When Cali BenEzra, an American immigrant to Israel, was expecting her first baby in her new country, she toured the usual Jerusalem hospitals—Hadassah Ein Kerem and Shaare Zedek—where most people from her modern Orthodox community in the West Bank settlement of Efrat give birth. But she found the hospitals large, impersonal, and not encouraging of her plans to try for a vaginal birth after a prior Caesarean section. Then, later, scrolling through a popular Facebook group for new mothers in the Jerusalem area, she saw a number of posts about fellow Jewish women having good birth experiences at the small St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem’s heavily Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
So, at 35 weeks pregnant, she decided to take a tour.
“I went to the tour apprehensive because I didn’t know how the people at the hospital would feel about me,” BenEzra said. “At first I was afraid to tell them that I live in Efrat—I didn’t want them to think I was a crazy settler or something.” The hospital’s Facebook page refers to the 1948 Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the popular Palestinian term for the establishment of the state of Israel. Its wall of benefactors includes the states of Palestine and Qatar. And much of its staff comes from Palestinian towns in the West Bank.
But all of these things, which had made BenEzra nervous—especially in this era of stalled peace talks and continued Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis—faded into the background as she took the tour. The staff was welcoming, listened to BenEzra’s wishes for her upcoming birth, and a doctor even gave her a checkup. And no one said anything when she told them she was from Efrat. “I’d never been in such a warm medical environment,” she told me. She decided that day that not only would she have her baby there, but she would do the rest of her prenatal checks there as well.
BenEzra is among a growing number of Jewish Israeli women who are choosing to give birth at St. Joseph, saying it is worth going out of their cultural comfort zones, crossing into the Arab part of the unofficially divided city of Jerusalem to experience the hospital’s personalized care and natural approach to childbirth. While Israel’s Jewish hospitals are known for treating patients from all sectors of society—as well as Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza— Israeli Jews seeking care at Palestinian hospitals were largely unheard of, until now.
“I think it is the first time that the Jews look for an Arab service,” said Sister Valentina Sala, a nun and midwife from Italy who was sent by her Roman Catholic religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who own the hospital, to help it open its maternity ward in 2015. “Our mission as a hospital is to serve any kind of people, but this is a new experience for our staff, serving Jews.”
The Sisters of St. Joseph first opened a hospital in Jerusalem in 1896, just outside the Old City’s New Gate. Called the St. Louis French Hospital, the institution served “all, Jews, Christians, and Moslems, without any distinction,” according to the hospital’s archives. But the war that broke out in 1948, when Israel declared its independence, left Jerusalem divided. St. Louis French Hospital was on the Israeli side, unreachable to residents who lived in the eastern part of the city, which came under Jordanian control. So the order built St. Joseph Hospital in East Jerusalem in 1956 to serve people living there.
Although St. Joseph is owned by the Roman Catholic order, only five sisters, including Sala, still live and work in the hospital, which mainly serves local Muslims and the much smaller number of local Christians. It is under the supervision of Israel’s Ministry of Health, but exudes a strong Palestinian identity, with some the seats on its board of directors allocated for prominent Palestinians, as well as church and foreign officials. Top Palestine Liberation Organization official Saeb Erekat attended the opening ceremony for the maternity ward. And Jerusalem’s now-retired Latin Patriarch, Fouad Twal, emphasized at the opening ceremony that the new maternity wing would serve “Arab women [who] have been forced to go to Israeli hospitals, where language and treatment can be challenges.”
Most Jewish women giving birth at St. Joseph are attracted to its women-centric approach and have often had traumatic experiences at other hospitals. For Julia Fleisch, from Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood, it was the wireless fetal monitors in all of St. Joseph’s five delivery rooms that really caught her attention. Such monitors are not widely available in the city’s larger Jewish hospitals, and they allow women to move around more freely in labor, which research shows can help with pain management and progression of labor, and prevent the need for Caesarean sections. After delivering her first baby in an emergency Caesarean section at Hadassah Ein Kerem, she was also attracted to St. Joseph’s relatively low Caesarean-section rate—just under 10 percent—and the fact that it was not overcrowded with overworked staff. Other features, like lights that can be dimmed, aromatherapy, and the fact that St. Joseph is the only hospital in the city that allows water births, also draw in women like Fleisch.
