Cancer, family tragedy cant stop Hadassah head

In her last address to a local chapter as Hadassah's national president, Bonnie Lipton could have gone out with a big splash. She could have given a speech to a large East Coast chapter or hosted a party with movers and shakers in the larger Jewish communal world.

Instead, Lipton, who steps down in July after four years at the helm of the largest women's organization in the country, chose to address Hadassah's Marin chapter as its keynote speaker at a sold-out luncheon last month in San Rafael.

"I wanted to come out here because it's not the largest, because I know how hard and successfully they work to achieve their goals," she said in an interview that morning.

In a way, the same could be said of Lipton, the 22nd president of the 92-year-old Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.

Short in stature and a contemplative person who speaks from the heart, Lipton has a leadership style that suits the 300,000-member nonprofit. Despite the depressed economy here and in Israel and the Mideast violence, Hadassah is flourishing and is continuing to send funds and missions to the Jewish state.

Under Lipton's tenure, Hadassah raised $28 million in just a year to expand the emergency-trauma center at Hadassah's hospital in Ein Kerem, and the next phase to collect $18 million is well under way.

Hadassah was the only major Jewish American organization to hold its annual convention in Jerusalem in 2001.

"Of course there were many who didn't attend," said Lipton, who has visited Israel at least 75 times since 1975. "But for me there was never an issue."

Some 1,500 delegates participated. "And I will tell you that never have we felt so wanted, so needed or so loved," adds Lipton, who was one of 40 national board members to make the trip in 1991 to Israel "when the Scuds were falling" during the Gulf War.

Another accomplishment of which Lipton is proud is the Young Women, Young Leaders program, which is bringing youthful women into the fold of an organization whose membership is predominantly an aging one. Promising volunteers receive education and training domestically, and are taken to Israel where they can view Hadassah projects firsthand. Costing millions of dollars, Lipton says it is "a tremendous investment in the future."

A lifelong volunteer who studied to be a high school language teacher, Lipton has always been a can-do person.

As president she has split her time between her home in Pittsfield, Mass., and institutional headquarters in New York City.

Lipton got her start with Hadassah when she and her husband, Alan, and their two daughters moved from Chicago to his hometown in 1971. Though her mother-in-law had given her a lifetime membership to the women's group, "I did next to nothing with it" until then. But Pittsfield was a small town, and Lipton was a young, stay-at-home mom. "Hadassah was the thing to do," she says. "It was social, it was expected of me."

She started going to meetings "and the rest is history," she says with a smile. During the course of 30 years, she steadily moved up the ranks.

Lipton embarked on a bid for the presidency at the nadir of her personal life. It was 5-1/2 years ago; she had just completed chemotherapy for cancer and was one week into a radiation regime. On Jan. 11, 1998 — the date is embedded in her mind — her husband had a terrible skiing accident that left him severely brain-damaged.

In the midst of this devastation, Lipton had to look deep inside to answer the question: "Do I go forward with this?" Bolstered by "tremendous encouragement" from others "to carry out the dream" that she and her husband had shared, she moved forward.

Alan Lipton had been an ardent Zionist who got her started down the communal path when she followed in his footsteps as president of the Hillel Foundation at Purdue University, where the two attended college.

So in a sense, being president "is very bittersweet for me — that's putting it mildly, because he was so supportive."

June 7 marked Lipton's 43rd wedding anniversary. That evening, while her husband sat in the nursing home where he resides, she was on the opposite coast, having dinner with Hadassah members.

Her voice choking, she says that through Hadassah, "the love and the concern for me that comes from people who've never met me before has given me the strength" to go on.

To be sure, an ego could thrive on the presidency. "Many see this as a very glamorous position," Lipton concedes. "I've dined at the White House on more than one occasion. I've met heads of state in Israel. I've spent time with kings and queens. And that's been very exciting.

"But none of these visits leave you with the same gratification that you get from meeting a patient who was brought in [to Hadassah hospital] with no vital signs as the result of a terrorist incident and who owes his or her life to a physician who we have trained at our Hebrew University Hadassah School of Medicine. Or to see a young woman, the daughter of an abusive and alcoholic mother, saved by Youth Aliyah and able to tell her story in front of thousands at a Hadassah delegates convention.

"Or to know that when there was a plea to build water reservoirs we were the first and in fact the only organization to respond. And to give a young new immigrant from the former Soviet Union an opportunity to study computer science in our College of Technology…

"At least it allows me to say there's been a real purpose to my life, and I am blessed."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.