A ward of the hospital

"Shaare Zedek is a part of me," says recently retired associate director-general Nachum Pessin

nachum pessin moshe dayan 521 (photo credit: Shaare Tzedek Medical Center)
nachum pessin moshe dayan 521
(photo credit: Shaare Tzedek Medical Center)
One of Nachum Pessin’s most prominent memories of his nearly 46 years of service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center were the turbulent days in June 1967 when he was suddenly transformed from administrator to military commander – soldiering on as the Six Day War unfolded right in front of him in the safe haven of a hospital, which he had been managing for two years.
“Two shots went right into Shaare Zedek and the torpedo shells landed on the third floor. They landed right in the area where newborn babies and mothers were, but they didn’t explode,” recalls 75-year-old Pessin, who recently retired as associate director-general of the hospital. “We didn’t have elevators, we didn’t have anything, but two young soldiers took the shells from where the mothers were and walked down to the first floor with them because they were live shells – they just didn’t detonate.”
The sense of both relief and shock in Pessin’s voice is still evident, almost 44 years later.
“During the war I was considered the commander of the hospital – I was responsible to the military.
They sent in their own people just to augment our staff ,” he tells In Jerusalem.
Not only was Shaare Zedek affected by the surrounding battles, but so was the German-Evangelist Augusta Victoria Hospital, located on Mount Scopus in the area that had been in Jordanian hands. Pessin recalls that as soon as the Israeli victory was certain, Shaare Zedek’s head of surgery and the head of anesthesiology immediately drove through areas still riddled with gunfire to make sure that everything was okay at the second hospital.
“We captured Jerusalem on Wednesday,” Pessin says. “By noon they said, ‘It belongs to us; we conquered the city.’ Three hours later these guys got into a car – imagine, there were guns all over the place.
They drove up to the place, and the first thing they asked was, ‘Can we help you with anything?’ They said, ‘Yes, we need blood, plasma and powdered milkand penicillin.’ Two hours later, we sent them boxes and cartons with their request. What upset us is that we never got any formal thanks from them. Three months later we got a check from the evangelical church in California for $2,000 just ‘For your help,’ without the words ‘thank you.’” Dr. Falk Schlesinger, then director-general of the hospital, refused to accept the money because it was not accompanied by a word of thanks, Pessin explains, noting that $2,000 was quite a bit of money at the time, as the annual budget was only $1.5 million, compared to today’s $160 million.
Before his retirement a few weeks ago, Pessin was one of very few staff members left who had worked in that first Shaare Zedek building on Jaffa Road, which was opened on January 27, 1902, the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II – as it was founded and supported by German Jews. Pessin says the building had only 24 beds but was free to the public.
“When I started working at the hospital, we had under 200 beds,” says Pessin, who began his work as hospital administrator in 1965. “Today we’re considered one of the major medical centers in the country.”
Pessin had come to Israel from New York four years before – his family had emigrated from Russia to America in 1902 – and worked as the administrative director of a Bnei Akiva yeshiva. A friend recommended him to Schlesinger, who hired him first as hospital treasurer and then as administrator.
Other hospital administrators and staff members truly appreciate all the efforts Pessin has put into the institution over the years. “There is no doubt that Nachum Pessin is one of the most devoted, loyal, honest people whose services Shaare Zedek in its 109-year history has had the privilege to benefit from. He served with devotion, dedication and professionalism over a long period of time – half of it as a top administrator and half as deputy director of development,” says Shaare Zedek Director-General Prof. Jonathan Halevy.
“He can definitely take a lot of credit for the achievements that Shaare Zedek has made in our generation.”
Pessin has particularly fond memories of Schwester Selma Meyer, Shaare Zedek’s first officially registered nurse. She was brought in from Germany in 1916 by then-director-general Dr. Moshe Wallach. “I saw her every day until the day she died [in 1984]. She died on her 100th birthday. We had scheduled to make her a party, and we buried her that same day,” he says.
To Pessin, Meyer was a role model who devoted herself every day to the hospital’s welfare – a woman who dressed and appeared religious, even though she was not, to make her patients comfortable and who really gave back to the community. In 1935, she established Israel’s first nursing school so that nurses could receive their degrees in Israel.
AS THE old hospital site became too crowded and too old to meet a modern country’s needs, Pessin became chiefly responsible for bringing Shaare Zedek to its new home near Mount Herzl in Ramat Beit Hakerem, which officially opened in 1979 with 300 beds.
Schlesinger had wanted to be a part of developing the new hospital grounds, but he died in 1968 and was succeeded by Prof. David Maier from the US, who became instrumental in getting the new building under way – until he left in 1988 and was replaced by Halevy.
“Dr. Schlesinger had a very broad vision and felt that we needed to build a new hospital,” Pessin says.
“In the mid-1960s we even laid a cornerstone in Talbiyeh for the new hospital, on the grounds of a hospital called Hansen. But then the Six Day War broke out, so we decided this city was going to expand and we would find another place.”
Along with Maier, Pessin met daily with “doctors and nurses and builders and architects and God knows who” until they eventually figured out the ideal layout for the new site. The spacious plot near Mount Herzl would be perfect for these expanded needs, they decided, and Pessin’s continual efforts to attract donors have made the grounds into the 550- bed complex it is today.
“We keep building new areas and new departments,” he says.
Getting the new building under way was not an easy task, particularly when the administrative team realized that the Health Ministry did not picture the same product that Maier had envisioned for the grounds, according to Eliezer Rahat, who was the contracted programmer and project manager for the new hospital’s construction. But Maier and Pessin eventually convinced the ministry to grant approval of their plans.
