Warding off the inevitable?

Amid resignations, mismanagement, a surprising lack of outrage, haredim are working behind the scenes to save Bikur Cholim Hospital.

Bikur Holim hospital 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Bikur Holim hospital 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
To all outward appearances, the maternity ward of Bikur Cholim Hospital is starting a new week of business as usual, but the calm expression on the staff’s faces belies a lot of anxiety and even a little anger.
“When [Arkadi] Gaydamak bought the hospital, I thought all the problems were behind us; but my husband was skeptical, and now I see that he was right and I was naïve,” says Nava, a nurse who is about to start her shift.
Outside the ward, seven haredi men are waiting for their wives to give birth, perhaps unaware of the very real threat that this historical institution may be about to close down.
Bikur Cholim, the oldest hospital in the city, where 600 babies are born every year, is faced with the threat of closure due to its NIS 30 million deficit, a sum many believe is too low to warrant the shutting down of the only hospital in the city center.
In the middle of last month, Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman obtained a commitment from the Treasury to pay the staff’s wages until the end of April. But if a solution is not found by then, the hospital will close.
Bikur Cholim caters largely to the local haredi population (and a large number of Arab residents).
Litzman and Finance Committee head Moshe Gafni are both from the haredi United Torah Judaism party, and Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) is also haredi.
While there is no question – among haredi leaders as well – that the hospital has suffered from mismanagement for decades, including cases of misuse of funds, representatives of the haredi community assert that they are not ready to see it shut down. But so far, the Treasury has refused to provide funds to cover the large debt, arguing that there is no evidence yet that the hospital’s administration has improved.
Another recent blow was the resignation of Prof.
Yoram Blachar as chairman of the nonprofit organization that runs the hospital. At a meeting of the Knesset Finance Committee, he said the hospital’s situation was not going to improve as long as it was not properly managed, and thus he recommended closing it down. In a phone conversation with In Jerusalem, Litzman called Blachar’s declaration “a chutzpah, a stab in my back!” Blachar had been appointed by Litzman to replace former chairman Dudi Zilbershlag.
The feeling among the various representatives of the haredi streams involved is that the hospital is not considered important by the Treasury and that its closure is not perceived as a problem, while in the haredi community closure is considered inconceivable.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shlomo Poppenheim, a respected figure in the Eda Haredit who has been trying to find solutions to enable the hospital to stay open, was appointed acting chairman of the organization that runs the hospital.
“A rehabilitation plan for the hospital was recently submitted to the Treasury,” says Litzman’s spokesman, Ya’akov Izaak, who says there are indications that the plan has a good chance of being accepted this time. “We are working in many directions, hoping to find a solution soon, be it with a private investor or through government support.”
In the renewed contacts with Gaydamak, a new figure has appeared – the rabbi of Sadigura, a resident of Ramat Gan who, through his grandson Rabbi Shalom Friedman, is working on what Litzman calls The Gaydamak Plan 2. “It is based on fixing the problems of the first round of the agreement, learning from there which mistakes we should not repeat,” Izaak explains.
Basically, explains Friedman’s closest assistant, Rabbi Netanel Piterman, the plan is to persuade the Finance Ministry to match Gaydamak’s offer.
“Gaydamak is prepared to legally forgo the rent the hospital owes him – which is about NIS 30 million – and to support the hospital for a few more years. But this is not going to happen if the Treasury keeps refusing to match it. Mr. Gaydamak is not a religious man, but he said in my presence that he wants to help and hopes the hospital will live for another 120 years. But for the professionals at the Treasury, it seems this hospital has no right to live.”
In the meantime, the clock is ticking and the threat of closure is hanging over the heads of the 700 hospital employees and thousands of patients.
DR. RAPHAEL Pollack, the director of Bikur Cholim, says that in the current situation, managing the hospital is “a new and different challenge every day.”
Pollack admits he is worried because, despite serious efforts to save the hospital from closure, he is not sure it won’t happen. “One of my patients recently told me that at the beginning of each of her 12 pregnancies she was told that the hospital would soon close; but all her children were born here, so she is not sure she should worry. I can understand people who don’t believe this threat is serious, but I am worried because the fact that it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean we’re really safe.”
Pollack adds that he is aware of and appreciates the efforts of many people from Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as Rabbi Friedman, who is close to Gaydamak. Pollack says that he and Friedman have reason to believe that there are many people at the Finance Ministry who want to see Bikur Cholim closed. Regarding Gaydamak, Pollack says there are serious signs that the Russian oligarch is willing to waive his demand that the hospital pay its outstanding rent (the famous NIS 32 million debt), but he expects the state to match the sum, “which we haven’t obtained yet,” says Pollack.
For Litzman, there is no doubt that the Treasury is the main culprit in this situation.
“This hospital has to stay open, under any circumstances,” says Litzman. “The Treasury is putting a lot of pressure on us – it says the hospital doesn’t have the right to exist anymore. It’s a disgrace! So far, we have obtained funds for two additional months, and I am still trying to obtain more, but it can’t go on this way. It is unacceptable. I have also obtained a commitment from Gaydamak to continue supplying the hospital with money, but only for another year and a half, and he insists that the state match his investment.
