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The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Hospital

What the opening—and closing—of Mount Moriah Hospital represented for the community

Jenna Weissman Joselit
August 24, 2020
The Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, at 713 Classon Avenue, shown in a postcard, circa 1906
The Jewish Hospital in Brooklyn, at 713 Classon Avenue, shown in a postcard, circa 1906

Toes were trampled upon, hats were lost, and women fainted when thousands of people, pushing this way and that, took to the narrow streets of what is today New York’s East Village on a chilly November morning in 1908. As the melee threatened to spin out of control, the police were called in to keep the peace—and the crowds in tow.

The dedication of Mount Moriah Hospital, a brand new medical facility at 138-140 East 2nd Street in Manhattan, prompted this unanticipated show of urban exuberance. A welcoming presence amid the neighborhood’s dark and brooding tenements, two adjacent brick buildings, “renovated from roof to cellar,” had just been transformed into a hospital with the most up-to-date and “modern sanitary arrangements.”

Mount Moriah Hospital’s state-of-the-art equipment wasn’t the only feature that drew a crowd. So, too, was the premium it placed on accessibility. Instead of standing haughtily apart from the people it served, the institution presented a friendly face to the neighborhood. “You can open the door and enter as if to your own home without a racing heart and without fear,” observed the Forward.

Mount Moriah Hospital was the eagerly awaited creation of the Verband, or federation, of Galician and Bukovinean Jews, an agglomeration of 261 geographically based, independently run Jewish mutual aid societies, or landsmanshaftn, as they were more commonly known at the time. Determined to raise the then-hefty sum of $75,000, the Verband turned to its constituents—recent immigrants from that part of the world once known as the Hapsburg Empire—who, by purchasing “paper bricks” for $1 and contributing small amounts of money, including $270 worth of pennies, built the hospital from the ground up.

Tending to the newcomers’ physical well-being was a high priority, as Daniel Soyer’s landmark account, Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939, vividly demonstrates. Whether hiring a doctor to make house calls—“contract practice,” it was called—or putting money aside for a rainy day when one’s landslayt might find themselves temporarily incapacitated (a practice known as “sick benefits”), the landsmanshaft “offered immigrant patients a way to bypass charity medicine and exert a considerable amount of control over their caregivers,” Soyer explains.

Establishing a hospital of and for one’s own was a logical extension, then, of the mutual aid society’s mandate. The venture also fit right into the institutional framework of the broader American Jewish community: Everywhere Jews gathered, a hospital was sure to follow. As early as 1850, the Jews of Cincinnati, alarmed by a cholera outbreak, established the Jewish Hospital. Two years later, Jewish residents of the Big Apple followed suit by forming the eponymous Jews’ Hospital, or what later became known as Mount Sinai, for “deserving and needy Israelites.” Across the East River, in Brooklyn, the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn took root in 1906, while across the Hudson, New Jersey had Newark Beth Israel, affectionately known as “The Beth.” Providence, Rhode Island, boasted the Miriam Hospital, and Los Angeles had Cedars-Sinai. By the early 20th century, the American Jewish landscape, from coast to coast, contained more than 100 hospitals.

An expression of the age-old Jewish value of chesed, of good deeds and lovingkindness, Jewish hospitals also reflected a less exalted reality. Most American health care facilities, especially hospitals, were sectarian institutions, through and through. Rendering faith central to the process of healing, Catholic and Protestant hospitals were not the least bit shy about advancing an avowedly Christian agenda as they tended to the sick under their roof.

In an environment where Jesus, on and off the cross, loomed large, Jewish patients and their families felt mighty uncomfortable, well aware that their need for kosher food or a chapel where they might seek solace would not be satisfied, let alone respected. Jewish physicians were also made to feel unwelcome, often denied the most routine of hospital “privileges” such as attending to their patients on the ward.

The proudly, avowedly Jewish hospital sought to change all that. Though its charter proclaimed that its doors were open to everyone “irrespective of race, creed or color,” giving rise to the ideal of nonsectarianism (and prompting the inside joke that “nonsectarian” was just another word, even a euphemism, for “Jewish”), it predominantly served Jewish patients, at least initially. Within its well-ordered corridors, they could be assured of being understood, literally and culturally.

