Hadassah ‘Women Who Do’: Educator Hope Blecher Tells Her Story
Once upon a time, a college student took an elective with her friend thinking it would be fun to be classmates. They took a few other courses together, too. While one of them graduated a year before the other, both soon began their careers. One moved home after graduation and began teaching; the other moved to Manhattan and began a career in retail.
Which of those young ladies was I? I was the one who took that elective course with a friend and went into education.
It wasn’t easy; I had to stay an extra semester at college to complete the student teaching practicum and obtain a dual certification as a teacher of the handicapped (the term used at the time) and an elementary school teacher.
In the three decades since, I have used both certifications and others. I continued my education, qualifying to teach ESL (English as a Second Language) and becoming a school supervisor and a school administrator. I went on from my Bachelor of Arts to a Master’s degree and then to a Doctor of Education.
Flashback to my childhood. I was not the little girl who played school with dolls or friends. I was the middle child between two brothers, the only girl. There were no fun summers spent in the Catskills or the Borscht Belt, swimming at the lake or forming lifelong friendships at sleepaway camp.
So, what was it that, over time, led me to Hadassah, of which I have been an active and engaged member for ten years, most recently as a member the new Hadassah Educators Council.
I was brought up in a Jewish home, the daughter of two first-generation American citizens. Both my maternal and paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States around 1900. They left Riga, Latvia, and Slutsk, Belarus, for a safer life, away from the pogroms.
Over the past few years, I have heard more about my grandmothers. One learned to drive and the photo of her behind the wheel always brings a smile to my face. She’s young and driving, two sides of her I never experienced.
My other grandmother’s life was short and sad. She saw one of her sisters shot before they were able to leave their homeland. She suffered post-partum depression and passed away as a young mother, leaving behind a husband and three children, one being my mom.
What did these women have in common? They both came to America and they both went to school here. In the past six months, I have been given my grandmother’s high school diploma. It is now framed and hangs in my house. When she received it, she was single and living with her parents in Iowa. She would later get married, have and raise two children, work in a grocery store, move to the Bronx and become a community volunteer.
My maternal grandmother went to school, too. How do I know? I found her classwork, handwritten notes that show her practicing, again and again, how to write words in English. These notes represent her student side as she studied and practiced a new language. She would marry, live in Massachusetts, and have three children. One served in the US forces under General Patton, one became a lawyer, and one became a lab technician and, eventually, my mother.
These families brought with them a commitment to their faith. Of my two male grandparents, I knew one for over 20 years before he passed away. The other is my namesake. One served as a gabbai, reading the Torah at his shul. The other supported his three children and gave them a Jewish upbringing with the help of his extended family.
This background is what led me to become an ESL teacher. In a sense, I followed the pathway of Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah. I have taught everyone, from kindergarten children to adult learners. Some of these people have humbled me by what they have shared and how they have grown over time in our class. While their life experiences differ from mine, we have something in common. We smile, enjoy exchanging insights, and are excited by learning from and with each other. There is a respect for cultural exchanges.
It is this background of strong women supported by their immediate and extended families and their friends, this commitment to new experiences and learning, that I bring with me each day. Yet, there have been challenges, too.
When I was too young to understand what it was called, I was the target of antisemitism. It occurred in what should have been a safe place, a Girl Scout meeting. Today, I know the vocabulary of antisemitism and what is considered a safe place. As an elementary school girl, 50 years ago, I did not. I knew that it didn’t feel good when I heard snickers when I shared information about Chanukah during a troop meeting. When I told my mom what happened, I knew from the look on her face that such behavior wasn’t nice.
A few years ago, I felt those pangs again, this time, when I was reprimanded by my boss for missing a meeting after taking a personal day to observe Passover, even though the time off had been approved. I would go on to seek legal advice, and to lose that job. I did not lose my faith, however. I remained Jewish. I remained an educator.
Today, I have two children, both in their twenties. While they make different choices in their Judaism, they show respect for each other, for me, for their friends and their sole surviving grandparent, a grandma, my mother. At almost 92 years young, she is our Jewish glue. She commuted to college and went on to become active in a Conservative synagogue. She who worked countless bazaars, organized social events and was recognized along with my dad as “Couple of the Year.” She went up to the bimah and had an aliyah during Rosh Hashanah while my daughter and I looked on with smiles and hugs along with a few tears.
This is my journey, an adventure that continues through formal instruction with students and informally through community volunteering and special projects. With a nod towards the intertwining of the arts and Judaism, and with the support of a local community group, I recently chaired the creation of a public art installation, a nine-foot wooden chanukiah (a nine-branched candelabrum used on Chanukah). This past December 2022, the hamlet of Parksville, NY, was the site for this event.
During an interview, I was asked if it was a successful project. Unequivocally, yes, because it stood for all of Chanukah, it was set up in a place where people of various faiths and cultures gathered, and it was unscathed by antisemitic vandalism. It was my fear of such damage that gnawed at me during the design, fabrication and erection phases of this community grant-funded project. Yet, in the words of a local rabbi, I had done a mitzvah. I was educating people, sharing with others, and doing so respectfully.
Now, the chanukiah is in a storage facility. There it rests, safely. We already have plans for next year’s event that include some weatherproofing and a permanent sign, to be erected at a height low enough to be wheelchair accessible. This sign will be a marker for each season, for each visitor to be able to learn about the history of the community. This sign is a sign of hope for the future of the hamlet, the learning of future generations.
It is that heartfelt support, that respect for diversity, that sunrise each day, that spans the years. From the support my grandparents received from family during uncertain times to the support Hadassah members give through volunteering, through advocacy, through donations, and through their commitment to the health and welfare of the people of Israel – it is through all these things that breakthroughs are happening every day. That is the spirit I bring to being an educator.
Hope Blecher, Ed. D is a member of Hadassah’s newly formed Educators Council. For more information, please visit this link.