Woman power was front and center in the Jan. 9 online conference, the “Power of Purpose.”

The latest initiative out of Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America, the all-day Zoom gathering on Sunday was billed as the first women’s empowerment conference for Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States.

To bring the message home for the 250-plus attendees that women can move mountains, organizers pulled in such superstars as journalist Lesley Stahl interviewing former first daughter (and TODAY With Hoda & Jenna co-host) Jenna Bush Hager, as well as lesser-known young women who are making their mark in today’s world with their own brands of leadership. Leadership in such diverse areas as civil rights and civic engagement, women’s health and women’s rights, pro-Israel activism and the fight against anti-Semitism, as well as entrepreneurship, high-tech and venture-capital investing.

Hager set the tone for the day, describing how her parents, as well as both sets of grandparents, encouraged her sister and herself to both retain normalcy while living in the White House and to fulfill their dreams—in her case working with children.

“When you’re born into a life that offers so many opportunities, it’s a privilege and also a responsibility,” said Hager, who added that, while president, her grandfather George H.W. Bush initiated the “1,000 Points of Light” program to encourage Americans to volunteer their time and skills to those in need. “And that’s also what Hadassah is all about,” she added, “volunteering to help others.”

President Rhoda Smolow

Hager also had a piece of advice for parents: to recognize and help funnel your child’s interests in ways that will make the world a better place. Her mother, for instance, seeing her daughter’s love of children, took her to visit a Texas center for abused children near their home in Austin. “She quietly took me, never forcing me, but I ended up volunteering there,” recalls Hager, “teaching me that as parents we need to help our children use their passions to help others.”

‘Agree on the importance of female voices’

In a panel format, 13 women shared what drove them to do their pioneering work, as well as the paths they took—and they weren’t always smooth ones—to their current successes.

Focusing on advocacy, Israel, women’s health and wrapping up with women’s empowerment, each panelist described how she came to define her personal purpose and find her voice, as well as how she handled the challenges encountered along the way.

The first of the four, titled “Advocacy: How Women Can Use Their Voices to Advocate for Change,” was moderated by Brooke Goldstein, lawyer and executive director of the Lawfare Project, which uses the legal system to defend the rights of the Jewish people and fight discrimination. Panelists were Mandana Dayani, co-founder of the organization I am a voter, which gets out the vote and raises awareness of the importance of civic engagement, especially among minority populations; and Tamar Manasseh, founder of the anti-violence organization MASK: Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killing, fighting the violence in her South Chicago neighborhood and beyond.

Brooke Goldstein

Manasseh told of the day when, after one of her daughter’s friends was murdered, her daughter said: “Mom, you have to do something.”

And so, the “Mom Watch” began at the neighborhood street corner. Being Jewish, emphasizes Manasseh, who recently became a rabbi, “means you have the power to do something about it. We’re not our mothers or grandmothers and our daughters are watching us.”

Still, added Goldstein, for many activists, their Judaism “is important, but it isn’t front and center in their advocacy, we see Jews mobilizing for other causes … but when it comes to us, where is everyone for us?”

Dayani agreed. “I am attacked all the time on social media, but when I started speaking out against anti-Semitic rhetoric, I felt really alone. I couldn’t understand why others weren’t showing up. My father’s father fled the Holocaust. We fled Iran. Hate is hate, and anti-Judaism has been centuries of persecution. If history has taught us anything, it’s that it may begin with the Jews, but it never ends with the Jews and that speaking up is always important. Because if we try to just fly under the radar, we allow this to fester and grow.”

Added Manasseh, who “is often the representative of Jews to non-Jews, white supremacists are multiplying … the same people who hate Jews hate black people, too. … We need to live out the dream of Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel to be the people they knew we could be … by connecting on a human level and then building on it.”

“With so many forces trying to divide us,” added Goldstein, “we have to resist that … what we do agree on is the importance of Hadassah and the importance of female voices.”

