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Why I Haven't Joined Hadassah, Yet

July 22, 2008

Although Hadassah has more members and has raised more money than any other women's volunteer organization in this country, it still does not count me as a member. This is not for philosophical reasons. I want to join--I really do--but my Jewish best friend keeps forgetting to get me the phone number of the woman in charge of membership. And I have no idea how to do this myself and am too embarrassed to ask anyone else for help. Pathetic, I know. But true.

Hadassah falls under that category of mysterious things converts don't learn about in conversion class. My teacher was a wonderfully learned rabbi. He made sure we understood why the Temple fell--both times. I know that Mincha is the afternoon prayer service. I know what the Documentary Hypothesis is. I know why Jeremiah was thrown into jail. I am fully cognizant of the fact that Hannukah is a minor holiday, no matter what my son says. And I know strange details as well. I know that if I really want to be observant, not only will I refrain from handling money and driving on Shabbat, but I should not tear toilet paper or pick the seeds out of a watermelon. But knowledgeable though he was, my teacher failed to tell me about Hadassah, its history, or who could join. Or why one would. Or, for that matter, that it existed at all. Maybe he thought we already knew what Hadassah was, since the organization is so famous and so big.

Henrietta Szold
Henrietta Szold founded Hadassah in 1912. Anyone can join--you don't have to be Jewish.

But I had lived in a very Christian world for most of my life--the first time I heard of Hadassah was about six months after I converted. One night at services the rabbi introduced a short, confident woman who was standing next to him at the bima. Her name was Marilyn. She smiled and began to lead the opening prayers while the rabbi sat down in a pew like he was one of us. This was highly unusual. In my temple the rabbi always led Friday night services. Maybe he was sick. I looked over at him and raised my eyebrows. He smiled as though nothing was wrong. Meanwhile, Marilyn summoned a series of women up to the bima. They took turns giving readings and then Marilyn gave a sermon about the importance of volunteering our time to the temple. At the end of the evening the rabbi went back up to the Bima and thanked Hadassah for sponsoring the service.


What was that? Was it a hospital? Was it an organization that raised money for cancer research? I associated the word with health care, but that was it. I felt embarrassed to be so ignorant, but I was too afraid to ask anyone for help. Such a question might reveal my identity as a convert and I did not want to advertise this. I longed to fit in.

For too long, I had felt out of place. I had never fully belonged in my mother's Christian world because of my father's Jewish heritage. And I felt out of place in the Jewish world because of my mother. Now that I had converted I wanted to be more Jewish than anyone else and my dearest hope was that new members of our temple would think I had been born Jewish and had always been Jewish. This was not such an impossible idea. I could mumble along with most of the Hebrew prayers. I had brown curly hair courtesy of my father's family. But now here was another stumbling block, another sign of how little I really knew about Jewish life.


After the service, I shook Marilyn's hand. "Thank you so much, um, for tonight," I said, wondering if it was clear that I had no idea what Hadassah was.

Marilyn smiled, "I am so happy you have joined our Jewish community," she said loudly. I flushed with embarrassment, even though I knew she meant it kindly. I hated being reminded of my status as a newcomer.

In the privacy of my own home, I typed Hadassah into Google and found out what everyone but me already knows. Hadassah is huge. It was founded in 1912 to promote Zionist ideals and Jewish culture and life. It has helped fund the building of hospitals in Israel and throughout the world, hence my confusion over Hadassah and health care. Marilyn, it turned out, was in charge of our local chapter. How could I have gone through life not knowing about Hadassah? Was I welcome to join? Was I supposed to join? Was every Jewish woman a member?

Finally, I got up enough nerve to ask my Jewish best friend about the rules of membership. "Oh," she said, "it's not a big deal, you just join."

"But how?" I asked. She said she wasn't sure and promised to get me Marilyn's phone number, but still hasn't. Not that she should feel badly about this, I know how busy she is.

I decided to forget about Hadassah and now almost six years have passed since my conversion and I am still not a member, although everyone in my temple seems to assume that I am. My best friend reassures me by saying that Hadassah was for our mothers' generation. Back then, she says, that was the only way women could do anything to be involved in their congregations. But now we can sit on temple boards and even be rabbis. So, who cares about Hadassah? Well, I do. And, grudgingly, she admits that she does, too.

And so today, I make the commitment to call or email Marilyn. She will tell me what I need to do to join and then I will be a member of Hadassah. And somehow that feels as important, almost as big as conversion itself. Maybe then I will feel like I really belong.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A supporter of the ideal that Israel be defined as a Jewish nation state. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
The afternoon prayer service. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The elevated area or platform in a synagogue, from which Torah is read. Worship service leaders, such as clergy, may lead services from the bimah as well.
Charlotte Gordon

Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at

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