Moving Beyond Ladies Who Lunch

Dorraine Gilbert is happily married. But she hasn’t forgotten what life was like when she wasn’t.

During the five years after she was divorced from her first husband, the enthusiastic 57-year-old recalls returning to Hadassah. She had hoped that the organization would provide her with an outlet for support and friendship like it had done in the past.

But while Gilbert was a life member of Hadassah, she remembers feeling out of place among the mostly married membership.

Now that she is remarried, Gilbert is helping to make Hadassah more welcoming for other single women.

"I didn’t want anybody else to experience that," said Gilbert, who is currently the Israel, Zionist and international affairs chair for Hadassah Southern California (HSC). "I felt that Hadassah should be there no matter what your age or your position in life…. Hadassah is a place for everybody."

Gilbert and her own Metro region Bat Yam group — which was founded last October and currently includes 90 married and unmarried members — have founded a singles circle. Open to women of all ages who have never married or who have divorced, Gilbert hopes that the group will offer single women an opportunity to network and establish friendships that will be beneficial in the future.

Bat Yam’s efforts follow a trend of volunteer organizations trying to entice younger members to replace an aging membership. In doing so, groups like Hadassah must change their image to counter old stereotypes. Historically viewed as an organization for older, married women, Hadassah now has a wide variety of options for women who don’t fit the mold.

Miriam Erdosi, membership and group development specialist for HSC, hopes to rebuff the myths that Hadassah is only for elderly women.

"There are women in our age range who don’t know what Hadassah is," said Erdosi, 30. "They’re like, ‘Oh, I think my grandmother belonged. I think I’m a life member…. Aren’t all the women in their 80s?’ These women are not in their 80s. They’re young leaders; vibrant professional people."

Members of HSC’s 82 existing groups range in age from 24 to 100 years old. The youngest group, Ahavah, consists of young professionals in their mid-20s and early 30s. While all of the girls currently in the group are single, Erdosi says that meeting a mate is not the group’s goal.

"There are opportunities for the women to meet their friend’s friends, but that’s not the focus of the group," Erdosi said. "The focus is making a difference for Israel and being a part of the Jewish community, and if they happen to meet someone — fabulous."

HSC’s West Los Angeles-based Chalom group consists of women mostly in their 30s and 40s, most of whom are married and have young children, while Aviva, a Covina-based group, is made up of women predominately in their late 40s.

Susan Rifelli, incoming membership chair for Bat Yam, joined Gilbert in her venture to create a singles group within Hadassah after Gilbert set her up on a "blind date" with her girlfriend, Sandy, who couldn’t find someone to go with her to an art show. The women have become good friends ever since.

Rifelli hopes that the organization will help other women create meaningful relationships with each other.

"The reason we think it’s a good idea is so we can network with each other," said Rifelli, 50. "For instance, one of my title officers — I’m a realtor — gave me two tickets to a concert at Staples Center tomorrow night. I’ve got to find someone to go with me. I don’t have a guy to bring as a date. So I’ll either bring a single woman client or I’ll bring somebody from Hadassah."

But attracting a younger — sometimes single — membership may pose a challenge for Hadassah considering its previous track record. It’s not that Hadassah hasn’t tried having a singles group in Los Angeles. At one time, Vanguard, Hadassah’s national singles program "comprised of singles groups that bring together Jewish men and women, ages 22-39, for cultural, spiritual, social and fundraising activities" was active in Los Angeles. Vanguard, however, was unsuccessful in the Los Angeles market — a failure that Hadassah leaders attribute to a high level of competition in the city’s oversaturated singles market.

Rifelli, however, believes that Bat Yam’s singles circle will survive because it is stands apart from typical singles groups.

"Believe me, when women get dressed and go to a singles event, even if two girlfriends go together, they’re not focusing on each other. They are focusing on who the men are out there," said Rifelli, who is single. "They’re not developing a friendship with the woman they’re with."

On June 1, Rifelli will host Bat Yam’s first singles circle event, and she says the event — which will feature guest speaker June Walker, incoming National Hadassah president — will be an exception to the rule of singles event.

"How many singles events do you know that are not completely centered around the possibility of meeting a man? This is not one of them," Rifelli said.

For more information on the Bat Yam or the singles circle, call (310) 649-5533.

Hadassah Encourages Women to ‘Check Out’ Program

Janine McMillion was 29 when she married, entered her third year of law school and was diagnosed with breast
cancer. Today, the Huntington Beach resident is an employment lawyer, whose
survival story was the centerpiece of “Check It Out,” an early-detection
program for youth put on by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization.

The program was instigated by Adena Kaufman, 34, of Aliso
Viejo, compelled to action by the loss of a girlhood friend to breast cancer in
2001. “It’s made me grateful to be alive,” she said.

The December event for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s
TALIT students was the first presentation in Orange County by Hadassah, which
introduced the program in Texas a decade ago. About 90 girls and their mothers
attended the program at Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom. They received bags
stuffed with brochures, an anatomically correct breast model with simulated
lumps, instruction on self-examination and genetic risk factors.

“Nobody ever explained that to me before,” 15-year-old
Daniella Gruber told her mother, Roe, afterward.

“She got something out of it,” Gruber’s mother said.

Despite winning a $5,900 grant in December 2001 from the
Susan G. Komen Foundation to present the program free to 2,000 students,
Hadassah’s Long Beach-Orange County chapter has, so far, found few takers.

“We’ve had a difficult time getting into public schools,”
said Michelle Shahon, director of the 3,200-member Costa Mesa-based group, “If
you teach them good life habits early on, that’s the best method of early
detection,” she said.

Shahon intends to seek an extension of the grant and keep
knocking on doors.