Petaluma Hadassah hits 50, strives to recruit youth

Over the years, Petaluma Hadassah has given many gifts to the community. It has sent children to camp and to Israel and supported efforts to improve health for women and children all over the world.

Now as the group celebrates its 50th anniversary Saturday, April 5, the 100 women of Petaluma Hadassah would like to give themselves a present — ensuring the future of a chapter that desperately needs younger members to survive.

"When I was young, the women of my mother's generation were Pioneer Women and Hadassah was the group the younger women joined,'' says Lil Krulevitch, 77, who has been a chapter member for 49 years.

"Our youngest [active] members are in their 40s and 50s. There are no young, young women. They have to have jobs. You know, nowadays it takes two,'' Krulevitch said.

The group is an active clan in a rural town surrounded by dairy ranches and chicken farms once run by Jews. More than farms flourished in the Petaluma community, where Jews organized folk choruses, lectures and thespian groups that once hosted Golda Meir. They started literary circles, Yiddish culture clubs and, of course, a Hadassah group.

Despite its half-century history, the Hadassah women consider their chapter young at heart. Older members don't understand why the group doesn't attract the youngest generation of Petaluma's approximately 100 Jewish families.

Many younger women are members in name only because their Hadassah grandmothers bought them lifetime memberships at birth. The cradle-joiners are now teenaged to thirtysomething. Like most young women, they're more interested in dating, asserting independence from their birth families and raising families of their own than in fund-raisers and luncheons.

"I can honestly say that if I was to become involved in [a philanthropy group], Hadassah would be it," said Molly Thompson, 19, of Petaluma.

Thompson, whose mother and grandmother have been active members, has a lifetime membership, but, she has never been very involved with the group.

"Hadassah is about time and money," she said. "I'm still financially dependent on my parents. I'm more involved in school activities and work."

The lack of younger members is not just a Petaluma problem. Nationally, membership also has dropped dramatically among women under age 35, though membership has held steady at 300,000 for nearly a decade, said Hadassah spokeswoman Roberta Elliott.

In an effort to attract younger members, Hadassah has developed some new strategies recently. In July, during its national conference in Miami, the group held a mass bat mitzvah for 1,000, which went so well that organizers are planning another in Chicago this year.

Training Wheels for Mothers, another national program designed to make younger women more comfortable with Hadassah, teaches first-time moms the basics of Jewish mothering, including Shabbat and holiday rituals.

In Petaluma, members say co-chairs Krulevitch and Ann Weinstock, 76, are the glue that keeps their chapter together.

"No one wants to say no to them," said Shelly Bauer, 49.

The dynamic duo has never tired of years of driving chicken trucks over bumpy country roads for clothing drives, preparing cabbage-roll luncheons and traveling to Hadassah conventions.

"I think it's because I believe in tzedakah. It's a mitzvah to help," Krulevitch said. But she wouldn't mind if newer blood took over.

"We have the workers. We just need someone to pound the gavel."

With that in mind, the Petaluma women organized younger, hipper fund-raisers like Treasure Night, collecting prizes from Petaluma stores and restaurants for a silent auction. They moved daytime board meetings to nights so working women could attend.

Still, the young women stay away.

"I don't think Hadassah is the most important thing in their lives," Bauer said.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.