As a young teacher in Great Neck more than 40 years ago, Rhoda Smolow said she never thought of being a leader in the Jewish community while her grandmother envisioned it differently.
Smolow, who moved to the peninsula in 1978, was a reading teacher in Glen Head involved in the Great Neck community. She recalls her grandmother being a member of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which brings women together to promote change in a variety of prominent issues facing the global Jewish community.
Following a chapter event in New York City, which her grandmother’s group attended, Smolow, a fifth-generation Hadassah member, fell victim to something millions can relate to — being embarrassed by a grandparent.
“My grandmother turned to all of her friends and said, ‘My granddaughter will be the national president of Hadassah’,” Smolow told Blank Slate Media. “To this day, I think she had a foreshadowing or something that saw what I didn’t see. And I hope she’s still watching.”
More than 40 years after her grandmother’s prediction, Smolow became the 27th president of what is now the nation’s largest Jewish women’s organization in America in early 2020. While being president was not an aspiration when she was first starting out in one of Hadassah’s Great Neck groups, Smolow said her continuous involvement and passion for working with people led her to this position.
“I really, truly am a people person,” Smolow said. “I love working with people, I love mentoring people and I am a diplomat. So often I’ve been called in to be someone who can help find solutions to issues or challenges. There are no problems, there are only challenges that have solutions.”
Smolow did have presidential experience within the organization on the chapter level for Great Neck and on the regional level. She also held a handful of other committee and leadership positions before her national presidency.
Hadassah, founded in 1912, utilizes the two hospitals of their medical organization in Jerusalem, Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem and Hadassah Hospital Mount Scoups, to aid more than 1 million people every year and with cutting-edge and highly touted medical research. The 300,000-member organization also helps combat antisemitism and ensure Israel’s security.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck just weeks after Smolow was sworn in as president, the organization and its newly appointed leader were faced with an unprecedented health challenge. Despite the hardships brought into the world due to the virus, Smolow said, she viewed it as another challenger that must have a solution.
“I can’t explain why, it’s just something inside of me, but I looked at this challenge and every challenge as something that can be overcome,” she said. “It was also about how we could help the country and all of our women maintain what they were doing for Hadassah, including fund-raising and maintaining relationships with each other, Jewish education and advocacy.”
Smolow said the organization helped its members learn how to adapt to Zoom and allow for presentations and speakers to be consistently featured to provide updates with the hospitals. She lauded the staff who made everything remotely accessible but did not downplay the work and challenges the entire organization normally encounters.
Advocating for hospital funding, speaking with high-ranking government officials and providing relief efforts for communities facing natural disasters are some of the other roles Hadassah carries out on a consistent basis.
Smolow said she wanted to have Hadassah’s 100th National Convention in Israel during her installation speech in Orlando before the pandemic struck. Despite the global spread of the virus halting almost every gathering for the foreseeable future months after her installation, Smolow said she still predicted that Hadassah would have its centennial convention in Israel in 2022.
“People thought I was crazy,” she said. “And there were a lot of naysayers. There were a lot of people around us and all over the world that were scared and no one knew when it would end.”
With foreshadowing reminiscent of her grandmother’s, Smolow still pushed forward with plans to hold the convention in Israel in 2022 as vaccines became more widespread and gatherings slowly began to ramp up. Last month, Smolow’s plan was fulfilled as more than 400 attendees met in person for the first time since 2019.
The convention in Jerusalem, titled “Together In Israel: Our Pride. Our Purpose. Hadassah’s 100th National Convention,” included speeches from Israel President Isaac Herzon, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides, Israel Ministry of Health Director-General Nachman Ash and more.
Officials lauded Smolow and the organization for being a beacon in Israel’s health-care system and providing care to any individual who needs it, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or creed.
“Health care in Israel wouldn’t be what it is without Hadassah,” Ash said.
The convention also featured a moving reunion of a Ukrainian native who escaped the country during the war against Russia and his mother. Other speakers and testimonies from hospital patients and medical students highlighted the positive impact Hadassah has had.
The organization also handed out a pair of awards during the convention, including one given to a past president, Marlene Edith Post, the first woman president of Temple Judea in Manhasset. Post received the Henrietta Szold Award, the organization’s highest honor named after its founder.
“My personal family and my Hadassah family are the two pillars on which my life stands,” Post said.
The organization also handed out its inaugural Power of Esther Award, named after the Jewish heroine Queen Esther. It is given to an individual who utilizes the determination and intelligence to speak out on behalf of the Jewish community. The award was presented to Michal Herzog, the first lady of Israel.
When asked what advice Smolow would give to her younger self just starting out in the Hadassah world, she said to not say “no” and to not worry about the level of involvement or commitment joining an organization like Hadassah would entail.
“When you find out what it’s all about, you’ll find the way you can be involved,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be the way your mother or grandmother did it, but there is a way for you to feel empowered and a part of something bigger than yourself.”
A mother of three children, now full-grown adults, Smolow said Hadassah allowed her to do so much more for her kids, her community, her synagogue and the greater good than she ever thought possible.