Busy Lady: The Grandmother of 17 Who Heads Up PR for ... Hadassah

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For almost 15 years, Barbara Sofer felt she’d landed one of the best jobs in Israel. Recently, it’s become one of the most challenging – and one that makes it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Sofer is the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America (HWZOA). That job puts her at the center of the unfolding crisis at Jerusalem’s dual-campus Hadassah Hospital, leaving her in the difficult position of having to explain how they got into this 1.3 billion shekel ($370 million) deficit crisis, and how they ought to get out.

“I have lost sleep over this,” Sofer acknowledges over a cup of coffee. “It takes over your life. You’re on call pretty much around the clock.” These days, she often wakes while it’s still dark out, leaving her home in Jerusalem early enough to make it to Tel Aviv by 6:30 A.M. to be on one of the national morning interview programs. And then she’s on call throughout the workday in the United States, meaning she’s answering her phone until 1 A.M., when it’s 6 P.M. on the East Coast. Amidst the intensity, Sofer, 64, makes time to swim four or five times a week (“it’s the secret to my energy”) and manages the full-time schedule of a “working grandmother,” as she calls it, helping out with some of her 17 grandchildren.

Conflicting narratives

To walk in her shoes is to hold conflicting narratives, something that probably only someone who used to be a full-time journalist can do so deftly. On the one hand, she is fiercely proud of the work that Hadassah has done. On the other, there is no denying that many mistakes were made on the way to the bankruptcy protection court. Earlier this month, the Hadassah Medical Center filed for Section 350, analogous to filing for Chapter 11, and its senior officials are scrambling for a recovery plan that the hospital, the Americans who help fund it, and the Israeli government can all live with.

Who is to blame for those mistakes, of course, is exactly the kind of question that depends on where you sit. To Sofer, a Jerusalem Post columnist and author who agreed to try out the Hadassah job for a year when a headhunter convinced her to take it in 1999, the crisis has allowed everyone to declare open season on the organization Henrietta Szold founded in 1912.

“People are looking for reasons to criticize everyone but themselves,” says Sofer, who grew up in Connecticut and moved to Israel with her husband, a physicist, in 1971. “People say, ‘Oh, the women of Hadassah built this tower,’ instead of saying, ‘Isn’t is amazing that the women were able to raise the money to build this tower considering the financial situation in America?’” she says, referring to the 19-floor, 500-bed Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower opened last year. “There are people who say it’s too big, too luxurious, but I have no trouble speaking to the benefits of this tower.”

Before it was built, she says, there were wards in which five or six critically ill patients had to share a room – and one bathroom. Renovating the structure built in 1962 just wasn’t logical. But the government’s attitude towards Jerusalemites has always been a bit dismissive, she says, as if it’s fine for the simple folk here to live with such overcrowding.

“The tower brought money to Jerusalem. It brought donations, it brought a huge amount of work to the city. It is the medicine of the future,” she says. “Although our president now says that had we realized that we were going into such a financial crunch, we would have opened it in stages.” The tower cost $363 million, $50 million of which still needs to be raised, she says. The women of Hadassah, whose current membership stands at 330,000, always saw their role as fundraising in the United States, not micro-managing in Israel, Sofer says.Looming over the crisis is the NIS 75,000-a-month severance package given to Prof. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, who left his position as director general in 2010 after a bitter battle with HWZOA. Sofer says that crisis, which began in 2008, was a more difficult period than this one: She couldn’t say a word about it in public.

Making the case

“The policy then was that we would all say, ‘No comment.’ Now we’ve decided to make our case, and to say, very clearly, what we’ve done and why we think the government has to step in to help the hospital and the people of Jerusalem,” Sofer says. “People twist that and make it sound as if we’re asking for something peculiar. Part of the spin in Israel is to deflect responsibility from the government, which won’t allow the hospital to reopen its agreements with the kupot [HMOs]. But we simply do not make enough money per patient to cover costs. The State of Israel has never built a public hospital in Jerusalem, and has always relied on private donations to give health care. So the state has been freed of the billions of dollars needed to build, to do research, to do development.”

Hadassah wants the government to kick in more, but not to take over the whole shop.

“Hadassah isn’t asking the government for a specific sum, but to open its agreements with the health funds and to change the ‘cap’ so that fees cover services. We’re also asking the government to address the unique expenses that Hadassah Medical Center has, because it’s also an academic institution, taking responsibility for medical education together with Hebrew University.”

Lately Sofer has been facing off against politicians and Health Ministry officials who suggest that the state simply take over Hadassah and nationalize it.

“My answer is that we’re not so impressed with the way the government runs its hospitals. Second, we have invested billions in creating one of the best medical institutions in the Middle East, one of the best in the world, and we find it audacious to say, ‘Let’s just take it away.’”

Given this climate, some of the less dedicated among their donors may be feeling skittish about giving. “As you can imagine, the current attacks in the news are not helpful in fundraising,” she says. And rather than simply give, as they did years ago, donors today are very specific in what they want to give for – oncology, pediatrics, cardiology. Perhaps a wing in a loved one’s memory. “It makes sense that people want to give to something that resonates for them. But is also means it’s impossible to raise for upkeep.” She pauses. “Most people in Hadassah believe we’re going through very difficult times, and we’ll get through it.”

An empty corridor at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, Feb. 10, 2014.Credit: Michal Fattal
Barbara Sofer.Credit: Ilene Prusher

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