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Faith of the foremothers

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Posted: Saturday, July 17, 2004 8:46 am | Updated: 6:14 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

July 17, 2004

The fat convention packet pulsed with smartly produced materials communicating Hadassah’s mission.

A dozen cards of different colors proclaimed that the Jewish women’s organization acts to: "Protect reproductive freedom"; "Preserve the First Amendment"; "Condemn hate crimes"; "Counter the ‘Messianic Jews’ "; "Stop domestic violence"; "Maintain U.S. aid to Israel"; and "Promote voter registration and participation."

Succinctly and forcefully, they explained those issues and more.

Behind the 300,000-member national operation is June Walker, a 70-year-old grandmother and Hadassah member for 52 years. She notes proudly that five generations of females in her family have been Hadassah members. "My mother was vice president in charge of education of a local chapter in Queens (New York), and she couldn’t find a study group chairperson," says Walker. "I had just started college, and she said, ‘You are it,’ and that is when my work started."

For four days earlier this week, Walker oversaw the 90th annual Hadassah national convention at the J.W. Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix. It brought together about 2,500 members of the country’s largest Zionist organization and featured such notable speakers as Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. It also included a celebration of the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America.

Her primary message is, "We are Zionists. We support the state of Israel, and Zionism takes a pragmatic point of view — we participate in the health and education and social welfare of the people of Israel."

The Jewish women’s group raises $60 million to $70 million per year for causes in Israel, including seemingly endless hospital construction projects. Their Hadassah hospital campus has 23 buildings and another is on the way.

Walker, who holds degrees in chemistry, respiratory therapy and public health administration, worked for 35 years in many realms of public health and education. In her conversations, Walker returns often to health topics and speaks passionately on them.

"The most compelling issue today is the question of stemcell research, because we feel very strongly that politics has no business in the restraint of science," she says, likening President Bush’s 2001 executive order restricting such research to the way 17thcentury astronomer Galileo was squelched by an inquisition in Rome and forced to recant his beliefs about Copernican doctrine and the motion of the Earth.

"I think science only exists appropriately in a free environment," Walker says. ". . . Any time political views are imposed on scientific inquiry, it stops it, and the scientific inquiry will occur in other parts of the world where it is not imposed on. I think (the research) is the best and only chance we have to eradicate some of the most deadly neurological diseases that mankind suffers from," she says.

It was important to bring the Hadassah convention to the Southwest for the first time, Walker says. "The Phoenix and Scottsdale area certainly has one of the growing Jewish populations in the United States, and we felt we had to give them the encouragement to know they are part of something much larger than themselves.

"We are a national organization. We are not a New York organization," she says. "Everything doesn’t have to happen in the Northeast, Chicago or Florida."

Hadassah, she says, works hard to educate young women on Jewish heritage and encourage them to use their knowledge to make change. Her first job on the Hadassah national board was as a regional president for American affairs. Walker found that "many, many, many younger Jewish women" successfully became engaged in Hadassah work through activism and advocating on national issues.

"They join for various reasons, among them a connection with Jewish people," says Walker, who was elected this week to her second one-year term. Traditionally, Hadassah presidents serve four years. "I think it is to learn more about Judaism and Zionism than they knew before." Often, young professionals "begin to realize their professional and family life is not enough. There has got to be more to the totality of life."

While Hadassah’s primary mission remains health education and the advancement of women, Walker says it is vital that young female Jews gain rich learning about Jewish values, especially in the face of interfaith marriages.

"We try to encourage Jewish women to embrace Jewish values, and even those who are intermarried because, by Jewish law, whatever the mother is (Jewish or gentile), that’s what the children are." One Hadassah program is called Training Wheels; young mothers and preschool children spend time together in arts and crafts, music and "very simple things to learn about and embrace Judaism in a nonthreatening manner."

Making Hadassah (www.hadassah.org) better known is a challenge. "If you listen to the statistics," she says, "80 percent of the Jewish community has nothing to do with organized Jewish life, which makes it very, very difficult."

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