Local Hadassah members celebrate in Israel

Although many — perhaps most — members of the Hadassah contingent that flew from Southern California to Israel last week had visited the country before, all called it “the trip of a lifetime.”

Joined by their Hadassah counterparts from across the United States and beyond, the 125 Southern California participants, including several husbands, children and grandchildren, joyously celebrated the organization’s centennial and attended the dedication of the state-of-the-art building Hadassah members helped build at the Hadassah Medical Organization’s Ein Kerem campus. 

As individuals and in groups, the Californians had contributed gifts ranging from $18 to several million dollars.  Several groups raised enough money to pay for patient rooms, which are $36,000 apiece. The ultramodern 19-story building features private and semi-private rooms, whereas formerly, Hadassah’s cramped older rooms had to accommodate at least four patients. 

The three-day centennial convention, held in Israel on Oct. 15-18 as a way to contribute to the country’s economy (it was difficult to find a spare hotel room or make a restaurant reservation during the conference) as well as to enable delegates and their loved ones to see with their own eyes how Hadassah has enriched the lives of Israelis. It featured dedication ceremonies as well as tributes to Hadassah’s decades-long support of Youth Aliyah as well as the organization’s many other achievements. Banners in hand, the delegates proudly marched down the streets of Jerusalem, where local Israelis had a chance to meet — and appreciate — the Diaspora Jews who built and maintain Jerusalem’s largest hospital. 

Once Hadassah patients and visitors learned why the hospital was decked out in balloons and wall plaques, many walked up to the delegates and thanked them.  

The day before the SoCal delegates were scheduled to tour the new building, Nita Wiesenthal, president of Hadassah’s Desert/East region in the Coachella Valley, expressed the hope that she would be able to see the patient room donated by her group. 

 “We’re about to see our dream come true. For years, we’ve been hearing about the tower, about every floor as it was being built. Now we’re raising money to buy equipment for two patient rooms.”  

While Hadassah is perhaps best-known as the organization that built a hospital, “It’s much more than that,” Wiesenthal insisted. “In the U.S., it supports breast cancer awareness and women’s rights through lobbying in the Senate. It runs a youth village for youth at risk. And we’re trying to get the word out.” 

Lorraine Fox, a three-time past president of the Elana group in Los Angeles, said her first experience with Hadassah came at the age of 16, when she attended Young Judea’s Camp Tel Yehuda, which is supported by Hadassah. 

“I’ve been a member for almost 45 years,” the Brentwood resident said proudly. 

Fox emphasized that the devotion Hadassah members have for the organization’s program and projects extends to fellow members.

“My group has been wonderful to me. Twelve years ago, when my son was in a burn unit for three months and I felt too shaky to drive to the hospital, 30 women lined up to drive me 75 miles each way for three months.”

Fox’s son survived the ordeal.   

Pam Pearl from Newport Beach attended the conference this week both as a delegate and Hadassah patient. 

“I have MS [multiple sclerosis] and have been living with it for many years,” Pearl explained. As a longtime Hadassah member, and in the course of searching for an effective treatment, she learned that Hadassah Hospital is a pioneer in stem cell research and harvesting. 

Just before the convention began, Pearl had some of her bone marrow harvested at Hadassah — for the third time — and expected to be infused with tens of millions of her own stem cells soon after the conference ends. 

 “I’ve come to love Hadassah, [but] I never thought I’d be benefiting in this way,” Pearl said. “The experience is hard to describe.”

Andrea Silagi, president of Hadassah’s Southern California region, and her husband, Moshe Silagi, were honored for their long-time work for the organization and for donating a cardiology critical care wing to the new building. 

“We have literally walked the walk in our hard hats during construction together, and to be here with you now is so meaningful,” Marcie Natan, Hadassah national president, told the Encino couple. “We are truly blessed to have you as part of the Hadassah family, and because of you, we will continue to see amazing progress in the field of cardiology and health care in general.”  

The couple’s daughter, Karen, quipped that, as a teen, she learned she had sisters named Hadassah who demanded her mother’s attention and were added to the family will and trust.

