Jewish womens groups seek to attract young blood

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Denise Fox used to think Hadassah was an organization of "little old ladies with pink and purple hair." She never thought it was for her. "I always saw myself as a social activist," she says.

Well, Fox was wrong on all but one count.

She's still a social activist. But she doesn't have pink hair, she isn't old and she's a very active member of Hadassah.

Fox, 44, sits on Hadassah's regional and national boards and is a member of its National Young Leaders Advisory Council. She is a part of the changing guard in national Jewish women's organizations, which are recruiting younger members and promoting them into leadership positions.

With the average age of their members rising, Jewish women's organizations recognize they must actively recruit younger members if their organizations are to stay alive, leaders say. As a result, groups are adding new programs and changing their organizational structure to meet the needs of younger women who work and often have families as well.

The Council of Jewish Women, for example, has made program changes locally to meet this need. Norma Satten, vice president in charge of administration, says the organization is offering evening seminars on subjects such as personal finance to attract younger women.

Hadassah and ORT, meanwhile, are going even further to bring in younger participants by making major changes in their leadership, organizational structure and programs.

"We're making a huge effort to attract young women," says Mary Anne Winig, president of Hadassah's Central Pacific Coast region. "They're our life blood. Without them, our organization won't continue."

Hadassah and ORT have recruited women between 30 and 45 to serve on their national young leadership committees. Committee members are flown to national headquarters periodically for brainstorming sessions, mentoring by older members and program development.

Young leaders also sit on the national board, an honor previously reserved for women who had paid their dues through many years in the trenches.

Sharon Ufberg, 38, chairs Women's American ORT's Young Leadership Council and sits on its national council and 14-member executive committee. She says her meteoric rise during five years in the organization is a sign of ORT's commitment to young leadership as well as the "forward thinking and unselfish women on the national council."

In 1994 Hadassah commissioned a study, "Voices for Change: Future Directions for American Jewish Women," by Brandeis University's Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. The study, which examined the interests, priorities and needs of Jewish women in America, has provided the basis for Hadassah's growing emphasis on health and education issues.

"It used to be if you said `Israel,' everyone responded," says Fox. But that's no longer true. "Young women are looking for activities that relate to who they are and what they're doing at their life stage."

Hadassah is addressing these concerns by introducing breast health education into high schools, offering osteoporosis prevention programs and participating in one-on-one tutoring in elementary schools.

ORT, for its part, has hired four full-time professionals to develop new programs in communities throughout the country. According to Ufberg, this is a marked change from what she calls the "old culture" of ORT, which relied mainly on volunteers.

"The new culture gives busy women an opportunity to be part of the organization without being pinned down to an enormous time commitment," she says.

Hadassah and ORT have also deviated from their past practice of incorporating new members into pre-existing chapters in their area. Recognizing that friendship and common interests, rather than mere geographic proximity, make for more cohesive, enduring and involved groups, new chapters are being chartered.

As friends bring other friends into an organization, they create a groundswell of involvement, Ufberg says.

Fox and her sister Debbie Fitch, organized a new Hadassah chapter with members from several Bay Area cities. Named Shir L'Sondra in memory of their mother, the chapter was chartered this month at Hadassah's multiregional conference. Fox sees groups of older and younger groups existing side by side and working together on specific projects.

Hadassah's National Young Leadership Advisory Council "has been wildly successful," adds Winig, citing the fact that several new chapters of Hadassah have been chartered in the last couple of years.

Fox says her organizational involvement not only satisfies her Jewish values of doing for others. It also has been rewarding for her personally.

And she has discovered an unexpected benefit being part of Hadassah's national leadership.

"They consider me a young woman at 44," she says.