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As new leader of Hadassah, she aims high

Named first Boston-area president of Jewish women's volunteer group

Newton resident Nancy Falchuk has been named the new president of Hadassah, the largest Jewish membership organization in the country. It's the first time a Boston-area resident has led the 300,000-member volunteer group.

"I think that it's one of the most remarkable and most important Jewish women's organizations that there is in the world, and to find myself as the incoming president, I'm very humbled by it and very proud," Falchuk said by phone this week from New York, where she was attending the group's annual conference. "I think it's an organization that has made some of the most remarkable efforts in health education. It's helped build a nation. It has an army of activists here in America."

Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, was founded in 1912. In Israel, the group is actively involved in health care and medical research. The Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel includes two hospitals, five schools, outpatient clinics, research facilities, and community health centers, and it treats more than a million patients annually. The group also runs Hadassah College Jerusalem, a four-year college.

Hadassah is the largest donor to the Jewish National Fund, which does environmental work in Israel, according to Roberta Elliott, Hadassah's spokeswoman. Hadassah is the second largest employer in Jerusalem; only the Israeli government employs more people, said Falchuk.

In the United States, Hadassah advocates for several political issues, runs programs for young Jews, and promotes health education.

Falchuk, 62, is trained as a nurse; the organization's history and development is deeply rooted in healthcare.

Hadassah worked from its inception to support healthcare as a way to work toward creating the state of Israel, "to help make it a viable place where people could live," said Shulamit Reinharz, a sociology professor at Brandeis University and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, which does research on Jewish women.

Falchuk, who has been active with Hadassah for 30 years, is known as a great fund-raiser and a successful leader, said Reinharz.

"I think it's wonderful," Reinharz said of Falchuk's appointment. "I think it makes us feel good here in Boston that Hadassah has a strong enough organization here to create leaders."

In 1989, Falchuk cofounded the Hadassah National Center for Nurses Council, the first and only national professional organization for Jewish nurses. There was a lot of resistance in Israel to the creation of the country's first clinical master's program in nursing, she said, which she took on as part of the Nurses Council.

"Today the physicians understand -- things have changed," said Falchuk. "If you look back 15 years ago one of our biggest obstacles were the physicians themselves: 'What do you need more educated nurses for?' "

American nurses had wholly different needs. Falchuk said she recalled asking her American colleagues if they remembered what it was like to tell their parents they wanted to be nurses.

"And we all started to cry . . . because it was painful," she said. "Jewish girls didn't go into nursing -- 'What do you want to carry bedpans for? Why not be a doctor?' "

The Nurses Council now has 3,000 members.

Helaine Ohayon, also a nurse, met Falchuk in 1989, and got involved with Hadassah through the Nurses Council.

"She is a very passionate person and she is not afraid to put her neck on the chopping block," said Ohayon, who is a Hadassah national board member. "She looks for risks. She definitely does not believe in the status quo if it's not working."

Falchuk said one of her main goals as president will be to grow awareness of Hadassah and its work and history. Even five years ago young women thought of Hadassah as their grandmother's organization, she said. "Now the young people are saying, 'My grandma was doing a lot of stuff! ' "

Falchuk said she wants to help the international community see Israel "through the eyes of medicine and education and not through the eyes of CNN and war."

In the United States, Hadassah advocates at the state and federal levels for several hot-button political issues. The group supports stem-cell research, is pro-Israel, and backs abortion rights.

"Right now I think the big push is about Iran and to keep educating the world as to the anxiety that everyone should have and the attention they should be paying to this country and its buildup of nuclear arms," said Falchuk. "What we'll do I'm not sure, but I know it's one of the things that frightens us the most."

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or