Bernice Tannenbaum’s lifetime in Hadassah, highlighted by international meetings with presidents and prime ministers and other heads of state, began with a Hadassah board member’s fiat in a Kew Gardens living room.
A young mother, she was "a paper member" of Hadassah, enrolled but not active, when, in 1944, she was invited to a parlor meeting in her Queens neighborhood to help form a local chapter. A national board member appointed officers. She pointed at Tannenbaum (then Bernice Salpeter) and said, "You’ll be the president." "I looked at her and said, ‘You’re crazy,’ " Tannenbaum says.
She was convinced to become chapter president. Eventually she was national president of Hadassah, chair of the World Zionist Organization’s American Section, the de facto head of the U.S. campaign to repeal the United Nation’s anti-Zionism resolution, and a leading figure in other Jewish and women’s causes.
"I believe that no generation can take a vacation from history," she said here this week at Hadassah’s 89th annual convention, accepting the Henrietta Szold Award.
In presenting its highest honor to Tannenbaum, Hadassah also established the Bernice Tannenbaum Award, to be given annually to a young leader of Hadassah International, which she founded.
"It was the times we were living in," Tannenbaum says, taking a break in the New York Hilton from the convention sessions, sitting in a spacious conference room, reflecting on her early years as a Jewish activist.
Raised in "a Jewish home: not exactly traditional" in Jamaica Estates, trained as a teacher, married to "a verbrente [fiery] Zionist," she quickly got caught up in the effort to establish a Jewish homeland. "It became a passion of mine. I was ripe for something beyond my own immediate needs."
Her part-time work writing advertising copy took second place to Hadassah: at the local, regional, then national level.
Tannenbaum found herself sitting next to Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, at a Hadassah national convention in the early 1970s. She gave a seven-minute speech that apparently impressed Meir. "When you’re president, come to visit me" in Israel, Meir said. "I laughed," Tannenbaum says: she had no thoughts of becoming Hadassah’s national president.
In 1976 she became president.
In Israel, she visited Meir.
"Golda was very feminine," Tannenbaum says. "She made cookies for us."
Over the years, she met the likes of Albert Einstein and Anna Freud, European royalty and "all the politicians, the presidents of Israel." She tells of leading a delegation to the White House in 1985, before a Decade of Women conference in Nairobi was likely to turn into an anti-Zionism forum, and urging President Reagan to have the American delegation, led by his daughter Maureen, walk out if the Zionism-is-racism issue were raised. Reagan agreed. The U.S. threat kept the anti-Zionism issue off the agenda.
"What chutzpah," she says of her meeting with the president. "The experience of being a Hadassah leader trains you in ways you didn’t think possible," she adds.
Tannenbaum’s memory is as strong as her memories are warm. She declines to give her age. "I’m old enough," she says. "My foot isn’t good," she says, pointing to a cane she uses for balance. "Otherwise I’m OK."
At the four-day Hadassah convention, as an honorary vice president, she took part in the closing plenary installation of officers.
June Walker, from Rockaway, N.J., became national president, succeeding Bonnie Lipton.
Some 1,900 delegates attended the gathering, whose theme was Am Echad, Olam Echad: one people, one world.
Amid heightened security, they attended scores of sessions, voted on resolutions and shopped in the Hadassah boutique of Israeli and American merchants, heard speeches by Israeli diplomats and U.S. politicians, discussed such topics as the new face of anti-Semitism and research in Jewish genetic diseases.
A second Henrietta Szold Award, named for Hadassah’s founder, was presented posthumously to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the Columbia disaster in January. His widow, Rona, accepted the award.
Some of the convention sessions reflected Tannenbaum’s continuing influence. On such women’s issues as "Reproductive Freedom." (She calls herself a feminist. "I’m not afraid of the word. I love it.") On activities of Hadassah International, which she established to raise money and moral support outside of the U.S. for Hadassah Hospital’s medical efforts. ("We were limited by our self-imposed borders," she says. Hadassah International has made a foothold in such places as Cuba and Turkey, "not just the safe" (Western) "countries."
Tannenbaum has traveled around the world on Hadassah work. Israel, "300, 400 times: I’ve lost count." Countless U.S. states: "practically, wherever there is a Hadassah chapter."
Today, with the title of liaison to Hadassah International, she lives in mid-Manhattan and goes to Hadassah headquarters four days a week. She also works on the Hadassah International newsletter.
"I don’t want to retire," she said. "I love what I do."