Rabbi Halberstam’s Revenge

When I first got to Laniado Medical Center in Netanya, which is an ultra-orthodox hospital, for my surgery rotation, I felt distinctly like an outsider.  Packing had been a struggle, my skirts were too short, my necklines too low, and my pants were, well, pants.

After we arrived, one of the women from the administration was taking us around.  She asked us if we had heard the story of how the hospital was founded, and when we said no, this is what she told us:

Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Halberstam lost everything in the holocaust.  He lost his wife, all of his eleven children, he lost his brothers and sisters, and almost all of his followers, the Hasidic community of Sanz.  He himself was eventually sent on a death march, where he grew weaker until he stumbled and fell.  He was shot and left behind.

He awoke, and found that he had been shot in the arm.  He was afraid to go seek medical care because he knew they would return him to the Nazis, but he remembered reading in the Talmud once that bark was good for wounds, and he peeled off some bark and bandaged his arm.  He pledged to God that if he survived the war, he would start a hospital where no patient would ever be afraid to come in, and no one would ever be turned away.

Rabbi Halberstam recovered from his wounds, although never completely, and survived the war and eventually made his way to Israel.  He remembered his pledge, and started bothering the government to let him start a hospital.  At first they only wanted him to be a chaplain, but he eventually got his way and founded a hospital in the center of his community, which was in Netanya.

They say that before the hospital opened, he closed himself in a room for hours and wrote down a list of principles for his hospital, inspired by Jewish tradition.  Everyone who works there knows those principles, she said, and therefore feels that their job is part of a mission.

I asked her what those principles were.

She admitted that she actually did not know all of them by heart, but she gave me an example.  No one is ever turned away from the hospital because of inability to pay.

I asked her if she could give me an example.

Well, she said, there was a woman from the, ah, territories.  She was pregnant with quadruplets, and she needed hospital care that she could only get within Israel, both for herself towards the end of her pregnancy, and for her babies to be in the NICU once they were born.  She and her husband were trying to find a place that would care for her, and later, her babies, but NICU care is expensive, especially for four babies, who would be incredibly premature and fragile, and she had no insurance to pay for the care.  They went from hospital to hospital until Laniado Medical Center took them in.

She told us that when the hospital finally opened, it was at first only a two bed maternity ward.  Rabbi Halberstam was in the US fundraising when the first baby was born in the hospital but they got him on the phone so he could hear the baby’s cries.  “This is my revenge,” he said, “this is my revenge.”

My skirts are still too short for this place, my pants are, well, still pants, but in the ways that matter, I belong here more than I ever could have imagined.

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