Were you born at “the Beth?” Generations are proud to have entered the world at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, a 673-bed teaching hospital that offers comprehensive healthcare to its communities and is a major referral and treatment center for patients throughout the northern New Jersey metropolitan area.
The lively history of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, an affiliate of the Saint Barnabas Health Care System, is typical of the histories of the voluntary nonprofit Jewish hospitals in the United States from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
The Need for Healthcare
At the turn of the 20th century, Newark, N.J. was a city filled with tanneries, breweries, varnish factories, fine silver manufacturers, and inventors who hoped to emulate its most famous resident—Thomas Edison.
City officials struggled to overcome the myriad industrial accidents, sanitation problems, and epidemics of diphtheria, typhus, and smallpox that had made Newark the nation’s unhealthiest city.
With population exceeding 100,000 in the 1890 census, Newark would endure one of the first outbreaks of polio in 1916. Because of its proximity to Fort Dix, the city was an epicenter of the 1918 influenza pandemic.
On Oct. 22, 1900, Newark residents first learned of the possibility of a Jewish hospital when newsboys held up copies of the Newark Evening News and shouted, “There’s Trouble in the Beth Israel Hospital Association!” When the men of the association voted to open a storefront dispensary, the women broke away, renaming themselves the Daughters of Israel and purchasing a crumbling mansion that opened as a 28-bed hospital on Aug. 31, 1902. For six years, the dispensary and hospital operated separate facilities. They merged their services in 1908, when a 110-bed, four-story facility opened on the site of the old mansion.
Expression of Assimilation
“They come to the United States, eager to breathe the air of freedom, anxious to repay the country for this blessing that she offers,” said Reform Rabbi Solomon Foster at the dedication ceremony Jan. 30, 1908. For the Eastern European Jews who passed through Ellis Island from 1880 to 1920, the founding of a Jewish hospital became their expression of becoming Americans.
In Newark, more than 87 Jewish societies, workmen’s lodges, and synagogues provided funds for the hospital. The 1908 opening was celebrated with a massive parade through the immigrant neighborhood, where tenements were festooned with American flag bunting.
The Beth practiced a nonsectarian policy in hospital admissions, the extension of hospital privileges to doctors, and the hiring of hospital staff. “While this hospital will be mainly supported by Jews, it will open its doors just as wide as they can swing to receive all who may desire to enter, and his religious sentiments shall be carefully safeguarded,” the policy stated. Kosher meals were available upon request, and Christmas decorations were displayed to cheer patients.
In 1924, a new, modern image of the hospital appeared on billboards and newspapers: Miss Beth, who launched a campaign for a new hospital with the question: “Is your heart with the hospital?”
The third hospital—a 350-bed yellow-brick tower with a Spanish tile roof—rose nearly 200 feet from its foundation like a sentinel beckoning its community. The new hospital opened in 1928, relocated from the city center to the southern tip of the city north of Lake Weequahic.
The Jewish community followed its hospital to settle in the surrounding streets, transforming it into a vibrant Jewish neighborhood celebrated by Philip Roth in his many novels about Newark.
The Beth was committed to providing training and research opportunities to doctors—Jewish and non-Jewish—who were denied privileges at other hospitals early in the 20th century.
The commitment to providing high-caliber training was evident in its accreditation from the American College of Surgeons in 1919 and the AMA Council approval for the internships in 1921.
By 1930, the laboratory, physical therapy, social work, and dietary departments were offering technical training programs. During World War II, it was designated as one of 1,000 depots that stored penicillin.
During the Great Depression, despite financial difficulties that nearly bankrupted the hospital, the Beth maintained an animal house for research. It was at the Beth that the Rh factor was identified as the cause of erythroblastosis fetalis.
A Laboratory Research Foundation was created to provide funding for research projects and support publication of a hospital journal. The journal published the earliest research results of the Beth Cardiopulmonary Laboratory, which became a leading center for the development of the pacemaker.
In the mid-1960s, as the Newark Jewish community resettled in the outlying New Jersey suburbs, hospital leaders decided to remain on Lyons Avenue and expand into a regional medical center.
Like other industrial cities, Newark suffered through a turbulent decade, requiring the hospital to redefine itself in its mission to serve its neighborhood and waves of immigrants settling into the region.
Federal grant programs and loans from the Prudential Life Insurance Corp. enabled the phased construction of a fourth hospital complex next to the old hospital, providing inpatient and ambulatory care services.
In 1996, Newark Beth Israel Hospital and Medical Center became an affiliate of Barnabas Health Care—New Jersey’s largest integrated healthcare system.
The Beth Today
These days, Newark Beth Israel Hospital and Medical Center is a major teaching affiliate of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, N.Y, and St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada.
The Beth’s division of cardiology continues pioneering work on therapeutic cardiac services and offers the most comprehensive robotic surgical center in the state.
And, honoring a 75-year-old tradition, the center still holds the outreach health screening and health fairs program begun by the Maternity Guild as a citywide public health initiative.
At its inception, the “Born at the Beth” program meant every baby born in the hospital was eligible to join a Babies’ Alumni Club. The $1 annual dues paid on their behalf entitled them to attend an annual babies’ health fair at which they enjoyed Dixie cups of ice cream and free examinations from the hospital staff. Now, the hospital offers the Born at the Beth Wall of Recognition to pay tribute to all those who greeted life within the hospital’s walls.
The Star of David remains at the front entrance, an enduring symbol of the hospital’s heritage. And the hospital’s creed—first displayed in 1928—still asserts the commitment of its staff: “The value of the human touch as a power for healing is never lost sight of at Beth Israel.” TH
The Krauts are coauthors of “Covenant of Care: Newark Beth Israel Hospital and the Jewish Hospital in America.”