The only real problem is that the Treasury believes that this hospital, which serves a large population and is the only one in Jerusalem’s city center, doesn’t deserve to exist! As far as the Treasury is concerned, since the hospital is not sustaining itself, it should be shut down. Since when is a hospital closed for financial reasons?” Sources in the haredi community and Litzman himself agree that the only thing that can save Bikur Cholim from a premature death is a private investor.
CLEARLY, AN all-out effort is being made behind the scenes to save the hospital. But since not everyone in the haredi community is aware of this, the lack of outrage among haredim remains perplexing.
In a sector that does not usually shy away from protest, the relative calm leading up to the threatened closure of this highly valued facility is surprising, to say the least.
Where are the thousands of Bikur Cholim clients who should be taking to the streets of Geula and Mea She’arim to warn the government against even considering closing down the hospital? Haim Miller, a deputy mayor during Ehud Olmert’s term and a Ger Hassid, believes the apparent apathy is a result of the friction within the haredi community.
“They are so divided that it paralyzes them sometimes,” he says wryly. “Don’t worry. If and when the situation becomes serious, we will take to the streets, no doubt about it.”
But Miller also believes that the lack of outcry stems from political reasons. “I don’t believe Bikur Cholim will be closed down, but I’m sure Litzman could do more. He probably will, but in the meantime he doesn’t seem to be succeeding.”
Miller clarifies that “the hospital’s dire situation is a result of the deplorable way the Porush family managed it. [Meir] Porush [a Boyan Hassid] failed to be elected mayor of Jerusalem because the Ger Hassidim let him down at the last minute. Since then, peace has been somewhat forced on the parties. But Litzman is a Ger Hassid, so he is probably enjoying watching how some of his opponents in the Porush camp are anguishing over how close Bikur Cholim is to closing.”
City councillor Yossi Deitsch (UTJ), who for many years was Meir Porush’s closest assistant, doesn’t seem too concerned about the hospital’s impending closure. “That’s the way of haredim.
Until something is finally closed, we just don’t believe it’s going to happen. As long as the hospital is open and accepting patients, no one believes it might really close down.”
Deitsch dismisses the idea that people are avoiding protesting because they fear the powerful Porush family. Deitsch, who will soon become a deputy mayor, believes a solution will be found.
“I really can’t imagine that the people in charge, especially Deputy Minister Litzman, will let it go that far. I’m sure all the parties involved will find a way to overcome all the difficulties for the benefit of the residents, even if it’s at the last minute.”
A representative of the Porush family could not be reached for comment.
MK MOSHE Gafni, head of the Knesset Finance Committee, is from the same faction as Litzman, but the two are not on good terms, to put it mildly. This is perhaps why Gafni stresses that he is doing his utmost to save the hospital. “Litzman and I are working together in full harmony to save Bikur Cholim,” he emphasizes.
However, Gafni adds that before any support can be obtained from the government, the hospital will have to prove that a new administration is capable of managing it properly, “so that we won’t have to find money again within a few months.”
According to Litzman, the Treasury is not even ready to hear about the plan he has prepared to save the hospital. “I guess they are afraid that once Gaydamak is out of the business within less than two years, the financial burden will fall on the state,” he says, adding that “for the Treasury, only finances matter.”
Asked why the haredi street is not up in arms over the threat of closure, Litzman answers, “On the contrary, the haredi community, like everybody else, is very concerned.” This shouldn’t be considered a haredi issue, he adds.
“The haredi street is in an awkward position on this issue,” says a source within the community. “First, because a large proportion of those who use Bikur Cholim’s services are members of the Eda Haredit, which doesn’t accept any money from the state, so they cannot protest against the Treasury or the Health Ministry. The second reason is that those who are not members of the Eda Haredit don’t feel comfortable protesting on this issue, since Bikur Cholim’s problems date from the Porush family’s management, and they are a very powerful clan.”
The man currently in charge of the behind-the-scenes talks about Bikur Cholim’s fate is Poppenheim, who is trying to find a private investor to buy the hospital from Gaydamak and transform it into a private haredi hospital that would be able to stand on its feet without any official state support.
“There are some successful examples in the country, and this is what we are trying to achieve,” says a haredi source. “There are some names already; but it’s so sensitive that at this stage, no name will be revealed.”
Another reason for this discretion is unfinished business with the Treasury. “The parties involved do not want to be dependent on state funding; but on the other hand, who would agree to take over a hospital that has so much debt and no income? So everything has to be done carefully, slowly and very discreetly.”
According to a source close to Poppenheim, even a member of Shas has been involved in trying to find solutions. At a particularly dramatic meeting with Poppenheim (a declared non- Zionist haredi) and in the presence of Deputy Finance Minister Cohen, a member of Shas, Litzman requested that Zilbershlag resign as chairman of the board, which Zilbershlag agreed to do immediately. Litzman then promised to obtain at least NIS 20 million from the Treasury. The rest – about NIS 10 million – was to be obtained from a private non-haredi body, which would agree to get involved, for business purposes, with a group of haredim, some of them openly non-Zionists.
“The problem is finding a private investor who will agree to not only take the risk of resuscitating the hospital and turning it into a profitable business but also to maintain its haredi character,” explains the source. “Litzman certainly doesn’t want to be remembered as the first haredi deputy health minister who couldn’t prevent the closure of a hospital in Israel – and a haredi one at that,” continues the source. “But on the other hand, there is so much passion and so many old quarrels and controversies, that sometimes the feeling is that solutions might be turned down because of these intrigues.”