For years I have known Hadassa Birnbaum as the wife of the prominent Netanya rabbi, Dr. Irving Birnbaum, an outstanding leader in a variety of fields in Israeli communal life. I have known Hadassa Birnbaum as her husband’s silent partner in his capacity the founder of Shearim Netanya, a magnificent organization, aiding new immigrants in multifaceted ways, and as his enabler in many of his other vital activities.
Recently, however, I have become aware of Hadassa Birnbaum, the dynamic doer, in her own right. I found out that Hadassa volunteers several times a week to help at Yad Sarah, the largest Israeli national volunteer organization, and aiding disabled, elderly and housebound people. She works with the disabled also at Esra, an outstanding nation-wide charitable association, while simultaneously handling the social caseload at the Netanya Municipality.
As if all this were not enough, Hadassa and four of her friends – Marian Burck, Shiphra Davis and Rika Meyerowich – founded “Hand in Hand Food Baskets,” an ambitious project to feed Netanya’s needy. Operating under the umbrella of Esra for administrative help, Hadassa’s group delivers 120 food baskets every month.
Hadassah Birnbaum, formerly Helen Halperin, was born in Jersey City, N.J., where she received her elementary school education at the local public school. Helen remembers how her mother, a dedicated teacher, was forced to resign her position in order to help her husband. “It was during the Depression. My father’s business went bankrupt, and my parents ran a candy store together,” Hadassa recalled.
In 1951, 17-year-old Helen went on vacation with some friends to the Pineview Hotel in the Catskill Mountains and there she met Irving Birnbaum, a young rabbinic student from Czechoslovakia. The two married 1955.
In 1970, the Birnbaums went to Israel, settling in Sdeh Boker in the Negev where Rabbi Birnbaum served as teacher and principal, and Hadassa, as an English teacher, at the educational institute, Midreshet Sdeh Boker.
Some eight years later, the adventurous Birnbaums and their three growing sons moved again, this time to Netanya, a lovely Mediterranean resort. In Netanya, Dr. Rabbi Birnbaum assumed a prominent pulpit, and Hadassa started out on a new career. She became the municipal social worker in Kadima, a small town near Netanya.
“A social worker? When and where did you get a social work degree?” I asked.
“In Israel, the Block Program had been established, according to which you can start work in the field with the proviso that you get your degree within a given period,” Hadassa explained. “In 1983 I got my Master of Social Work degree from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School for Social Work, having studied there during the previous summers.”
After 21 years on the job as municipal social worker, Hadassa Birnbaum retired, and has launched a new career. Now she is a full-time volunteer – several social workers in one, each providing help through “Hand in Hand” to hundreds in need.