‘Identify people who need us to advocate for them

The second panel, “Israel: How to Support Israel Through Education, Entertainment and Technology,” was moderated by Lee Moser, founder of AnD Ventures, which sponsors women’s venture investing, and who served as chief of staff for Michael Oren, Israel’s former Ambassador to the United States. Being interviewed were Rachel Fish, Ph.D., a “scholar-warrior” specializing in Zionist thought, Israeli history and Middle Eastern studies, and founder of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism; and producer and actress Noa Tishby, who founded Act for Israel, an online advocacy organization, and authored the 2021 book Israel: A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth.

Israel’s enemies are looking to delegitimize her in every way possible, said Fish. One important fix, she added: educating Jewish youth about the important role of Israel.

“Israel education has been taken for granted and removed as a central pillar of Jewish education,” she said. “Young Jews don’t need safe space; they need brave space—an understanding of what it means to engage with Israel. But we can’t ask them to be advocates until they know something.”

This is even true in Israel, adds Moser, who was speaking from Herzliya. “We don’t do a great job in educating our kids to present Israel.”

“We’ve failed our children. We send them into college unprepared,” added Tishby.

Rachel Fish

Still, accusations of ethnic cleansing and apartheid state need to be addressed and explained, she said. Though at the end of the day, “whether they express it or not, every Jew in the back of their mind feels better that there is a Jewish state with a Jewish military.”

What gave these young women the courage to face what is often rancorous feedback, both on and off-line? “I think you don’t go into this work if you don’t have reason to see it as your North Star,” says Fish, who grew up in the Bible Belt, far from any Jewish community. “For me, it was always clear … wherever (hate) comes from—left, right—it’s on me and my community to stand up to it.”

Third up was the subject of “Women’s Health: How to Raise the Visibility of Women’s Health and Women’s Health Equity Issues,” moderated by lawyer and New York State Civil Court judge Rachel Freier, founder of Ezras Nashim, New York City’s first all-female volunteer ambulance service, and featuring Erin Zaikis, founder of RISE by Sundara, which empowers female entrepreneurs working in water, sanitation and hygiene to get clean water to the world’s poorest communities; Dr. Asnat Walfisch, director of the High-Risk Pregnancy Unit at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem and Joy Bauer, registered dietician and the TODAY show’s nutrition and healthy-lifestyle expert.

Walfisch spoke of the importance of empowering her patients—across religious and socioeconomic lines—with her vision of healthcare: “for the woman to feel a bond between the caregiver and herself.”

Zaikis has a vision of her own: not only for the women around the world, especially in Africa, to have their most basic needs met, including the countless ones who have no access to even sanitary napkins, but also to have the confidence needed toreally see themselves as agents of change.” One example of this investment in women’s health, she mentioned: The woman able to open a laundromat in Armenia where they typically wash clothing in a polluted and often freezing river.

As does Bauer. “So many people fall through the cracks,” she said. “And sometimes, God gives us issues so we can help someone else going through the same thing; we all need to identify people who need us to advocate for them.”

CEO Naomi Adler

By the end of the day, organizers had already received dozens of emails and texts bearing positive feedback. “They were telling us how truly motivational and empowering the day was,” said Hadassah president Rhoda Smolow, “inspiring the women to not only participate more fully in their own lives but in the activities Hadassah feels so strongly about.”

And, adds conference chair Janice Weinman Shorenstein, “it’s not just purpose but responsibility; at Hadassah, we don’t just talk, we take action.”

It’s no coincidence that nearly every one of the 13 panelists is under 50. “Yes, we are looking to reach younger women,” added Weinman Shorenstein. “And it’s also good for our older members to see there’s a new generation stepping up.”

Hadassah CEO Naomi Adler wrapped up the conference this way: “The women we heard from and the messages they shared were not only moving but also powerful and inspirational. These young leaders are not waiting for others to tell them how to make change; they are doing it themselves, in the process of achieving what they all seek: tikkun olam, repair of the world.”

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