“When Nachum says something, it is completely fulfilled,” Rahat says, emphasizing, however, that credit for spearheading the project goes to Maier.
Even during a crisis, Pessin’s contributions were crucial in holding their plans together, Rahat explains. The Yom Kippur War “paralyzed” much of their early site work, sending many of the construction workers and administrators to army reserve duty, and it made the site much less attractive to donors due to the instability in the region. But Pessin was able to perform “miracles,” somehow pulling the money together and leading them out of the financial crisis. ”The building went on,” Rahat says.
“We worked together much more than 10 years, until the hospital was finished and after,” adds the octogenarian. “Nachum was always reliable, helpful, very responsible, and it was very pleasant to work with him. I think his work accounts for many of the successes we had in the building.”
One of the hospital’s accomplishments that it is most proud of is its ever-increasing status as one of the hospitals that delivers the most babies in the country.
“Today we’re at 14,000 babies a year – the biggest in the country,” says Pessin, the father of six. “Until recently we were the second – Soroka was the first, and it was responsible for all the babies from the Negev to Eilat,” he says, noting that Soroka Hospital has about 800-900 beds in comparison.
He also boasts that “Today we have the biggest and probably the best heart center – Jesselson Heart Center with cardiology and cardiac surgery,” also highlighting its departments of pediatric surgery, stomach surgery, orthopedics, breast cancer and other types of oncology as first rate.
Pessin emphasizes not only the medical advancements Shaare Zedek has made during his time there but also the facility’s increased preparedness in matters of defense. Almost every year, the hospital holds drills in conjunction with the army to learn how to respond to chemical warfare.
“When we built this hospital, we built it withthoughts of the future and thoughts of chemical warfare. Thank God, to this day we haven’t had to deal with real chemical warfare.”
But just in case, the hospital was constructed with chemical “safe” areas, he says.
Aside from taking the lead in opening the new Shaare Zedek complex, Pessin was particularly pleased with a plan he initiated shortly after he came to the hospital in 1965. At the time, he says, there was no central morgue in Jerusalem, so families brought bodies to the “heder metim” (dead room) at the local hospitals.
“Every day you would see in the newspapers that there were 10 to 15 funerals [at Shaare Zedek],” Pessin says. “So it looked like so many people were dying at Shaare Zedek when it really was only two or three a week. You could hear all the crying and screaming going on, and the impression was that people came to Shaare Zedek to die. That bothered me a lot.”
So after speaking to Schlesinger, Pessin decided to reroute the funeral processions to the back of the hospital so that death didn’t seem as omnipresent to the patients. The problem was that he incurred the wrath of the neighbors.
“We did it one day and the people living across the street were annoyed, so they staged a big demonstration against me and Shaare Zedek,” Pessin recalls. “They said their children were playing Hevra Kadisha [burial society]. ‘Today I’m dead and you’re Hevra Kadisha. Tomorrow you’re dead and I’m the Hevra Kadisha.’ I understood but I didn’t give up, and the parents stopped demonstrating. A lot of people from that building moved out,” he says.
But perhaps one of his fondest memories was the time that former mayor Teddy Kollek came to the old Shaare Zedek building to visit a patient.“There was a short man there who was a guard and who would only let people come to visit between 4 and 5 p.m.,” Pessin recalls. “Teddy Kollek came in and said he wanted to see someone, but the guard said, ‘Come back between 4 and 5.’ He said, ‘But I’m Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem,’ and the guard said, ‘No, everybody tells me ‘I’m the mayor of Jerusalem.’” After a phone call to Schlesinger, who said he would escort Kollek in personally, the mayor arrived for a second time and was shooed away by the same guard, as Schlesinger was stuck on a phone call, Pessin remembers. “The guard said, ‘You’re here again? Go!” Ultimately, Schlesinger had to fix the situation himself.
“When he came out to speak to the guy, the guard said, ‘I just threw him out a second time.’ So Schlesinger got into his car and the driver took him [the guard] to Teddy’s office, where he apologized profusely.”
The hospital is in the process of building the new Wilf Children’s Hospital and has already opened its emergency pediatric center. “We expect our children’s hospital to draw a tremendous number of patients,” says Pessin.
In recent years, most of Pessin’s work has focused on fund-raising, particularly within Israel and among European nations, as well as some countries in Asia-Oceania, such as Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“We target mostly Jewish groups, but in Germany and Holland we have non-Jewish groups that are very helpful,” he says.
Today, Pessin continues to do a bit of the same thing, though he now goes in “whenever I feel like it” rather than every day.
But his office is still his, and he continues to communicate with his loyal clientele.
“Somebody called yesterday and gave us $100,000 and he wanted to speak to me – you build up a rapport with certain people,” he adds.
Impressed by Pessin’s continued commitment, Halevy says, “He volunteers and definitely contributes his time. He retired only last month so the exact framework is not set yet, but he definitely expresses his willingness to [continue here].”
As he leaves his position as associate director-general, Pessin looks back on his four-and-a-half decade term nostalgically and remains optimistic about the future. While calling the place a “traditional hospital,” he emphasizes that just as important as maintaining Jewish customs is the ideal of continuing to “treat people regardless of race, creed or tradition.”
“Shaare Zedek is a part of me. I enjoyed it,” Pessin says. “I am already proud of the hospital because I think we’ve come a tremendous way in the last 50 years. And there’s no doubt that there’s more we can do. But the more people we can treat and help and the more people who come out of here happy that they’re getting the right treatment, then to me that would be kiddush Hashem.” •