“I was a little envious but eventually realized that Hadassah was entitled to the time, resources and dedication,” she said, tears in her eyes.

Gazing at the family and friends assembled for the wing’s dedication, Andrea Silagi said, “We have worked so hard over the years together, and you have become like sisters.” 

Katherine Merage from Newport Beach, another major donor, dedicated the new building’s Katherine Merage Pavilion, which houses indoor healing gardens, balconies and the hospital’s first intermediate care center.

The pavilion “is a huge contribution to the city of Jerusalem, the State of Israel and our daily healing activities. It is our pride that her name will last forever in Jerusalem,” former Hadassah Medical Organization Director General professor Shlomo Mor-Yosef said during the dedication ceremony. 

Paying tribute to his mother, David Merage said, “It is for me a point of pride to stand next to my mother, who was a role model all these years. And the powerful women leaders who built Hadassah — I have never seen anything like this in my life.” 

Merle Carter Propp is another delegate who felt compelled to bring her family to Israel.  Seated alongside her husband, two daughters and two granddaughters, Propp said she has worked hard to share her love of Hadassah and Israel with the younger generation, especially at a time when many young American Jews prefer to devote their resources to non-Jewish causes.   

“I was hoping it would touch them as it has touched me. I wanted them to see what I was supporting and why.” 

Melissa Gottlieb, Propp’s 22-year-old granddaughter, said the centennial visit “was special” because “now I know what my mother, my aunt and my grandparents are doing for Israel.” 

Gottlieb said the trip has motivated her to become active in Hadassah. 

“Until I can donate my money, I want to give my time,” Gottlieb said.

Hadassah SoCal executive director retires

After more than 14 years as executive director of Hadassah Southern California, Laura Kaplansky stepped down on Aug. 19. Elissa Berzon, former director of the Metro Area of Hadassah of Southern California, has replaced Kaplansky, taking on the new title of director of Hadassah Southern California.

“I’ve been thinking about retiring for a very long time, and I’ve watched mentors, former colleagues retire early, and I always thought that would be a good thing to do,” Kaplansky said in an interview.

During her tenure, Kaplansky oversaw the organization’s activities from San Diego to San Luis Obispo. She fondly recalled the bond between the women who make up the membership-base of the organization. “The climate of sisterhood amongst the members, what the members do for each other was most inspiring,” she said.

Kaplansky plans to devote her time to her hobbies — reading, volunteering and spending time outdoors.

My goal is “having fun while I’m still able to do it,” the Sherman Oaks resident said.

Kaplansky has been “a wonderful executive director,” Berzon said. “She mentored all of the staff, and it’s big shoes to fill, and I’m going to miss her.

“My goal is to really continue the work that Laura started,” Berzon continued, including fostering “relationships with our volunteers.”

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, counts approximately 300,000 members nationally and 20,000 members locally. It runs the Hadassah Medical Center in Israel, conducts advocacy campaigns and offers education, youth services and more.

Founded in 1912, the organization will celebrate its centennial next year.

Sue Urfrig, governing cabinet chair of Hadassah Southern California, pointed to Kaplansky’s humble attitude in the workplace: “She doesn’t like to be getting all of the kudos. She’s in the background.”

Recalling all the years she spent at Hadassah, Kaplansky sounded content with all she’d achieved. “I feel pretty good about my tenure,” she said. “There is always the next challenge, but that isn’t mine to accomplish anymore.”

A retirement party for Kaplansky is scheduled for Sept. 12 at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air.

SoCal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Inducts 2011 Class

Horseracing and water polo were well represented among the 15th class of Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame inductees during a gala ceremony on June 26 at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Honorees included Jerry and Ann Moss, owners of 2009 Breeders’ Cup champion Zenyatta and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, and Jay Privman, Daily Racing Form correspondent and television analyst.

“There are a lot of horseracing connections here that make [the induction] more special,” Privman said, pointing to the late Audrey Skirball-Kenis’ successful horseracing enterprise.