“But I was still hesitant,” said Fleisch. “I looked different than most everyone else there, and I tried to avoid making eye contact with other patients. I was sensitive to being in a place that was not being marketed to people like me, and I imagined that there were patients there who did not want Jewish people there.” But the staff made her feel welcome, and she eventually had her baby there.
“I had to push for two-and-a-half hours, and Sister Valentina didn’t leave my side the whole time,” Fleisch said. “I felt like she was my private midwife, and she went above and beyond. No one rushed me.”
And it’s not just the birthing process that women are attracted to, but also St. Joseph’s postpartum care in the hours and days following delivery. After she had her baby, Violet Shmuel said, the nurses made her tea and brought in a tray filled with kosher cheeses, bread, and salads, which the hospital ordered from a kosher restaurant especially for her and her husband. Per the hospital’s standard practice, she was never separated from her baby.
“When I had pain in the middle of the night, the nurse sat with me and told me stories, which helped so much,” said Shmuel, who describes herself as a religious Zionist from the “hipster-Hasid” community in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood.
“I felt very taken care of and empowered,” she said.
Before Shmuel went home, she got her nails done at the maternity ward’s complimentary salon. “I was blown away,” she said. “I couldn’t fully comprehend they were going to be that nice to me. I told them I was going to get pregnant again so I can come back next year.”
Sala said the recent arrival of Jewish women to St. Joseph means that the maternity ward is accomplishing the goals she set when she helped open it nearly three years ago.
“Really my dream was to open a hospital that respects the natural process of labor,” Sala said. The fact that the hospital delivers only about 200 babies a month, as opposed to the 2,000 delivered each month at Shaare Zedek, also enables the staff to give personalized care, she said. Women are not rushed to deliver. And after delivery, most women can relax in the delivery room for up to three hours with their new babies.
“You can give quality when you are not running after quantity,” Sala said.
It was after a Jewish Israeli woman sold birthing pools to the hospital that word began to spread beyond the neighborhood about its approach to birth, Sala said. She has happily given tours of the hospital not only to prospective patients, but also to groups of Jewish doulas, or birth coaches, who have heard about it. And, recently, she organized a workshop on water birth attended by midwives from all over Israel, which offers very few options for water birth.
“It was a good occasion to get to know each other,” Sala said.
The first Israeli Jewish mothers to give birth at St. Joseph came in the fall of 2017, and since then there have been about a dozen Jewish mothers who have given birth here, Sala said, with several others currently pregnant and receiving prenatal care and planning to give birth here. The hospital expects the number of Jewish maternity patients to continue increasing, she said. And just like many Jewish women said they never expected to give birth here, the Palestinian staff said it never expected to take care of Jews.
“For me, it’s new,” said Fatmeh Qassas, head nurse of the postpartum ward, who is from Bethlehem, and said she rarely had any interaction with Israeli Jews until they started coming to the hospital in recent months.
“I think it’s a nice thing,” Qassas said. “We are dealing with mothers as mothers, so it doesn’t matter what religion they are. When you deal with a person, you can just deal with a person that is a person and not anything else.”
Like Israeli hospitals, St. Joseph seems to be emerging as a bubble of co-existence in the midst of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the few places where Israelis and Palestinians—Muslims, Christians, and Jews—trust each other with their lives.
“I don’t have grand thoughts like we can fix everything just in this hospital,” Sala said. “But I think this is really great.”
After BenEzra had her baby, staff members stopped by to wish her “mabrook,” and joked about visiting her in Efrat. “And I joked back, because I don’t think I am even allowed to visit them in Beit Jala,” which is located in an area of the West Bank that is illegal for Israelis to enter, said BenEzra, who ended up staying in the hospital for five days after her son was born because he needed extra monitoring. “My experience here definitely made me realize how segregated things are,” BenEzra said. “It also showed me that a lot of my preconceived ideas are in my head and that Palestinians are approachable. The whole experience just felt so peaceful.”
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Sara Toth Stub is a Jerusalem-based American journalist who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires, Associated Press, and other publications.