Hospitals in the U.S. and Israel: Reflections of Their Respective Societies

If American hospitals embody the melting pot, where everything blends together with conformity, Israeli hospitals showcase our distinctiveness and represent a vision of what our society might yet become.

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Illustration: Emergency room at Rambam Medical Center, Haifa.
Illustration: Emergency room at Rambam Medical Center, Haifa.Credit: Hagai Frid
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks / Jewish World blogger
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks

Public hospitals in Israel function within our universal healthcare system, mandatory for all Israeli citizens. In a 2015 Bloomberg report, Israel ranks as the sixth healthiest country in the world. The United States and United Kingdom don’t crack the top twenty. According to the World Economic Forum, the word “healthy” is open to interpretation. I would suggest that Israel’s healthiness has as much to do with the value that Judaism places on preservation of all human life, visiting the sick, and offering gratuitous acts of loving-kindness, as it does with the quality of our healthcare system.

A week ago, I awoke at 2 A.M. with a piercing pain in my lower back and in my abdomen. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I convinced myself that I had food poisoning. The culprit was some questionable hamburger meat I had grilled for dinner. Over the course of the next day, the pain only got worse. By evening, I gave up and had my wife accompany me to Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. After intake, I was given a bed, and we waited inside the emergency room to be seen by a doctor.

After an abdominal x-ray came back negative, my doctor ordered a CT scan. At this time, I started having waves of intense abdominal contractions. It was then that I had an epiphany – the hamburger was innocent. After 17 years of respite, I had a recurrence of kidney stones; for a male, the closest we get to experience the pains of childbirth, without any of the gratification from bringing forth new life.

While in the emergency room, the word I most often heard over the loudspeaker was triage, as patients were assigned priority for treatment based on assessments of the seriousness of their conditions. The large space was filled with a cross section of Jerusalem society. The staff also represented this diversity. My first doctor was ultra-Orthodox, my eventual urologist was Israeli-Arab, and my nurses were all types of Israelis. Despite the swirling chaos around us, dealing with each new crisis as it arose, the care provided was for the individuals most in need, with no regard to ethnicity or religion.

After my fever spiked the next day, I was checked in to Shaare Zedek's urology wing by Deena, a nursing student from Seattle and recent new immigrant to Israel. Deena, working the first of her back-to-back 15 hour shifts yet always had a smile, let me know that if I needed anything, Mohammed, the head nurse, was the one to ask. Mohammed, I learned the next morning, after finishing his night shift, was off by bus to Rehovot for advanced nursing training.

My stay in the hospital was marked by a continuous stream of volunteers offering small and so appreciated acts of chesed, loving-kindness, such as a set of tefillin (phylacteries) for prayer, with a choice of Sephardi or Ashkenazi models, for those of us who arrived without. There were religious high school girls with pens and paper for us to write prayers for ourselves and others who were ill, for them to insert into the Western Wall on our behalf, beseeching on High, a Refuah Shlema, a complete recovery for all in need. And I didn’t have to order a kosher meal because all the food served at the hospital is kosher, including special diets.

In a recent Jewish Week article, Jonathan Mark looks back at the history of Jewish hospitals in America. Jews Hospital in New York was established in 1852 to provide a safe haven for Jewish patients who were targeted in other hospitals by Christian missionaries for deathbed conversions. Additionally, Jewish doctors and nurses were often denied employment elsewhere because of anti-Semitism.

By the 1960’s and 70’s protesters were sitting in at Jewish Federation offices and events demanding that community funds being expended to prop up Jewish hospitals be reallocated to more critical needs, such as freeing Soviet Jewry and supporting Jewish education. In 1973, Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, president of the American Jewish Congress, prophetically said, “If Jews are to survive as a people, the content of Jewish life must be filled with something more than building hospitals”

Today, the original Jewish hospitals, such as Beth Israel and Mt. Sinai in New York, are connected Jewishly in name only. These institutions have prospered, expanded and been assimilated into the American melting pot, as have most Jews living in the United States. True, you can still have kosher food in those hospitals, but you need to pre-order it, among other menu options. Yes, you can still seek comfort from a rabbi, but you can also be consoled by any other number of religious chaplains on staff.

If America is a melting pot, Israel is a cholent/hamin, the stew we put up on Friday afternoon to slow cook and have for Shabbat lunch. In a melting pot everything blends together with conformity a result and value. In a cholent, even after cooking overnight, the carrot is still a carrot, the potato a potato, and so on. As Jews, we could not have it any other way.

Our distinctiveness and our values shine in our Israeli hospitals. They represent a hope and a vision of what our society might yet become.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a member of the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.