More COVID-19, conflict at the Gaza border and political uncertainty in Israel were on everyone’s mind when we caught up with Brenda Lazoff Menda for a privileged and candid discussion about, well, the future. Brenda is known for her role in Hadassah’s Puerto Rico chapter: in particular, for her decade-plus commitment to chairing numerous events for the Hadassah Medical Organization, for her leadership as chapter president and for the generous gift made with her husband, Nelson, that enabled them to name the Menda Promenade. This esteemed gateway, at the entrance of the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower, opens onto Hadassah’s state-of-the-art campus, and every patient, visitor and staff member has walked through it.
While healing-specific spaces are of profound importance, the Mendas recognized the deep emotional impact of the promenade on the mind and the spirit of all entering and exiting Hadassah. The Menda Promenade is a bridge of promise and hope, just as Brenda and Nelson envisioned it.
The Menda family has always opened its heart (and its home) to Hadassah. Brenda and Nelson were born and raised in Puerto Rico to families that were forced to flee Cuba with the onset of the Cuban revolution in the early 1950s. While many Cuban families migrated to Miami, an important Jewish community emerged in Puerto Rico. There, a group of young Jewish women, among them Brenda’s mother, Julia Goldberg, founded the local Hadassah chapter, enrolled their children in the Young Judaea movement and actively promoted a connection with Israel.
Brenda feels that her connection with Hadassah was natural. At the age of 21, right after finishing college in Boston, she returned to Puerto Rico and immediately became involved with the chapter. “Hadassah was so important and so active! And the older women took pleasure in teaching and guiding us. We are the older women now,” she grins. She describes a time when she could count on friends, Jews and non-Jews alike, to ensure the success of the chapter’s activities and social events. “They were my crew,” she acknowledges energetically. “My passion has always been the hospital. Hands down … it’s the way we can make a difference in Israel from a tiny island in the Caribbean called Puerto Rico." When I hear that there is a new vaccine being developed, or a treatment for Alzheimer’s, or any new miracle being developed at Hadassah, I feel like we are a part of it. We are making a miracle happen.”
She affirms that the hospital is a place where people of all backgrounds and religions come together to heal. “I wish everything outside of the hospital could work the way it does inside the hospital.”
But it wasn’t always easy. The changes in the world brought about a difficult economic climate in Puerto Rico, and more and more people from the community left for Florida. “We had no choice but to close the chapter,” she admits with regret and a rather long pause, and then continues, “My grandparents came from Europe, my parents came from Cuba, we come from Puerto Rico. To me, all these places are like links that come together in the hospital.” Reflecting on the future, she is quite convinced that the next generation is no less Zionist and connected to the issues that matter for Israel. “We made a long commitment,” she says of the family’s contribution to the hospital, “because it has our hearts in it. But we also did it as an example for our kids. We don’t live in Israel, so this is our way to contribute and leave our milestone for progress and the marks of our footsteps in this place where we feel we can make a positive and meaningful difference.”
As we wind down, Brenda touches on the people who stood out on the journey, lighting up with affection and admiration as she tells us about Barbara “BG” Goldstein, now Hadassah’s Ambassador-at-Large with the Hadassah Office in Israel. “She alone could have pulled us into Hadassah!” she chuckles. Brenda acknowledges Barbara’s profound influence on her and Nelson’s engagement with the organization and adds that Barbara’s grandson is now married to the Mendas’ youngest daughter. “What a small world,” she says.