Mt. Zion hospital still exists, and so do its Jewish ties

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Mount Zion Medical Center is undergoing a major transformation. Since 1990, when the hospital merged with University of California, San Francisco to become "UCSF/Mount Zion," it has been inappropriate to think of the Mount Zion campus as a peculiarly Jewish institution. Rather, the facilities are now a part of a state institution, with legal and fiscal responsibility vested in the Board of Regents rather than in the Jewish community which established the hospital in 1887.

However, the Jewish values and traditions that have always been associated with the institution have vigorously survived and are finding new impetus under the sponsorship and guidance of the Mount Zion Health Fund (MZHF), the $50 million endowment which became an independent charitable foundation as part of the merger agreement. As the newly-elected president of the fund, I want to reassure the Jewish community that the historic mission of Mount Zion continues, even if in ways that our predecessors could not have anticipated.

A widespread perception exists that the "hospital" has closed. While this is not the case, the community's anxieties about Mount Zion are understandable. The misperception was exacerbated by the recent decision of the governing UCSF/Stanford board to discontinue inpatient and emergency room services at Mount Zion. This is the same board that only a few months later dissolved its own partnership. While the closing of important services was a bitter pill to swallow, the enterprise and innovation that has always been deeply resident in our Jewish community has survived the restructuring.

New priorities that the community can take pride in are emerging at the hospital: a first-class outpatient program, including a new endoscopy clinic; creation of a Women's Health Center; and possible facilities for integrative medicine. In fact, relocations and new services will result in an increase in the per-day visits to the campus. Perhaps most important, the National Institutes of Health is supporting a major new cancer research and treatment center at Mount Zion. This explains the construction of the new facility at Divisadero and Sutter Streets, visible denial of the rumor that the hospital is "closed."

But what of the Jewish "connection?" In the late 19th century and early 20th, the need to assure medical care for immigrant and indigent Jews, as well as the guarantee of venues in which Jewish doctors could practice, led to the establishment of Jewish hospitals throughout the United States. Generous donors to these institutions also provided endowments for the perpetuation of their respective missions, which usually resembled that of Mount Zion in San Francisco: to offer "medical aid, comfort and protection in sickness to deserving and needy Israelites and others."

Throughout the 1980s questions persisted about the viability and relevance of Jewish hospitals. Amid enormous changes in the health care industry, Mount Zion struggled to bring its costs under control. But the pressures of restructuring, problematic government reimbursements and fierce competition among hospitals eventually undermined Mount Zion's proud independence. San Francisco was not alone. Jewish hospitals across the country were compelled to consider drastic alternatives.

Furthermore, doubts about Mount Zion Hospital's continuing existence and stature as a significant Jewish institution in San Francisco arose even before the merger agreement, as evidenced by the decline of Jewish programming at Mount Zion, such as the need for a kosher kitchen, and by the treatment of many Jewish patients at other San Francisco and suburban area hospitals.

So while Mount Zion can no longer be said to be a Jewish hospital, the endowment that has been inextricably linked to it continues to represent our tradition. The fund has become the trustee for those communal values which have animated Mount Zion's history. As a public charity, we support through philanthropy the Jewish commitment to health care for the Jewish and general community. MZHF is currently distributing about $5 million in grants for patient care, education and research to support our mission.

For example, the chaplaincy service, a significant hospital program of yesteryear, now prospers in a new guise and expanded community setting as the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, receiving MZHF and federation support. Similarly, commitment to the health care of Jewish immigrants also continues, if not at the hospital proper then through communal programs funded by MZHF. For example, we recently awarded several grants for Russian-speaking translators, health educators and caseworkers. Mount Zion's service to seniors is reflected in our special relationship with the Goldman Institute on Aging, and by grants to the Jewish Home.

Other MZHF funding partnerships exist with Jewish Vocational Service and Jewish Community Library. The joint efforts and contributions of MZHF and Jewish Family and Children's Services have created the Rhoda Goldman Plaza, an assisted-living facility for seniors. MZHF also maintains the Jewish community's longstanding dedication to help the adjacent neighborhood of the Western Addition through sponsorship of the Mount Zion Violence Prevention Project and the African-American Health Education Project.

Throughout its history Mount Zion ministered to thousands of immigrants, indigent Jews and the general population, while also becoming a major medical center for research and teaching. But now the institution is entering a new era in which the old "comprehensive" hospital, with its traditional medical departments, is replaced by new configurations. More to the point, the Jewish values that inspired the hospital's professional staff and community supporters for so long continue to motivate and shape the actions of Mount Zion Health Fund. We pledge continuing leadership to promote and advance Jewish values of health care and tikkun olam — which have always been proud features of the Mount Zion tradition.