Time travel in Israel

A story 56 years in the making


On a recent trip to Israel, I knew where I wanted to go first: 56 years into my past.

At age 16, on a Young Judaea summer tour, I attended the Aug. 3, 1960, dedication of the Hadassah Medical Center in the Ein Kerem area of southwest Jerusalem. I was in distinguished company. The speakers included Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and U.S. Ambassador Ogden Reid, and the scene was awash in color. Did I mention that Golda Meir and Abba Eban also were there?

I wanted to revisit the hospital because I wanted to see how large the campus had grown. I wanted to see the famous Chagall windows, which were planned then, but not installed until 1962. I wanted to see the names of two of my mother’s friends inscribed on a wall of recognition. And most of all, I wanted to get a more complete understanding of exactly how that 1960 ceremony unfolded. I needed to read more about it and go back and let it wash over me.

The dedication took place on a clear, hot day, a landmark day in the history of Israel, which the clunky language of my teenage journal only began to capture:

“At first, while people were congregating, it looked as though it was one giant national or international donor lunceon (sic) of Hadassah ladies – especially with the rich ones from the U.S.

However, when the ceremonies began among much color – two bands and flags of all U.S. states, Canada, & Israel – & the dignitaries began to arrive, the program became more serious and meaningful.

The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Ogden Reid, arrived among bursts of applause and the band played the American National Anthym (sic) which was sung by all the patriotically proud Americans.

Later Ben Gurion & (President Itzhak) Ben-Zvi came & then the speech-making started. Mr. Reid gave a beautiful address in Hebrew & then English & other speakers included the Minister of Health, and David Ben-Gurion.

(At an indoor snack buffet) I managed to get several good Polaroid shots of the VIPS and most Israelis seemed carried away.”

Approaching the medical center on a cool, drizzly day in April, I could see even at a distance that the campus had grown exponentially since 1960, its original core now surrounded by a maze of other structures, a virtual city with a world-class reputation. 

Indeed, the Ein Kerem facility now also has a sister campus on Jerusalem’s Mt. Scopus. A Hadassah hospital opened there in 1939, but in the aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence, it became an insolated enclave in Jordanian-held territory and Hadassah’s operations relocated to scattered temporary facilities. Israel regained control of the territory in 1967’s Six Day War and the Mt. Scopus hospital was modernized and reopened in the 1970s.

The Ein Kerem campus was built before anyone could be sure that the Mt. Scopus facility would ever be accessible again. The first patients at Ein Kerem did not arrive until 1961, so you might say the hospital I saw in 1960 lacked a pulse. Today you see a blur of patients, doctors and visitors moving through the lobbies, a marvelous ballet punctuated now and then by Orthodox men in black coats and hats talking on their cell phones. 

A grim reminder of Israel’s realities is that the Hadassah hospital has operating rooms well below ground level so work can go on even during a bomb raid. 

The hospital is Jewish, but its clientele is eclectic, including Christians and Arabs. A red and white ambulance parked outside on this day was from the Palestine Red Crescent Society, which serves patients from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

At the dedication in 1960, a foundation stone was laid in what would become the hospital synagogue, graced since 1962 by 12 brilliantly conceived stained-glass windows designed by the gifted Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Daylight filters through. They are ablaze with color and rich detail, inspired by biblical images and blessings, showcasing the sons of Jacob and tribes of Israel. They are breathtaking. 

The stone floor of the Hadassah hospital synagogue is below ground. When you look up at the windows – high inside the synagogue, but actually at ground level outdoors – you might catch the shadow of a person striding by. It is an odd sensation, similar to sitting in a skyscraper and being startled to glimpse a window washer outside.

In the synagogue, at the bimah, our host, Barbara Goldstein, of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, blessed my wife Elizabeth and me, and together we said a Shehecheyanu prayer of gratitude for living to see this day. Elizabeth was moved to tears.

