The operation was Fano’s only hope. With a back twisted 110 degrees and getting worse, the teen would likely contract a lethal pneumonia and die. His parents, who lived in a village with no electricity 200 kilometers from the nearest hospital, were told such complex surgery was impossible in Ethiopia — a country of 100 million people.
That is, until the Hadassah team flew in from Jerusalem: spine surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurse experts. They brought to Ethiopia their expertise, their equipment and their spirit of optimism.
These were the very things that characterized Hadassah ever since Henrietta Szold toured Jerusalem nearly 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel and found a hopeless, destitute population where children had flies in their eyes and women died in childbirth.
“The entire team volunteered to do this,” said Dr. Josh Schroeder, a spine surgeon and one of the mission’s organizers. “The spirit of Hadassah has always been outreach to the hopeless.”
After seven hours of surgery, the jubilant local hospital staff prepared a traditional celebration of coffee and popcorn to thank the Hadassah team.
Fano’s back was straight. By tomorrow he’d be up walking.
Now, as Israel approaches its 70th birthday, the role of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America — the legendary women’s volunteer group Szold founded to bring modern medicine to pre-State Israel is more resonant than ever.
Even before the group of women Zionists started Hadassah in a New York City synagogue in 1912, Szold had already created institutions and broken gender barriers. She started the first night school for immigrants in the United States. She studied at Jewish Theological Seminary at a time when the notion of female clergy was unheard of.
“That’s why Hadassah was ahead of our time empowering women,” said Hadassah National President Ellen Hershkin.
In 1913, just a year after Hadassah’s founding, the organization had already dispatched two American nurses to deal with immediate needs: preventing infant blindness, teaching midwives to wash their hands, distributing pasteurized milk through the Tipat Halav [literally, ‘A Drop of Milk’] baby clinic that they established and that quickly became a network throughout the country.
From 1912 up until the creation of the State of Israel, Hadassah continued to establish clinics and hospitals in cities such as Tiberias, Safed, Beersheba, and Tel Aviv.
“One of their most remarkable achievements was establishing 100 years ago the first post-high school education for women, a school for nursing,” said Hershkin.
400 women applied for the 40 spots in the first nursing class. The graduates revolutionized public health and Szold moved to Jerusalem to shepherd the school’s development.
“Henrietta Szold’s concept was that you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to fight in the political arena.’ That may be important, but equally important was building a movement that would create the infrastructure in medicine and education for the future State of Israel,” said Barbara Goldstein, Deputy Director of Hadassah’s Offices in Israel.
Szold went to US medical schools to recruit heads of departments and senior nursing professionals, who rallied to her challenge. Other experts arrived from Europe, fleeing Hitler, and knowing they could work in their professions in Hadassah’s hospitals.
In the early 1930s Hadassah launched a campaign to fund the Hadassah Mt. Scopus University Medical Center.
“The fundraising campaign was launched during Great Depression,” said Goldstein. “When I think about it, they had to have been crazy. People didn’t even have food — and yet they achieved it.”
Together, Hadassah and the Hebrew University take pride in the generations of graduates of their nursing, dental and medical schools, which have provided the State of Israel with advanced medical professionals throughout the country.
Perseverance under extreme adversity
On April 13, 1948, one month before Israel declared independence, a convoy of doctors, nurses and patients on their way to the Mt. Scopus campus was ambushed by hostile Arab forces, despite having displayed clear medical markings on their vehicles.
Seventy-eight men and women, including Hadassah Director General Chaim Yassky, were murdered. The hospital staff and patients moved into temporary quarters in empty buildings in downtown Jerusalem, while Mt. Scopus remained as an outpost in Israeli hands during the War of Independence and until the 1967 Six Day War.
With the declaration of statehood, Hadassah passed on its clinics and most of its hospitals to the government of Israel as a foundation for health care, though the Hadassah organization maintained ownership of the Jerusalem medical center.
Prime minister David Ben-Gurion offered the president of Hadassah land in Ein Kerem to build a new medical center,promising that “the city will move out to you.’”
In 1961, the doors of the iconic Ein Kerem campus opened, and became the center of healing, teaching and research that has made it world famous. The orthopedic department which dispatched specialists to Ethiopia, for example, is the only member of the exclusive International Society of Orthopedic Centers in the Middle East.
In 2012, Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America celebrated a centennial birthday by unveiling the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Hospital Tower, a 500-bed facility on the Ein Kerem campus that houses 20 operating theaters and represents the cutting edge of medicine. The world’s first double-computer surgery took place there recently.
With seemingly endless needs, it is imperative to continue building. Today Hadassah has launched a campaign to modernize the iconic round building at Hadassah Ein Kerem.
But Hadassah isn’t all about technology.
Trauma coordinator nurse Julie Benbenishty likes to think of a case with an unexpected ending.
“We had a patient five years ago, who was — well, at that time she was an American tourist — and she was crushed between two buses at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem,” Benbenishty said.
The bottom half of the patient’s body was pulverized, and she ended up spending nearly half a year in the hospital. The staff at Hadassah Medical Center assisted her family, who were not Jewish and who lived in Arkansas, upon their arrival in Jerusalem.
The woman eventually returned home, and after a year of intense rehabilitation, resumed her studies at Wellesley College. But the story doesn’t end there.
“She finished her degree at Wellesley, came back to Israel, converted to Judaism, and she made aliyah. Now she’s doing her master’s degree in public health at Hebrew University,” Benbenishty said. “She did her thesis on the therapeutic relationship between nurses and patients.”
Says Hershkin, “Our commitment to Zionism has been passed down with pride from generation to generation. Whether in Israel or Ethiopia, Hadassah’s pledge to make ours a better world is what motivates us.”
This article is sponsored by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.