Towering Debt: Who Are the Davidsons of Hadassah's Davidson Tower?

Chairman of fund that donated $87.5m to build the Ein Karem building says it isn't related to the hospitals' plight.

On March 19, 2012, the gleaming state-of-the-art, 19-story tower at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, opened to great fanfare: Several dozen guests marked the occasion, five years in the making, at a special “moving-in day” ceremony, where dignitaries hailed the structure as a giant leap forward for Israel and its health-care system.

“The future of Hadassah and the future of Jerusalem is one,” the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat, told the audience seated in the glass-enclosed atrium that leads visitors into the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower.

Marcie Natan, national president of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America, lauded those who envisioned the structure. “This building especially recognizes the very early connection of Karen and the late Bill Davidson, his love for his mother and his love for Israel,” she said.

Nowhere amid the pomp were signs that, less than two years later, the lavish tower, which cost $363 million to erect – roughly the equivalent of Hadassah Medical Center’s current $371-million deficit – and its high operating costs would be blamed in part for running two of Israel’s most important hospitals into the ground.

Yet the accusations of financial mismanagement, and the finger-pointing between hospital executives in Israel and the U.S.-based Hadassah organization have obscured one fact: that the building is the product of well-intentioned Jewish philanthropists who donated funds because they felt it was a worthy cause – and whose good name, at least in one instance, is even inscribed on the structure itself.

Devoted to Israel even before it existed

The tower’s main patron was the late William Davidson, a billionaire businessman, philanthropist and former owner of the Detroit Pistons basketball team who died in 2009. His $75-million donation served as the financial cornerstone of the project; several years after his death, the Davidson family announced an additional $12.5-million gift for the completion of the tower.

The building is named for Davidson’s mother and reflects the family’s long-standing support of Hadassah and Israel, even in the pre-state era. Sarah Wetsman Davidson’s ties to the women's organization go back to 1916, when she hosted the its founder, Henrietta Szold, in Detroit. Wetsman Davidson later went on to found a local chapter of Hadassah in that same city.

“Sarah passed her love of Zion and of service through the generations,” Hadassah’s Natan said at a separate dedication ceremony honoring the tower’s major donors, on October 14, 2012, as reported in the Detroit Jewish News. “This tower began with the love of a mother for her children and that love was returned.”

William Davidson's devotion to the cause was apparently passed on to his wife, Karen, a native of Indiana who converted to Judaism after the couple married, and their five children. (Davidson had two children from an earlier marriage; she has three daughters from her previous relationship. Fun fact: One of those is actress Elizabeth Reaser, who has appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy,” the “Twilight” movie franchise and, most recently, “True Detective.”)

At that same October 2012 ceremony, Karen Davidson said the tower constituted "a confirmation from Bill of his belief that the Jewish people have been in this land for more than 3,000 years,” as reported in the Detroit Jewish News.

Since Davidson's death, his widow and the family have worked to continue his philanthropic work and ensure that the donations he made before are being used properly. This is done through the William Davidson Foundation, which has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Jewish organizations and causes in the late donor's hometown and further afield. In Israel, for example, in addition to its involvement with Hadassah, the foundation has donated to the Weizmann Institute of Science, the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority and Taglit-Birthright Israel, among other places.

“Our core areas of interest are Jewish identity, Jewish tradition and Jewish culture in Detroit, southeast Michigan, our home community, in North America and in Israel,” Jonathan Aaron, the foundation’s president and chairman of the board, told Haaretz.

“The Israeli component of our philanthropic funding is as important as any other area to us because we know it was important to Mr. Davidson,” said Aaron, who is also William Davidson’s son-in-law.

The foundation is keeping a close eye on the crisis in the Hadassah hospitals, and Aaron says he is getting regular updates on the situation from the women’s organization. He is optimistic that the “professionals in Israel, in New York and the Israeli government will come to the table immediately and resolve this for the benefit of those who need it most – the patients of Jerusalem and Israel.”

Aaron also rejects the notion that the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower played a role in the hospitals' staggering deficit.

“I still remain confident that this hospital tower will improve patient care, will improve the morale of the physicians, nurses and staff that work there, and that it isn’t the cause in any way of the financial problems – that it really is going to be part of the cure, going forward,” he said.

As to how his father-in-law would have viewed the present calamity, Aaron said Davidson’s main concern would have been the patients and their “unabridged access” to health care.

“I think Mr. Davidson would see this as an unfortunate opportunity, but an opportunity for improvements going forward,” Aaron said. “I don’t think Mr. Davidson would come to the table worried about his legacy. That’s not the individual he was: He didn’t make gifts for his sake; he made them for the benefit of others. He was a true philanthropist, a true entrepreneur and a true Zionist.”

Tali Murdoch