Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America Inc. was founded by Henrietta Szold, who, in 1907, joined a New York study group called the Daughters of Zion that had been founded in 1898 by Emma Gottheil.
In 1909, with her mother and a friend, Szold traveled to Palestine. She was horrified by the poverty and disease plaguing the Jewish community of Jerusalem and by the lack of health services.
She returned to the U.S. determined that Zionist women had to do more than talk. With six friends, Szold invited local women to join “a large organization of women Zionists” who would work for the “promotion of Jewish institutions and enterprises in Palestine and the fostering of Jewish ideals.”
A group of about 20 women met on Feb. 24, 1912, for the founding session of the new national women’s organization to be called Hadassah. When the group’s constitution was written a few weeks later, the organization had 28 founding members and Szold was elected president. By the end of that year, they had almost 200 members.
In January 1913, helped by a generous grant from department store magnate Nathan Straus and additional donations, Hadassah sent two nurses to Jerusalem. It was the start of what would eventually be the Hadassah Medical Organization, Hadassah’s flagship enterprise.
Detroit Jews were strong supporters of Zionism, and local women wanted a Hadassah chapter here, too. Sarah “Sal” Wetsman Davidson had organized a Daughters of Zion group in Detroit and invited Henrietta Szold to tell them about Palestine.
In 1916, Szold came to Detroit to promote Hadassah. She stayed with Sal’s parents, Joseph and Bessie Wetsman, for 10 days while Sal drove her around in her electric car to recruit women to the new organization.
During World War I, Sal and her sister, Fannie Saulson, joined Hadassah’s Sewing Circle, which brought many new members into the group. The women cut, sewed and shipped thousands of garments and bed linens to the Jews of Palestine.
In 1918, Hadassah organized the American Zionist Medical Unit, the forerunner of Hadassah Medical Organization. Because Detroit was already known as the “Motor City,” the women asked Henry Ford to donate an ambulance. He refused, and Sal received a loan of $1,000 from her father to buy it. She and her friends then went door to door to earn enough money to repay the loan.
When anti-Jewish riots broke out in Palestine in 1929, resulting in the deaths of 150 Jews, Hadassah’s Detroit Chapter, like other chapters nationwide, wanted to do more to support Hadassah’s medical facilities
Instead of holding bake sales and bazaars, they started an “Honor Roll Campaign” and solicited the 1,000 Detroit Hadassah members directly for gifts of cash. The year-long drive ended with a lunch program, attended by 600 women, where it was announced they had raised the unprecedented sum of $15,000.
In 1934, Hadassah became the sole American agency for Youth Aliyah, which Henrietta Szold had founded. Youth Aliyah brought children and teens fleeing Europe to Palestine, and Hadassah became its largest supporter. The Detroit chapter helped publicize and fund the program. Members also supported other programs in Israel, including a home for delinquent girls, a vocational school for girls, a mechanical training program for boys and the first Youth Aliyah kibbutz, Ramat Hadassah Szold.
For several years, Hadassah held a fashion show using clothing sent by students at the Brandeis/Hadassah High School in Jerusalem and collected dimes in “eye banks” to help wipe out the eye disease, trachoma.
On a trip to Palestine in 1935, Joseph Wetsman and fellow Detroiters David Zemon and David Simons bought a tract of land on Jerusalem’s Mt. Scopus. The land was eventually donated to the Jewish National Fund and became the site of the first Hadassah Hospital.
By 1955, Detroit’s Hadassah chapter had 19 Detroit groups with more than 6,000 members. Until 1957, Hadassah had operated out of members’ homes and cramped rented offices in a store, above the Linwood post office and above the Avalon Theatre at Linwood and Davison, a building owned by the Wetsman family.
In 1957, at the urging of member Diane Hauser, a longtime dream became reality. A group of businessmen, including Hauser’s father, Israel Davidson, donated funds to buy an office building at 7 Mile and Evergreen in Northwest Detroit. It was the area’s first Hadassah House, and it became a true home where members congregated.
In 1977, with more and more Jewish families moving to the suburbs, Hadassah sold the building, invested the funds, and rented office space at 10 Mile and Evergreen in Southfield.
The current Hadassah House on Orchard Lake Road in West Bloomfield, originally the West Bloomfield Township Library, opened in 1985. Sarah Wetsman Davidson’s daughter, Dorothy, and husband, Byron “Bud” Gerson, were among many generous donors who made the purchase, renovation and maintenance of the building possible.
Under the leadership of Phyllis Newman, Hadassah Greater Detroit ran several thrift stores over the years. Now Hadassah holds a week-long rummage sale in November.
In 2007, Detroiters William and Karen Davidson, on behalf of Guardian Industries, gave $75 million to Hadassah to construct a new inpatient tower at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem. It was named the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower in memory of Dorothy Gerson and Bill Davidson’s mother.
“The power of family is truly a binding one,” said the late Bill Davidson, adding that he felt privileged to be in the third generation of his family to support Hadassah’s achievements and goals.
Barbara Lewis Contributing Writer