It was early January 2022, and I was talking with our Region President, Sharon Goretsky, about how I could help on the region board for the coming year. I had just finished a stint as Area Vice President and wanted to do something different. Sharon had an idea for me…I could be the Hadassah Southern Seaboard chair, working with the chairs from the other two regions, for the upcoming Tri-Region Conference to be held in Atlanta in September.
Gulp. I had a clear memory of the previous in-person conference, five years earlier, in Charlotte, NC. And I distinctly remembered all three chairs of that event and what a super job they had done, both in the planning and the execution of that conference, and especially the way they had infused it with their personalities.
Could I do such a thing? Sharon said all the right stuff, building me up, but I knew myself better. I’d never planned a meeting let alone a conference; it had been years since I had had to get up and speak in front of people; I was more comfortable working alone than on a team. So of course my answer to Sharon was…YES! Yes, I decided it was time to challenge myself, to learn new strengths, to meet new people. I went for it, and now that it is long over and was a great success, I can say how glad I am that I did it.
To back up for a moment, here is my Hadassah background in brief—it may help explain why I was so in awe of this conference. I converted to Judaism when pregnant with our first child. I knew I wanted to raise our children as Jews, and I wanted to fully participate in their experience as well. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mother-in-law—and even more so her mother—had been active in Hadassah and were ardent Zionists.
When my mother-in-law died (four years after our son was born), my father-in-law gifted all the women in the family with Life Memberships in Hadassah. I lived in Connecticut at the time. I knew nothing. I went to one meeting, about a half hour from my small town, and while everyone was welcoming, nothing clicked. I moved to Charlottesville, VA two years later and joined the one local synagogue and found out that the town also had an active Hadassah chapter. I went to my first meeting carrying our one-month-old baby in a carrier. Needless to say, the baby was a huge hit and I met everyone there.
From then on it was baby steps—I got on the board within a few years and became Chapter President a few years after that (around 2001). My local mentor was Sandy Abbott, a peer who in those early years served two consecutive terms as President and co-chaired a major conference for our Region in Charlottesville, “Matriarchs and Magnolias.”
When I finished my presidency, I joined the Region board as Area Vice President. I learned so much from Debbie Friedman, who was then Organizational VP and afterwards Region president and beyond. Her great organizational skills, but even more so her warmth, passion, and positivity, have stayed with me. I’ve been on the Region board consistently, with only a few years off, ever since. I am constantly proud and impressed at the good work Hadassah accomplishes and supports, both in the US and Israel, and in the way in which we do it.
Participating in this conference was such a positive experience thanks to my Co-Chairs, Linda M. Hakerem (Hadassah Southeastern) and Jill K. Weinstein (Hadassah Southern). (We named ourselves the “Dream Team.”) Linda has years of experience and wisdom and is superbly organized; Jill is creative, decisive and great at time management. Even if the three Region presidents had conferred with each other in advance to try to find three women who would complement each other and work together well, they couldn’t have done a better job. We three truly enjoyed each other’s company (on so many Zoom calls!) and had remarkably consistent viewpoints on the major issues of the conference. We also had fun.
Our Planning Committee included our super-experienced, insightful Conference Advisor, Gail Moskowitz; our geo-area Resource Chair and cheerleader and booster Lynn Gold-Benjamin; and our two absolutely crackerjack staff women, Super South Managing director Margo Gold and Robin Hyman, Senior Manager, Grassroots Engagement. Margo’s innate good sense in programming and connections to people in the Atlanta area, and Robin’s hotel and fundraising savvy, were essential. Behind the scenes, Angie Gilstrap kept us on track with her excellent spreadsheets and eye for detail. Conference Treasurer Faith Shatzman (Southeastern) and Finance Operations Manager for the Super South Begoña Aldeanueva kept us in the black. Finally, thank you also to the three Region presidents—Sharon Goretsky, Susan Smolinsky and Michele Weiner-Merbaum—for coming up with our all-encompassing theme, advocacy.
It was a fascinating process watching us work together weekly over the course of eight months. I use the word “watch” deliberately, as I was the scribe—I took the minutes. Looking back, I see our meetings as a patchwork quilt—one square completed (hurray—Robin booked the perfect hotel!) and then another (wow—Margo found another great panelist!) until finally, near the end, the squares were stitched together, and we had a quilt. My co-chairs spoke up just when needed with critical decisions. Two examples: 1) At first, we were going to re-purpose bags from an Atlanta event for our conference, and Linda, once she realized we could afford it, said “no”—we need to have our own conference bags. She ordered them and they were beautiful and essential. 2) Jill has a great visual eye for media, and she simplified and improved our logo as well as coming up with the Dream Team’s own logo.
All the work leading up to the conference was one thing, but then the conference itself was quite another—it required a new set of skills and a much higher level of adrenaline. We were “on”—on duty and hyper-alert from Friday afternoon through Sunday’s closing luncheon. It went remarkably smoothly (shout-out to Margo and Robin behind-the-scenes). Personally, I went from being afraid to be behind a microphone on Friday night to not thinking twice about it by midday Saturday. After all, we mostly made the housekeeping announcements—we were not the ones giving major speeches. One incident helped me to realize that though problems can happen even with all the planning in the world, guess what—we can adapt and deal with them.
