Making the case for Hadassah with Ilene Schneider

Ilene Schneider | Photo by David Stuck

In 1970 when Ilene Schneider and her husband, Syd, arrived from Queens, N.Y., in Lanham for his job, she had left behind family, friends and work in speech pathology.
“I was very lonely,” she said.

Then, the wife of her husband’s colleague, told her about a chapter of Hadassah, the Zionist women’s organization in Greenbelt.

“I went to a meeting and I found my — what can I say? — my new family, my adopted family. I just loved it. Everyone was young with young children.” Including her.

“It was welcoming, it provided the camaraderie I was seeking,” she said.

She applied skills from work to volunteering in fundraising for Hadassah Hospital, other projects in Israel, and in its mission, includes strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. She became a co-president of the chapter.

After she and Syd, a physicist, moved to Potomac in 1973, she briefly shifted to chapters there, taking about a four-decade step back from Hadassah. She was working full time in schools, raising a family and was active at Beth Sholom Congregation.

Still, she stayed in touch. Several years ago — working part-time, children grown — she jumped at a friend’s request to resume her involvement.

Schneider, now in her 70s, is in her second year as president of the 7,300-member Hadassah Greater Washington. There are 570 men, who are
associate members.

A large part of her mission is recruiting new members locally, especially
younger ones.

For decades, Hadassah has been seen as an organization for older women, as the young women members have aged.

“We are trying to combat that,” Schneider said.

She wants to reverse the attrition and grow her region in membership numbers and active participation. Hadassah has a website, social media presence and podcasts — not quite your grandmother’s organization.

Locally, Evolve: The Next Generation, a national initiative to draw women under age 50 into Hadassah, is only in Northern Virginia, Schneider said.

Members have lobbied successfully for Holocaust education in schools, women’s health funding and aid for Israel. They continue to advocate for strong U.S.-Israel relations, greater access to infertility treatment and combating antisemitism.

Hadassah still raises money for the hospital and programs in Israel; Ukrainian teens recently arrived in Israel’s two Hadassah-supported youth villages, sent there for safety from war.

Admittedly outgoing, Schneider encourages women to pursue their interests in Hadassah, whether that’s philanthropy, leadership or something else, and learn new skills and hone others — such as advocacy and marketing.

That’s what she did, saying that skills she gained helped her at work and in Hadassah, notably in leadership.

Nationally, there are more than 300,000 Hadassah members, associates and supporters, according to a spokeswoman.

“A lot of it is networking,” Schneider said of attracting new members. “One person pulls in another person.”

It helps that Schneider knows and meets a lot of people.

Greater Washington includes six chapters in suburban Maryland, including Annapolis; Northern Virginia; and Morgantown, W.Va. Programming varies by chapter — a Sunday brewery tour may be a draw for one, a weekday book discussion may suit another. It also has four senior groups, two each in Maryland and Northern Virginia. There are also regional events.

The District of Columbia has no remaining chapters, but it is home to members.

“I am an optimist. One of these days I know I am going to find the women who want to start a chapter,” Schneider said.

Organization members are not required to donate, and the membership fee can be waived, she said.

Nationally, Hadassah has three professional councils for members with careers in common: attorneys and judges, nurses and allied health professionals and physicians; all have members in Greater Washington.

“A new council is being formed, an educators council,” Schneider said.

The COVID-19 pandemic led Hadassah, like other organizations, to hold virtual events.

“Zoom has been terrific for us,” Schneider said, helping to continue programs. Also, a member in Maryland runs a free, seated exercise class on Zoom though younger and more active women can choose to ratchet up the workout, she said.

Schneider tells recruits this: “Hadassah is all about making a difference in our world, through opportunities for learning, developing leadership and making new friends.”

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