It’s taken $363 million — so far — to build Hadassah’s ambitious Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem. The five-year project, named for the mother of the late Detroit billionaire and sports team owner Bill Davidson, was inaugurated last week during Hadassah’s centennial celebrations, despite some final touches — such as a lack of seating for the healing corners, construction debris strewn in the glass elevators and a few missing name plaques — that have yet to be completed.
But what’s amazing, said Bonnie Lipton, Hadassah’s building chair and a past president who has been part of the tower planning team from the start, is that the 19-story structure, with 500 beds, 20 operating rooms, 60 intensive care unit beds and a state-of-the-art heart institute, was completed “within the scheduled time frame and within budget.”
Given the organization’s ongoing financial crisis, stemming from a court-settled agreement to pay back $45 million to the victims of imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff — Hadassah had invested with Madoff and was one of the organizations that profited from his Ponzi scheme – the completion of the building is a considerable accomplishment.
The Madoff settlement necessitated Hadassah’s sale of several major real estate holdings, including its midtown New York City offices and multi-million Young Judea youth hostel complex in southern Jerusalem, as well as the closure of Merkaz Hamagshimim, the residential community center for young US immigrants that had been rented in the capital’s Baka neighborhood.
While the budget for the tower came from fundraising and had nothing to do with the Madoff-caused financial crisis, it hasn’t been an easy time for the national women’s organization, confirmed Lipton.
I walked through the new building last week with the 72-year-old Lipton, a short, voluble presence who is familiar with every tile, sign and corner of the complex. As we made our way from the high-ceilinged foyer with its centrally located information desk and wheelchairs at the ready for the less ambulatory patients, she was repeatedly stopped by Hadassah visitors touring the facility, as well as the doctors and personnel who were leading the tours.
“You did it, Bonnie,” some said. “Mazal tov.”
It’s a bittersweet victory for Lipton, who took stewardship of Hadassah in 1999 during a tumultuous period in her life. It was shortly after she began treatment for breast cancer while also caring for her husband Alan, who had suffered severe brain damage in a ski accident. Alan Lipton died in 2007, four years after she completed her Hadassah presidency, but it didn’t stop people from calling her a bad wife for taking on such a public position.
Serving at the helm of Hadassah was intense, said Lipton, and particularly overwhelming given her family story as well the developing security situation in Israel, which was grappling with the second intifada.
That said, there was never really a question that Lipton would take the job, as it was something she worked toward for many years and her husband had supported throughout their marriage. Hadassah, she said, is her extended family.
“It’s not like any other presidency because we’re a membership organization,” said Lipton. “There are the ties to the people you’re working with, here at the hospital. The hands on with the projects. I’ve been with this from the start.”
And so, every corner of the new tower reminded Lipton of that link — not just the first-floor heritage center where virtual books illustrate the trajectory of Hadassah history. As she moved from floor to floor, pointing out the “smart” elevators, private patient safes in each closet and floor-to-ceiling original photos of Israeli nature in each patient room, her attitude was more maternal homeowner than “Extreme Makover.”
“How are you feeling? Is it okay if we just take a peek at the bathroom?” she asked one patient on pregnancy bedrest in the Gynecology Department, astutely taking in the boxes of cereal set on the room’s window seat and deducing that the patient had been ensconced for some time. “You see? These are all the things I wanted in the bathrooms,” she said, pointing out the comfortable shower, chrome-fauceted bidet and multiple hooks to hang towels, toiletry bags and hospital gowns.
Perhaps it’s due to the time Lipton spent as a patient, or that her husband did. She knows that hospital rooms aren’t hotel rooms, but she likes the fact that each room now has only two patients, instead of five, with as a window for each patient, private closet and working safe. She’s pleased that the doctors now have a full office on the floor, and that the hallways are relatively short, thanks to advice she got from nurses on a tour of a Los Angeles hospital.
“Every decision takes time from start to finish,” she said. “We didn’t want five patients in a room, and while we knew people come here for the quality of care [rather than the accomodations], certain things are just not acceptable.”
“We wanted it to be light,” continued Lipton. “We wanted people to smile. You know, it’s a hospital, but we didn’t want them to come in and just say it’s bad enough I’m here, it’s so depressing. So we wanted it to just kind of embrace you and still to feel like you’re confident that you’re in a hospital, that we do our business properly, that we know what we’re doing and want to do it in a very visitor and patient-friendly way.”
For the Hadassah women, there was also the need to publicly recognize those who donated the funds that made the project possible. And so, the plaque project began. For the Davidsons, two plaques on facing walls describe the mother for whom the tower is named and the son who donated the money in her name. On another wall, there is a Holocaust-themed sculpture in the name of the Shappell family, which funded the entrance atrium. Around the corner is a wall for Hadassah past presidents, including the Hadassah logo, in a first for a Hadassah building.
In the new synagogue, donated by Mexico’s Masri family in the name of their son and family who were killed in a car accident, many of the seats were donated by Hadassah chapters. In the original synagogue, in which the Chagall windows still hang, donors can pay for the refurbishment of each window. Up on the patient floors, medallions are hung below the number outside each door, announcing who made that room possible.
“It’s prominent,” said Lipton of the plaques and the Hadassah logo on one wall. “We never used to have a place for plaques.” But times change and so can this 100-year-old organization. People need their recognition, said Lipton, “and this is what we do.”
That said, the dozens of Israeli patients and visitors frequenting the hospital don’t notice the plaques as they walk past, making their way to doctors’ offices and patient rooms. And Lipton doesn’t expect them to.
“Israelis don’t understand that Hadassah women ‘own’ the hospital,” she said. “We have to take the opportunity to explain, without hitting them over the head. Then they say, ‘Oh, I had no idea.’”
It’s not about the financial recognition, emphasized Lipton, who tells a story about encouraging her daughter to visit Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus when she studied at the nearby Hebrew University. Her daughter wasn’t all that interested, but after she finally went, she told her mother that what moved her was seeing her family’s name among hundreds of other names, showing her “just how many people had worked to build this hospital,” said Lipton.
That’s what the tower represents, said Lipton. Working with Hadassah is “a certain kind of inner satisfaction that offers a real sense of peoplehood,” she said. “It’s not just an expression. You have an understanding of your link in Jewish history.”