Can a regional medical center born of a need to serve 19th-century Jewish patients shunned for treatment elsewhere reclaim its birthright in the new millennium?
Barry Freedman, president and CEO of Einstein Healthcare Network, is working on it. Serving the expanding facility, with 1,250 beds and more than 2,000 employed and affiliated physicians, residents and fellows for the past eight years, Freedman finds value in the maxim that everything old is new again.
Restoring Einstein — started as the Jewish Hospital in 1866 in West Philadelphia, miles from its current anchor location in the city's Olney section — to its ethnic tenets is of prime concern to Freedman, 63, who has stressed the need for more Jewish communal connections and involvement among staff and executives.
He puts his mantra where his mouth is: The former president of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, Freedman is a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and of the Jewish Publishing Group, which oversees the Jewish Exponent. He was also instrumental in making Einstein the primary sponsor of last year's JCC Maccabi Games, hosted in Philly.
His efforts, as well as those of other Jewish groups, paid off in the establishment of the Victor Center for Jewish Genetic Diseases housed at the hospital's North Philadelphia campus. And Einstein has established a MossRehab outpatient treatment center in the Northeast at the JCC Klein Branch.
"It was time to reassert our mission," Freedman said during a recent interview at the Olney facility in an office just feet from what is billed as "the only free-standing synagogue on a hospital's grounds in the country."
The mission, he said, meant acquainting the hospital's executives with the institute's roots, when the Jewish Hospital served as a haven for both Jewish patients and doctors unable to find treatment or jobs at other hospitals because of cultural biases against Jews.
"There was a feeling one should take care of their own," Freedman said.
To re-establish those connections, the Einstein CEO asked executives to meet with area rabbis to assess the relationship between community and the healthcare network.
The rabbinical relationship has been a two-way bimah. "We have also educated the rabbis and counseled them on what is available" — such as the operations at the Victor Center — "for their congregations and constituencies," he said
Repairing to those roots is best expressed in the philosophy of tikkun olam — repairing the world — which serves as a guiding spirit for Freedman and his vision for the Einstein network.
Arriving at Einstein in 2003, Freedman, a native New Yorker, was somewhat unsettled by what he saw. He recalled being surprised at how the facility "had lost connectivity to the Jewish community."
Having an overlap now of some members serving both on Einstein and the Jewish Federation and other communal boards has provided insight and instinct for what is needed, added Freedman. Communal leader Richard Sheerr, for example, is chairman of Einstein's board of trustees.
And the Jewish community has upped the ante: More than 75 percent of donors to Einstein are members of the Jewish community, according to Freedman.
Einstein is not only receiving from but also giving back to Jews. "Part of our reaffirmation is to help vulnerable populations," Freedman said, insisting that despite the stereotype of Jews not needing assistance, some are a target audience for subsidized care.
"Quite frankly, we've done well as a people," he said of the overall success of Jews in American society.
"But there are Jewish poor and elderly Russians who do need our help and support."
To that end, the Einstein Healthcare Network has extended a helping hand beyond its Olney site — a neighborhood, that with adjoining Logan, was once home to a sizable Jewish population but now is home to very few — by extending its medical reach through a variety of sites: Einstein Medical Center/Elkins Park; Belmont Behavioral Health; Willowcrest, for skilled nursing needs; along with numerous satellite sites.
On the horizon is the Einstein Medical Center Montgomery, a state-of-the-art facility — featuring such innovations as family zones, or special comfortable gathering sites for relatives — that is slated to open in September.
The East Norriton facility is the first hospital to be constructed in southeastern Pennsylvania in the past 10 years, according to Freedman.
If Einstein is going back to its roots, why not go back a bit farther and incorporate the word "Jewish" into the center's name? (The healthcare conglomerate combined the Jewish Hospital, Mount Sinai Hospital and Northern Liberties Hospital under the rubric of the Albert Einstein Medical Center — with the late scientist's imprimatur — in 1952.)
"It's a double-edged sword," said Freedman, considering the "Jewish" naming question for a bit.
"We treat a much broader population today. There are some people who would feel good about that, and some who would feel uncomfortable," he acknowledged.
There are a number of hospitals around the nation that still use the word in their name — the National Jewish Health hospital in Denver, for example — no matter the patient constituency.
The topic is a "talmudic question" raised when executives of Jewish hospitals converge, said Freedman, and are confronted with the essence of what it means "to be a Jewish hospital."
Despite its name, Freedman asserted that "we are still thought of as the Jewish Hospital by so many members of the original community" who long ago dispersed to the outlying suburbs.
One of the biggest challenges Einstein faces is getting the word out about its newest advances.
"For a number of years, this institution faced financial challenges," and developing cutting-edge technology "was one of the areas in which we had fallen behind," Freedman acknowledged.
Despite being "a little late to the party," Freedman said the hospital did play "catch up," at the cost of $150 million. Now, he said, "we are one of the top 250 centers to be as wired as we are."
He also cited a list of recent hospital honors, including receiving the Gold Seal of Approval from the Joint Commission for Primary Stroke Centers.
"We have a history of flying under the radar screen" when it comes to bringing attention to such accomplishments, Freedman lamented.
In such a competitive health care environment, he said, beds don't get filled if people are unaware they're there. And healthcare facilities need to take care of their own bottom lines if they want to ensure a future.
So many other facilities face the music — and do not like what they're hearing. In recent years, "17 area hospitals have closed, and we have expanded," Freedman said, citing as an example the network's growing obstetrics department.
Some would say that such expansion "is not financially prudent," Freedman said, but such a move "comes from the heart."