Sally Oren speaks to local Hadassah meeting

Sally Oren listens during Sunday’s meeting of the Greater Washington Area Chapter of Hadassah.  Photo by Ronald Kabran
Sally Oren listens during Sunday’s meeting of the Greater Washington Area Chapter of Hadassah.Photo by Ronald Kabran

It was the kind of perfect Sunday that seemed made just for Sukkot. More than 200 women gathered at Fox Hill in Bethesda for the opening meeting of the Greater Washington Area Chapter of Hadassah.

Chairs Sherry Kabran and Ramona Cohen used lavender gauze and silk flowers to turn the deck into a makeshift sukkah. After breakfast and mimosas, the women paraded by their groups into the meeting room to hear Janet Waxman, wife of Senator Henry Waxman, interview Sally Oren, wife of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. The two spoke not only of life as political spouses, but their commitment to the organization of which not only they, but their mothers and grandmothers were members.

Oren joked about how her and her husband’s speed walking and sculling on the Potomac kept their security detail in shape. But then she spoke about her time this past summer as a patient at the Hadassah Hospital when her appendix burst. “I was in a room with an ultra-Orthodox family on one side and an Arab family on the other. Arab doctors, Jewish doctors. Arab nurses, Jewish nurses. … There is no question that they wouldn’t treat everyone the same,” she said.

In fact it was Oren, who introduced her friend Irene Pollin to Hadassah, which led to the $10 million donation for the cardiovascular wellness center at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. “I didn’t mean to,” she laughed. “I was just making a connection.”

Waxman asked Oren about the strategy she and her husband used to reach out to the American and international communities. Oren discussed how her husband believed in the critical support, not only of the Jewish American community but the entire American community for Israel. He made it a point to visit African American churches, meet with Latino leaders and with as many diverse populations as possible to find connections between their community and Israel.

But it was his love of Irish dancing that inspired one of their first receptions.

“Michael is a fan of Irish music,” she said to a surprised crowd. He brought an Israeli Irish band, (which according to her, there are actually several), and invited prominent Irish Americans to their home. Included among the guests was Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is also a musician.

“The relationship between the Irish and the Jews in America is so close,” she explained, rooted in our similar histories as immigrants. “But Ireland is a major detractor of Israel. Michael reached out to Irish Americans to show the human side of Israel.”

The couple did the same for Latin Americans, bringing in the popular Spanish and Hebrew musician David Broza to entertain at a Latino event. They’ve hosted the LGBT community and the Iranian community. “But the biggest accomplishment,” she added, “is the Iftar dinner with Muslim leaders” they have hosted the last three years in their home. “It creates very deep emotional bonds.”

When asked by an audience member what can be done about “Israel’s bad PR,” Oren responded by talking about the work of organizations like IsraAID, which was first on the ground (and are still) in Haiti, Japan, in Jordan aiding Syrian refugees and now, after the flood, Colorado. “These are not the piquant stories American journalists want to write,” she said and then added, “But to be fair, Israeli journalists don’t like to write the nice stories either.” Oren plans to work with IsraAID when the couple return to Israel.

As if the ambassador’s wife isn’t cool enough, the talk concluded with stories of hanging out with members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead when she was a young girl in San Francisco (her mother was with her). She inspired the songs “Oh Sally, Sally” (which was never performed or recorded) and “Young girl Sunday blues,” from Jefferson Airplane’s third album.

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