A pair of former UCLA water polo players, Joseph Axelrad, an All-America goalie on the 2004 NCAA champion team, and Samuel Bailey, who helped the Bruins to three national titles in the 1990s, were joined by prep standout Ashley Grossman.

USC’s four-time All-America honoree Taylor Mays became the 14th football player inducted, Doug Gottlieb was honored for his collegiate basketball, and ESPN analyst career and sports radio personality Vic “The Brick” Jacobs joined his KLAC broadcast partner and MC Steve Hartman (2004) on the list of media honorees.

“It’s important to honor all these sportspeople and explain their stories so that young children can say, ‘I can become an NFL quarterback, I can become an NBA basketball player, because a Jew has done it before me,’ “ Hall of Fame president Barry Kaz said. “That’s really the essence of the organization.”

Shawn Lipman became the first rugby union player to be inducted. Lipman, the first Jewish athlete to play in the Rugby World Cup in 1991, spoke of his motivation to play rugby at the highest level.

“Growing up in South Africa, where the stereotype of Jews not being athletic was perpetuated, it became very important to me not only to prove myself as a rugby player but also to show the naysayers that not only could Jews play one of the most demanding sports in the world but also excel at it,” Lipman said.

Mays, too, spoke of the stereotype of Jews as unathletic.

“That stereotype being what it is, having people who are Jewish say to me that they are proud of what I do and what it represents to the Jewish community, that’s special,” said Mays, a safety for the San Francisco 49ers. “It’s different from individual awards. I’m carrying a different weight on my shoulders, representing a group of people. I’m happy to have that responsibility.”

Mike Enfield, part of the 2002 NCAA champion UCLA soccer team and 2005 MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy, joined his former Bruin teammates Jonathan Bornstein (2008) and Benny Feilhaber (2010).

“It’s great to be with my former teammates,” Enfield said. “I feel privileged to be included with great athletes and to be recognized for all the hard work I’ve done in my life.”

Marc Bluestone was inducted for his basketball, baseball and track achievements at Fairfax High, but emphasized his lifelong commitment to sports.

“To me, sports is a way of life,” he said. “The interaction with teammates and the competition, to play at such a level and to continue on as I did, it meant so much to me.”

Grossman and Max Fried shared High School Athlete of the Year honors.

A member of the U.S. junior national water polo team, Grossman led Harvard-Westlake to its first CIF championship as a senior and will play for Stanford next season. Fried, a pitcher for Montclair Prep who signed with UCLA, was in North Carolina playing for a place on the 18U national team and missed the ceremony.

Andrew Kallick, editor-in-chief of the Brentwood School newspaper, received the Allan Malamud Scholarship Award, in honor of the late Notes on a Scorecard columnist.

Richard “Dick” Conger, a pitcher who starred at Fremont High and UCLA, and 1932 Olympic silver medal-winning gymnast Phil Erenberg were inducted posthumously.

“The [SCJSHOF] is a great way to raise the profile of Jewish athletes,” Privman said.

Outstanding seniors, Class of 2008

Talia Hill

Graduating from: Bais Yaakov

Heading to: Midreshet Darkeynu, Jerusalem

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Leah Hill was in a store with her daughter, Talia (Tali), and was having a hard time communicating with a clerk.

“Oh, I give up,” Leah said.

“Mommy,” Hill immediately responded, “never say you give up. You just have to keep trying harder.”

Those words — one of many spontaneous pep talks Hill gives to everyone around her — are particularly profound coming from Hill. Born with her twin sister, Ariella, after 27 weeks of gestation, Hill has mild cerebral palsy and is hearing impaired.

But despite difficulty walking, hearing and speaking, Hill is graduating Bais Yaakov Los Angeles this month alongside her twin, having kept pace to complete high school.

In fact, Hill has flourished in high school, earning solid grades in all her classes — about nine per semester, covering everything from Jewish texts and philosophy to economics and government. Private aides — including her older sister Eliana — take notes for her and help her with writing, but all the studying, thinking and expressing are up to her.

