Hadassah men: Report to the mothership

new york | Barry Walker has been a bigwig at several charities, but at the annual international convention of Hadassah he was known as “June Walker’s husband.”

At Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, such a title essentially qualifies as royalty: Walker’s wife, after all, is the group’s outgoing national president and recently was named chairwoman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations.

Yet Barry Walker was not at this week’s convention only as the first husband of Hadassah. He is one of about 30,000 Hadassah associates — dues-paying, quasi-members of the women’s organization who just happen to have a Y chromosome.

At the Hilton Hotel here, some 250 associates mixed with 2,500 female attendees. These certified Hadassah men — 95 percent are married to members — weren’t hard to spot. Mostly seniors, some followed their wives through the convention’s craft bazaar, while others were found in hotel corridors waiting somewhat listlessly for the return of their spouses.

As one Hadassah professional put it, “Behind every Hadassah leader is a good associate.”

One might think of the associates as something of the men’s auxiliary club. Not so, said Sandra King, liaison between the associates and Hadassah. “They get really testy about that.”

The associates program started in 1967 as a way to bring men into the fundraising fold, according to its outgoing president, James Smith.

“It all started because many men participated in what their wives were doing, and many men were helping their wives surreptitiously in the background and really wanted an identity of their own,” Walker said. “So we created the associates and it gave them a sense of uniqueness.”

Now the more than 30,000 men officially affiliated with the women’s group make up a tenth of the organization’s overall membership.

Though they have no votes and no official say in how Hadassah runs its business, their membership fees are put toward an endowment fund that now has $10 million. And last year the associates brought in some $2 million through their own fundraising.

That may seem insignificant compared to the $194 million Hadassah raised last year. Yet keeping men close to and involved in the organization is vital, Smith said, since families often make their charitable decisions together.

For instance, when Detroit billionaires William and Karen Davidson decided to give $75 million to Hadassah in March, they did so in part because Davidson’s mother, Sarah Wetsman Davidson, founded the organization’s Detroit chapter.

Men typically run programs that focus on testicular and prostate cancer, and when Hadassah built a youth campus in Israel, the men dedicated the gym. Their Web page offers tips on how to arrange three types of fundraising events: those centered on sports, golf and politics.

So have the men of Hadassah finally found their place or been put in their place?

By most accounts, the history of men at Hadassah has been complex, fluctuating between assertiveness and passivity. Smith and Barry Walker both said that some early associates joined the organization simply as a backlash against the women’s liberation movement. Some tried to hijack the organization.

David Burman broke the glass ceiling in 1997 when he became the first associates’ president to sit on the dais at the opening ceremony of a convention. The next year he became the first associate to address the entire convention.

As Smith sees it, men and women just think differently. Women are sticklers for protocol and process, he said, while men “don’t have time for that crap.”

Which is why the associates have required a female liaison to the rest of Hadassah — and why they may never be granted the right to vote. “We won’t give up our controlling interest in the Women’s Zionist Organization of America,” Waller said.

Or as one organizational leader said off-handedly: “They are part of us, but they report to the mothership.”