women’s organizations, Hadassah has had to change with society. We don’t look exactly the way we did 100 years ago. … The way we connect today is different with emails and other electronic means, but the need to know you are connecting with others who share your value systems and concerns is something that you will always need.”
The organization’s foundation remains sturdy, said Jeff Finkelstein, president and CEO of the Federation.
“Even a century ago when discrimination against women was rampant, women leaders in Pittsburgh played a critical role in supporting the most vulnerable communities and in supporting Israel,” he said. “Pittsburgh’s Hadassah women were and continue to be an important part of that support.” pjc
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.