Eliana Hill said her sister often stays after class to ask more questions and spends recess studying, organizing her notes or even reading the weekly Torah portion, even though that isn’t required for any class. She drops in regularly on the principal, just to say ‘hi’ or to stump him with a well thought-out question.

She’s often up earlier than anyone else in her house and stays up late at night, after an evening schedule that usually includes visiting her grandparents, visits from friends, homework, tutoring, speech therapy, occupational therapy or yoga for physical therapy.

But for those around her, it isn’t Hill’s tenacity that stands out most. What more people see is her giant smile, her good nature and her great sense of humor.

Walking down the halls at Bais Yaakov, an Orthodox girls school near Hancock Park, Hill seems to know everyone in every grade — asking this girl if she ever found her Chumash notes, asking that girl how her math test went, oohing over the friend who got her braces off.

One year, her class voted to give her the annual “Ashes Chayil” award, recognizing the girl who most exemplifies strong moral values, a positive nature and a desire to help others.

When Hill’s aides were unable to make it on the senior class trip with her, two classmates, unwilling to go without their friend, stepped in and said they would help Hill.

And Hill has opened doors for other girls. After completing Yeshiva Aahron Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu through eighth grade, with the help of aides and tutoring, she became the first student with disabilities to be truly integrated through an inclusion program at Bais Yaakov. Today, six other students with physical and developmental disabilities are integrated into the regular curriculum at Bais Yaakov, with modifications when necessary.

“It’s an inspiration to watch her,” said Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn, principal of Bais Yaakov. “After a little while with her, you forget about her disabilities.”

Next year Hill and her family will once again be pioneers. They are making final arrangements for her to attend Midreshet Darkeynu, a Torah study and vocational skills program at Jerusalem’s Midreshet Lindenbaum, designed for girls with special needs such as severe learning disabilities or mild developmental disorders. Hill will be their first student with significant physical disabilities. And while a highly trained staff of counselors is available to help the girls, it will be the first time Hill will be at school without a one-on-one aide.

She’s a little nervous but is looking at it with the same determination and excitement that animate everything she does (and humor — she tells every one she is going to Asia for the year).

“I’m very excited to meet new people and make new friends, and to see my land,” Hill said. “But I’m not very excited because it’s frightening to leave your parents for a whole year.”

But she’s willing to try it, and she and her parents are confident she’ll make it work. Because, as they’ve learned from watching Tali Hill till now, giving up is not an option. You just try harder.

Isabel Kaplan

Graduating from: Marlborough School

Heading to: Harvard University

— Danielle Berrin, Contributing Writer

Perhaps the first real indicationthat Isabel Kaplan had grand dreams was revealed during Halloween in the first grade, when she dressed up as Hillary Clinton. Everything Kaplan has accomplished since then suggests there is hope for a female president yet: At 18, the Harvard-bound senior has already written two novels and helped raise funds to build a basketball court for AIDS orphans at a school in Uganda, as well as nearly $100,000 for the Marlborough Student Charitable Fund, which she created with 15 fellow students and which provides education grants for underprivileged girls in Los Angeles.

A self-declared “feminist since birth,” Kaplan’s concern for empowering women and girls in underserved communities has gone well beyond the confines of her classroom at the Marlborough School, the all-girls academy where she said she has seen the “wonders” of a female-centric environment and learned how necessary education is in allowing girls social and economic mobility.

Inspired by a financial literacy course she took during her sophomore year, Kaplan helped inaugurate the Marlborough Student Charitable Fund. The group has created a highly successful annual event — a fashion show and a gala auction Kaplan co-chaired — and partnered with the Women’s Foundation of California to distribute grants to help local girls finish high school and attend college.

But reaching across town was not enough for Kaplan.

After winning the World Affairs Challenge (a national competition in international relations) with a project on AIDS orphans, she was struck by the discovery that girls her age in Africa became mothers before they could read. Through a teacher’s contact in Uganda, she hooked up with a school for AIDS orphans and organized a pen-pal correspondence with students there. In this endeavor, she established “Girls4Girls,” through which she plans to build a health care clinic in rural Tanzania.