S.F. Hadassah brings professional director on board

The first task facing Andrea Rouah Spiegel, the new executive director of Hadassah's San Francisco chapter, is clarifying some popular misconceptions about the organization.

When asked about the perception that Hadassah consisted of elegantly coifed senior citizens having afternoon teas for Israel, Spiegel said it didn't jibe with reality.

"For starters," Spiegel added, "the senior members of Hadassah are some of the most committed Zionists on the planet. They've lived through the horrors of the war, and it's left a profound imprint on them. I would never denigrate their importance to the organization.

"Secondly," Spiegel said, "Hadassah is actively reaching out to a whole new generation of young Jewish women."

The San Francisco chapter of Hadassah, which was formed in 1914, has about 1,600 members in six groups. Spiegel's position, which began in September, is part of a pilot project undertaken by the national organization. Only a handful of cities throughout the country have a full-time, paid director on staff. Most of the other chapters, including those in the Bay Area, are run by volunteers.

Spiegel brings to the job seven years experience as the executive director of Northern Californians for Good Government. She also held a number of volunteer positions with the Alameda County Cancer League. A graduate of St. Mary's College, where she studied English, drama and journalism, Spiegel is a San Francisco resident and has lived in the Bay Area for about 25 years.

One of her main goals is to increase membership by about 5 percent every year, while focusing on attracting younger women.

Spiegel points to La'atid, a local Hadassah group with about 80 members, primarily in their 20s and 30s. The group is actively involved with women's and young women's issues. "Check it Out," due to be implemented by the group later this year, will involve breast cancer survivors and nurses teaching San Francisco high school-aged girls how to conduct self-examinations.

The issue of breast cancer strikes a very personal note with Hadassah's new director, who lost both her mother and sister to the disease. In addition to raising her son, she took over the care of her sister's daughter.

To that end, one of Spiegel's primary concerns at Hadassah is combining the personal with the political, encouraging women in the organization to get involved with policies that impact their daily lives.

One of the projects that Hadassah is heavily involved with, both locally and nationally, is protesting genetic discrimination. Spiegel cited research by the National Institutes of Health, in conjunction with the Hadassah Medical Organization, leading to the discovery that women of Ashkenazi descent are more likely to have a gene linked to breast cancer.

Representatives from Hadassah, including the San Francisco chapter, recently testified before the U.S. Senate, expressing fears of discrimination and stigmatization.

"We're concerned with this issue on two levels," said Spiegel. "For starters, breast cancer awareness has been, and will continue to be, a health centerpiece to our organization. We're encouraging all of our members who are at least 30, and their friends and associates, to get checked regularly.

"On the other, there is the very real concern of discrimination. If women are revealed, through genetic testing, to carry certain genes, they could face obstacles in employment and health care."

Bemoaning what she describes as a paucity of young Jewish women at the polls, Spiegel said La'atid and several other groups in the San Francisco chapter are banding together to increase their presence in the voting booths.

"We want to create an environment where there's an excitement about the political process, and not just about Jewish issues," said Spiegel.

The organization will continue to spearhead fund-raising efforts for the Hadassah Career Counseling Institute, which teaches single mothers in Israel how to become successful owners of small businesses.

"I think the program is indicative of the type of entrepreneurship Hadassah encourages, both here in the city, and in Israel," Spiegel said.