Tears welled up in Bonnie Benson's eyes as she recalled the parents of a sick child who approached her Hadassah group during a visit to one of the organization's namesake hospitals in Jerusalem two years ago.
"They actually stopped us as we toured the hall and thanked us," Benson, 52, said, dabbing at her face. "It was amazing."
That memory, she said, reminds her why she's so committed to Hadassah. She spoke as she stood in the midst of her latest endeavor for the women's Zionist organization — a local gala commemorating Hadassah's 100th anniversary that she co-chaired with another member.
About 340 women in spring dresses and bright floral suits gathered at the Center City Marriott on Sunday for the fundraising luncheon. Several of them perused tables of raffle prizes while balloon artists handed out colorful creations and an entertainer on stilts twirled a lasso around unsuspecting guests.
Celebrations like this are occurring around the country as Hadassah honors Henrietta Szold and 30 other women who first founded the nonprofit in New York City in 1912. Today, Hadassah counts more than 300,000 members around the world.
Philadelphia is one of the largest regions with nearly 10,000 members in eight counties, said president Roz Holberg. That's held fairly steady even as the organization struggled to involve younger women who were busy with careers, added Holberg, 63, of Lafayette Hill.
Last year, the area's 28 local groups funneled more than $2 million to the national headquarters, which distributes funds to Hadassah's college, youth villages for at-risk children, Young Judaea programs, hospitals and other initiatives.
National fundraising efforts, however, have been complicated in recent years as the organization faced leadership turnover and became an unwitting player in the Bernard Madoff investment scam. In December 2010, Hadassah announced that it would pay back $45 million, or roughly half of what it had earned in the scam. More recently, two leaders were accused of misusing charitable funds. The organization announced earlier this month that a commissioned investigation had cleared the two of any wrongdoing, but it refused to release the findings.
Holberg said those national challenges along with the economy affected local fundraising from 2008 to 2010, but they rebounded by last year. Today, she said, her most pressing goal is figuring out how to harness social media and other outreach efforts to connect with new members.
What makes Hadassah especially fulfilling, Holberg said, is that it also functions as a social outlet. Local groups collect donations as they meet up for book clubs, speakers and other activities.
"It is this really lovely melding of being with women who have similar passions and being able to direct that passion to our projects," Holberg said.
Jacqueline Tusman met her "BFF" during a trip to Israel with Hadassah in 2010 — her roommate, Judith Miller.
"In our next lives, we're going to get married, but we have to decide which one of us is going to change genders," joked Miller, 59, of Mount Airy.
The trip itself turned out to be an emotional experience for Tusman, who had never been to the Jewish state before.
"This is our purpose, this is what we donate money to — to Israel and keeping Israelis healthy," said Tusman, 56, of Bryn Mawr.
While visiting the hospital, staff brought her a ledger book that showed a piece of cardiac equipment that a Bloomfield, N.J., group had purchased in her mother's honor when she died in 1980. "That put me over. I was hysterical," Tusman said.
Beyond supporting Israel, several women noted that Hadassah newsletters and trips to meet with elected officials in Washington, D.C., have played a significant role in lobbying for stem cell research, women's reproductive health and other domestic causes.
"People don't realize that Hadassah is about political advocacy almost as much as it is about raising money for Israel," said Liz Nover, co-president of the Doylestown group.
Hadassah spans five generations in Patsy Gruenberg's family. Her great-grandmother formed a group in Memphis, Tenn., in 1918. Her grandmother gave her a life membership when she got married, though Gruenberg said it wasn't until she moved to Philadelphia in 1985 that "I found my place with Hadassah."
As she took on leadership roles, Gruenberg mailed clippings from her newsletters and speeches to her grandmother. Even though her grandmother traveled all over to raise money for youth aliyah as the president of a large southern region, she would always say that her greatest gift to Hadassah was her granddaughter's membership, recalled Gruenberg, 61, of Wynnewood. Gruenberg paid the favor forward, purchasing a lifetime membership for her daughter, Eva, when she was born 26 years ago.
For Faye Hellman, one of the few younger faces in the crowd, the luncheon was her first Hadassah event. Hellman, 28, said she was too busy with law school to get involved when she moved here a few years ago, but wanted to start now that she's working.
"This is a wide range of things I can do, something long-term," she explained. "They just do things on a bigger scale than just happy hours."
Ethel Harrison showed up with a posse of assorted relatives: three daughters, one daughter-in-law, four granddaughters and an infant great-granddaughter.
She had extra reason to celebrate because the event coincided with her 83rd birthday. Harrison, of Merion Station, said she's active in her group's book club and fundraises when she can because Hadassah does such wonderful work. Simply put, she said, "I believe in all these things."