We are gathered in one of the great sanctuaries of the Jewish people. There is something comforting about that word: "sanctuary." On joyous occasions it is a place to celebrate. At somber times it offers comfort.
Tonight is a joyous occasion. One hundred years ago this evening, Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, was founded in the vestry room of Congregation Emanu-El. But just as we break a glass at a Jewish wedding, joy and sadness are often separated by a sliver of time. So before I speak about Hadassah's birth, I'd like to reference another date from 1912, one that is sadder and also universally remembered, and that links this congregation to Hadassah.
On April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. The list of those who perished included names from this congregation, names like Straus and Guggenheim. Isidor Straus was offered a place on a lifeboat but took the rule of "women and children first" seriously. His wife, Ida, refused to leave the ship without her husband.
Isidor and his brother Nathan, co-owners of Macy's, had traveled to Europe together. Instead of returning on the Titanic, Nathan went on to Palestine. When he learned of the selfless example set by his brother and sister-in-law on the doomed ship, he resolved to devote the rest of his life to philanthropy.
Nathan Straus knew Hadassah's founder, Henrietta Szold, and had heard of her goal of doing practical work in Palestine. In November 1912, he approached Henrietta and offered to fund a medical clinic in Jerusalem if Hadassah could find a nurse to staff it and pay the nurse's salary for five years. He estimated the five-year salary at $10,000.
At the time, Hadassah had $283 in its treasury.
Six weeks later, Straus sailed for Palestine with not one, but two nurses dispatched and funded by Hadassah. That was the beginning of Hadassah's medical mission.
I mention this to illustrate that Hadassah's founding within the walls of Temple Emanu-El was not a coincidence. It wasn't a case of a group using a room in the synagogue on a single evening. Hadassah was not only born at Emanu-El, it was also conceived here.
Our story begins in 1907 when Judah Magnes, rabbi of this congregation, suggested to a woman's study group that they invite Henrietta Szold to become a member.
Henrietta was one of the most prominent Jewish women in America, a pioneer in immigrant education, editor of the Jewish Publication Society, a translator of scholarly works and the first woman to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Magnes said Henrietta would add luster to the group, but he thought she would likely be only an honorary member.
Henrietta responded that she wanted to be an active participant. Given her stature, and the fact that she was twice the age of most of the other members, she was elected president within a short time.
Five years later, that study group evolved into Hadassah.
Judah Magnes and Henrietta Szold had a lifetime friendship and wound up as neighbors in Jerusalem, where she ran Hadassah's medical and educational projects and he became the first president of the Hebrew University.
Emanu-El's former rabbi and Hadassah's founder practiced a Zionism that survives in the institutions they established. Ask anyone in Israel—or even some of Israel's critics—which institutions are known for making no distinction between the Jews, Muslims and Christians they serve. The top two names are likely to be Hadassah Hospital and the Hebrew University.
Ideas of equality were not so sharp in 1912. When Hadassah began, American women did not have the right to vote. Most of Hadassah's founding generation were stay-at-home mothers with no college education.
But Judah Magnes and Nathan Straus treated Henrietta Szold not only with respect but also great confidence. On this evening, Hadassah pays tribute to the men who ignored the prevailing attitudes of their time, and to the congregation that nurtured them.
The organization born within your walls transformed the American Jewish woman. Women with few resources other than their intelligence and energy set forth to help build a nation 6,000 miles away that most of them would never see. Between 1912 and 1948, Hadassah opened more than 130 hospitals, clinics, infant welfare stations and dispensaries in Palestine. This network became the health care infrastructure of the emerging nation.
In the 1930s, Henrietta Szold also took on responsibility for Youth Aliyah, the organization dedicated to sheltering and educating Jewish refugee children from Nazi-dominated Europe.
After Israel achieved independence, Hadassah turned much of its medical network over to national and municipal authorities and concentrated on its pacesetting hospitals in Jerusalem. In partnership with the Hebrew University, Hadassah also runs Israel's leading medical, nursing and dental schools.
Under Hadassah's guidance, Youth Aliyah was transformed into a network of residential schools for immigrant children and at-risk youth born in Israel.
Hadassah is renowned for medical practice, research and education. To cite one example, our staff publishes more papers in prestigious journals and receives more research grants than the staffs of all other Israeli hospitals combined.
In our Centennial year, our newest addition to the Jerusalem skyline is the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower, a state-of-the-art hospital facility that will deliver high-level care and use the most modern technology. As it embarks on its second century, Hadassah continues to fulfill its mission of providing superior health care. The first departments will be moving in to the Tower next month.
But we have another distinction that brings in masses of visitors who are quite healthy. I'm speaking of the stained-glass windows in the Abbell Synagogue inside our hospital in Ein Kerem. What attracted Marc Chagall to Hadassah was the same thing that pulled Hadassah toward Jerusalem.
When the windows were inaugurated in 1962, the artist said, "The air, the land of my native town, and thousands of years of exile, have come to be mixed in the air and land of Jerusalem. How could I imagine that my work would be driven not only by my own hands, with their colors, but also by the poor hands of my parents, and that behind me there would be many others, crowded and whispering, their eyes closed and their lips mute?"
Chagall's words echo the Jewish experience in the twentieth century, a story of millions of individual journeys between countries, over oceans, fleeing war and persecution for freedom and security.
But this evening I also want to focus on something rare in Jewish history—working to improve the world even as we stay in one place.
When I speak of Hadassah's founding in Temple Emanu-El, I am not referring to this building. I'm sure most of you know that in 1912 your congregation was located in a beautiful Moorish Revival structure at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-third Street. In 1929, you moved 22 blocks uptown.
Hadassah has had a few addresses since then, always along the Fifth Avenue corridor. Since 1976 we have been in Hadassah House on West Fifty-eighth Street. After a century, we are still neighbors, about a mile from where we started.
The old Temple Emanu-El gave way to an art deco structure, the Lefcourt National Building. Hadassah returned to that site in 1972 to celebrate our 60th anniversary and mount a commemorative plaque in the lobby.
In 2000, the lobby of the Lefcourt building was renovated and the plaque was removed. As our Centennial approached, we made inquiries about it. The plaque that you see here this evening was found in a basement storage room.
You may think it's a shame that a plaque so important to us spent a decade in storage. In fact, it was closer to a miracle. When it finally came into our possession, we discovered that its first destination after leaving the wall was a dumpster. The building's engineer, Eric Schweizer, thought it looked important and rescued it, literally, from the dustbin of history.
Mr. Schweizer is here with us this evening and I am delighted to thank him in person. The plaque may be a small piece of Hadassah's story, but it stands for so much more: History, memory and our cherished connection to this Temple.
For their contributions to Hadassah's Centennial and tonight's event, I would also like to thank Joyce Rabin, Frieda Rosenberg, Jill Prosky and Susan Woodland.
I can't end my remarks without noting how deeply humbled I am to be here. I stand on the shoulders of 24 other women who have served as Hadassah's National President over the last century. But the task of leading Hadassah during our Centennial year has fallen to me.
I want to extend my thanks to the three past presidents who are with us: Ruth Popkin, Marlene Post and Nancy Falchuk. I am honored to follow in your footsteps, just as we all follow the path established by Henrietta Szold.
Late in life, Henrietta posed for a sculptor. She said to him, "Make my eyes look to the future." What she had in mind was Israel rebuilt. But I like to think that in a corner of her imagination she could also see us here, in this magnificent sanctuary, on this night.