Becky Peretz, the hospital’s development coordinator, accompanied us to the outdoor Wall of Healing, where contributors can pay to have names inscribed. Admirers of Fall River’s Ida Kavolsky and Sarah Jacobson saw to it that they would be so honored.  The devotion of these two women to Hadassah was shared by their friend, my mother, Anna Horvitz Bakst, who, shortly after college, joined in 1932.

The courtyard where the 1960 hospital dedication was held was far quieter on my recent visit. I didn’t see any state flags this time, and I doubt many people are even aware there’d been a ceremony there. But it certainly was big news at the time. I knew back then that this was a place worth celebrating because our Young Judaea group – YJ was sponsored by Hadassah – had toured the facility on July 14. My diary reported, “This morning we visited Hadassah’s fantastic 25 million-dollar medical center, which is as yet uncompleted, in the Judean hills. The hospital will be the largest and best equipped of all Asia.” 

Although I have seen other references to this price tag, I’ve also seen different figures. For example, the New York Times said, “Hadassah is contributing $22 million to the hospital and the [Hebrew] university is raising $7,400,000 for the medical school.”  

In any case, the Aug. 4, 1960, Jerusalem Post nicely captured the splendor of the occasion:

“A complex of buildings rising in the Judean Hills – the massive, $30 million Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Centre above (the village of) Ein Kerem – was dedicated yesterday with a grandiose ceremony, resembling a devotional service. It was the Hadassah Women Zionist Organization’s great day.

The two-and-a-half hour ceremony, which began at 4:30, as the sun set the surrounding hills aglow, was attended by practically all the leaders of the State of Israel, distinguished visitors, and an audience of over 2,000, half of whom had journeyed from the U.S. for the event.”

The Americans included 400 Hadassah “pilgrims.” A travel agency ad in the Hadassah Newsletter months earlier urged women to join in as it offered a flight and two weeks in Israel for $770, or they could sail on the S.S. Independence, from $1,112. “BRING YOUR HUSBANDS,”  the ad said.

The newsletter’s September issue, reporting on the dedication, noted that the ceremony began with an announcer saying:  “Three times each year did our ancestors go up in pilgrimage to the Temple of the Lord in the place that He had chosen – Jerusalem, the Holy City, with mountains round about it…It is a pilgrimage procession that winds its way now up this hill towards this Temple of Healing.’’  

The procession included Hadassah women and friends of Hebrew University. Participants marched past the many flags. 

The newsletter reported: 

“As they took their seats, a cooler breeze sprang up as if to welcome them … Israel’s flag seemed to rise to meet the sky.

The shadows grew longer, the hills seemed to melt into one another and the blocks of stone in the walls of the building began to glow that rosy-golden hue that one sees only here at twilight.

A narrator declared, ‘This mighty center of healing, research and teaching is the flowering, the peak of years of labor and love.’ ”

Various dignitaries arrived and spoke, Ben-Gurion foremost among them. He praised Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold as the greatest American Jewish woman ever.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the prime minister said he hoped the hospital would induce the finest Jewish doctors and scientists from everywhere, especially the United States, to settle in Israel.  He declared, “The Jewish genius, which in ancient times was revealed primarily in the spheres of religious faith and supreme human morality, is in our time broadening its scope and demonstrating its capacity in the field of science and research.’’

The festivities included the sounds of Hatikvah and prayers and the ringing of a bell modeled on the Liberty Bell, inscribed, “Proclaim ye healing throughout the land.”

My 16-year-old self may not have absorbed all this. But now, as I reflect, I can see that it all fit together and that the ceremony was, in fact, a kind of fulfillment of Hatikvah itself:

“So long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost - the hope of two thousand years: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

The psalmist would say this was, indeed, a day the Lord had made, a day to rejoice and be glad in it.  My recent visit there was such a day, too.

M. CHARLES BAKST of Providence is the retired political columnist of the Providence Journal. Two former Journal colleagues, Dave Reid and Lu Cribari, provided additional research.