Advertisements drove home that point. In 1912, New York’s Beth Israel Hospital, which, like Mount Moriah, was also located downtown, within the Jewish immigrant quarter of the city, publicly promoted its virtues through a series of paragraphs each of which began with “Because.” Why come to Beth Israel when you’re in need?

 “BECAUSE it is a thoroughly Jewish institution, devoted to Faith, and is strictly kosher.
BECAUSE it maintains a Schule [sic] with decorously conducted services and for the benefit of the poor orthodox Jews of the neighborhood.
BECAUSE to prevent the deportation of Jewish immigrants suffering with Trachoma and the consequent breaking-up of families, it has created a special ward for immigrant Trachoma patients recognized by the U.S. Government.”

Not to be outdone, Mount Moriah Hospital also issued a public appeal to the New York Jewish community in which it rehearsed many of the claims made by the competition before adding several new ones of its own. Our hospital staff of physicians, it boasted, “includes some of the men most prominent in the practice of their profession in Greater New York,” while our equipment, from an “Ex-Ray apparatus” to a “Hydro-Therapeutic Department,” was as up to date “as any of the large modern institutions in the City of New York.” If its president had his way, Mount Moriah Hospital would soon give Mount Sinai, its renowned uptown counterpart, a run for its money by becoming the “Mount Sinai of the East Side.”

Thinking big, Mount Moriah Hospital soon fell prey to petty politics, or what contemporaries called “internal bickering.” It didn’t take long before the Verband’s officials came to realize that the hospital had become a burden, a drain on its resources, rather than a blessing. Some even went so far as to label it an “affliction.” What to do? Should Mount Moriah Hospital be spun off as an independent entity, or should it remain within the Verband’s remit? More to the point, should the organization even be in the business of institutionalized health care? Didn’t it have a “thousand and one other things to attend to”? Round and round it went, generating noisy protests at annual conventions and bruised feelings among the leadership.

Word of the ongoing contretemps and its ensuing “chaos” soon made its way into the public arena, prompting numerous exposes in Der Tageblatt as well as gossipy articles in the American Jewish Chronicle and The New York Times. Once a wellspring of great communal pride, Mount Moriah Hospital had become a source of shame as well as an albatross.

The outbreak of WWI and with it, the immediate and exigent needs of Galitzianer and Bukovinean co-religionists back home, soon took precedence over those of Mount Moriah on East 2nd Street, sounding its death knell. The little hospital that could—and then couldn’t—closed its doors in 1917. In contrast to the fanfare that accompanied its auspicious debut less than a decade earlier, the institution slipped quietly into the night.

An historical footnote, the demise of Mount Moriah Hospital anticipated the decline of the American Jewish hospital system nearly 100 years later. By the 1990s, the days of the “faith-based provider,” as the lingo has it, were increasingly numbered. It wasn’t just that, in the face of declining discrimination against Jewish patients and their physicians, the mission of the Jewish hospital as a “haven” had become obsolete, or that the Jewish community was increasingly unable to bear the soaring costs of health care. The American health system, fueled by cost-saving measures and a penchant for ostensibly efficient mergers, put an end to the independent, free-standing hospital, rendering it a thing of the past.

Many contemporary hospitals such as Beth Israel-Deaconess in Boston, The Jewish Hospital-Mercy Health in Cincinnati, and the Barnes Jewish Christian in St. Louis retained vestiges of their Jewish “heritage”: inscriptions etched in stone over the entrance way, stained-glass windows festooned with Jewish symbols, and, here and there, versions of the Ten Commandments. Others maintain a kosher kitchen, or, at the very least, are able to obtain and supply kosher food, wrapped in yards of tinfoil, from an outside vendor.

And yet, these thoughtful, well-intentioned salutes to the hospital’s Jewish antecedents are more window dressing than substance. If we’ve learned anything at all from COVID-19 as it continues to ravage the country, throwing into bold relief the relationship among health care, ethnicity, and race, it’s that healing isn’t just about therapeutics or machines that beep steadily throughout the night. Healing is also about keeping the faith.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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