Near the end of our wonderful Shabbat service—after which a person would be saying the blessings over the wine and the bread—Roz Cooper, our fantastic Shabbat leader, came up to me and whispered that there was no wine and no bread! Oops… I ran to the dining area and found a helpful waitperson; she went to the kitchen and came out with a very realistic-looking glass of “wine” (cranberry juice). A bagel completed the package, and we were good to go. No one at the service was the wiser. I think I finally relaxed at that point.
But the stars of the conference were our speakers and panelists. To a woman, they were excellent—bright, articulate and compelling. There was not a boring voice among them. I will mention one third of our sessions here, and Linda M. Hakerem and Jill K.Winstein will cover the rest in their conference wrap-ups.
Inspiring and Engaging with the Next Generation: This session was presented by Evolve Hadassah’s energetic and lively Randi Richmond and Debbie Knight. We learned how Hadassah is reaching out to “younger” women of 55 and younger and hopes to launch young women’s missions to Israel again. These young women are our future.
Women’s Health Equity@Risk: Thank you to Gail Moskowitz for finding three astounding doctors and thank you Rhoda Smolow, for moderating and reminding us of what Hadassah is doing for reproductive rights and prioritizing women’s health needs. The three speakers, all OB-GYNs with family planning specialties, were Dr. Lisa Haddad, Dr. Mimi Zieman and Dr. Megan Cohen. They spoke of how difficult it is for doctors to care for patients in restrictive states. Ramifications go far beyond simply not being able to perform abortions; for example, these new laws can compromise contraception and certain prescriptions. Pregnancy can lead to health consequences throughout a woman’s life. Also, there are huge racial and societal disparities in treatment and care.
At the end of the formal panel, attendees broke into groups to discuss the issues and the three doctors circulated around the room. This enriched the depth of our understanding. We later asked the doctors for their perspective on the panel. Dr. Cohen said, “It was wonderful to be able to speak to everyone and feel the support and energy towards action.” Dr. Zieman added “[we] enjoyed the enthusiasm from the room.”
Better Together: Building Intercommunity Relations: This panel was moderated by Judy Marx, with Lois Frank, Rev. Natosha Reid Rice and Sucheta Kamath. These three women represent, respectively, Jewish, Christian and Hindu faiths. They spoke of the benefits of connecting with those of differing backgrounds, both interpersonally and intercommunity. We have underlying similarities which help us both to work together and to appreciate our differences. There is strength in partnerships.
“The Temple Bombing and the Wolves of Hate”: Author Melissa Fay Greene spoke about her book of the bombing of Atlanta’s Reform temple—called “The Temple”—in 1958. She spoke eloquently, with slides, of how Jews and Gentiles lived together in Atlanta in the fifties, in the period of awakening civil rights, and how the bombing impacted relationships going forward. Greene also compared this bombing to current conditions of antisemitism and acts of hate, such as the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Annual Giving (Where Compassion Meets Commitment) Closing Luncheon and Gift Basket Bonanza: Dana Waxler compellingly presented the need for annual giving to Hadassah and to illustrate just how easy it can be. Crystal Stubbs and Betsy Silverfine facilitated the sign-up of new and step-up Chai Society members. Rhoda Smolow pinned a new Keeper of The Gate! To add to the festivities, we drew the raffle winners of 12 beautiful, themed baskets, each valued at roughly $250, as well as the lucky winner of a pair of earrings worth over $800. Amazingly, we had several women who won more than once. They were very generous in buying a lot of raffle tickets!
The throughline of the conference was Rhoda Smolow, Hadassah 27th National President. Rhoda infused this Conference with warmth, knowledge, stories and humor. She was accessible to us all. It was evident that Rhoda lives her byline, sharing with us—and instilling in us—her pride, passion and purpose. In addition to Rhoda, we were so lucky to have Lauren Katz, Grassroots Advocacy Director, with us for the entire time. Lauren carried out our theme of advocacy, first teaching us and then, at the end, leading us in our Call to Action. She showed us how easy it is to advocate using Hadassah’s website.
Thank you to “official” photographer Abby Goretsky for capturing the Conference in her beautiful photos (unfortunately, of course, no photos during Shabbat). Thanks also to unofficial photographer Sherrie Grunfeld for the fun slide show she put together.
As Sharon Goretsky, Southern Seaboard president, stated after the conference, “It was informative and empowering, not to mention fun…I don’t think anyone left there without taking away something meaningful.”
Hadassah OUT LOUD: Raising Our Voices Together! exemplifies Hadassah today, highlighting just a few of the many issues we are passionate about, and most importantly, showing our members that each of us, as individuals connected to this powerful organization, can make a difference. We are women who DO—and now we know how to do it.