90-year-old Hadassah to honor its S.F. nonagenarians

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When the San Francisco Hadassah chapter meets at the Westin St. Francis for tea a week from Monday, honored guests will include more than 20 women who are as old as the organization itself. That's no mean feat, considering the women's Zionist organization is turning 90.

On June 1, the organization will be kicking off a yearlong celebration of its founding 90 years ago.

As part of the celebration, any baby born in the coming year who is given the name Hadassah will receive a life membership.

And at the San Francisco chapter's celebratory tea on May 21, the nonagenarians will join their younger counterparts to reminisce about the good old days — when the members worked to build a Jewish state, when the Jewish state was just an idea, not yet a reality.

"Hadassah is known for reinventing itself," said Andrea Rouah, executive director of the San Francisco chapter. "One reason we've existed for 90 years is because it invents and reinvents itself."

Originally, the mission of Hadassah was "to bring health care to Palestine, as well as the study of Jewish heritage and traditions to the membership here in the U.S.," said Deborah Kaplan, a past national president who is chairing the 90th anniversary festivities. "If there weren't a Hadassah now, it would be the ultimate organization that you would look to create because we're still involved in the same kind of golden mission we accepted 90 years ago."

With 300,000 members worldwide, Hadassah has 1,500 members in the San Francisco chapter. For the first time, the national office hired directors in cities across the country a year and a half ago because in an era when most women work outside the home, a paid professional was needed. Rouah became the first executive director in San Francisco and she also has an assistant.

Women are no less committed nowadays, Rouah said adding that the 20s and 30s age group has a lot of energy and savvy. It's just that they have more to juggle. Many of the young women will be attending the tea with their babies.

In the old days, whether they were "having fancy affairs or just doing very simple things, we really created a country," said Eleanor Setzer, 92, of San Francisco. "We had a big hand in creating Israel. The women really worked."

Setzer, who had a career as a teacher, estimated that in those days 99 percent of the Jewish women in San Francisco belonged to Hadassah.

Eva Greenbach Honig, 93, of Alameda, agreed. "I can't tell you exactly how I became interested in Hadassah, but I did, and I've been with it ever since."

Goldie Abers, 93, of San Francisco, said many of the members consisted of the "real grand dames of San Francisco Jewry" and for her, it offered a way to meet other Jewish women.

Before joining the group, she had some Jewish friends, but "I never had any real Jewish activities and I really began needing" that involvement, she said.

She believes she joined around 1940, and for her, "that was it. As far as I was concerned, it was a new life. It was an education for me."

While Abers had a long career working for social service agencies, and was married and had children, she also managed to make time for Hadassah.

"At one point they thought I should be doing the bulletin," she said. "I really didn't know much about it," but she agreed, and became editor of the bulletin.

Ethel Pollak Regan, 91, also of San Francisco, agreed that "women don't have as much time today because they are all working. A few of the old standbys are going [to the meetings], but it isn't like it was in my day; we were really a rather active group."

Said Setzer: "We got a lot out of it; it gave a larger dimension to our lives. It meant a great deal to any Jewish woman that belonged. It had real meat to it and importance."

Not only was it a social opportunity, she said, but it was educational as well.

"It developed something within us and gave us something much more to our lives," Setzer added. "It made our lives more important. Life seemed more important and it gave us a worldview, as opposed to rather than what was doing in our own little city."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."