Healthcare ‘hero’ served on two fronts

Healthcare ‘hero’ served on two fronts

Lester Bornstein holds a case of his World War II medals and ribbons in the “war room” of his West Orange home. 
Lester Bornstein holds a case of his World War II medals and ribbons in the “war room” of his West Orange home. 

The Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey presented its annual Lester Z. Lieberman Legacy Award for Humanism in Healthcare to Lester Bornstein, a man executive director Marsha Atkind hailed as “extraordinary.” 

Bornstein ran one of the state’s premier hospitals, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, then helped steer the proceeds from its sale to create the Healthcare Foundation, which funds programs and research in health care for vulnerable populations in the greater Newark and Greater MetroWest community.

“Even now, almost 20 years after his retirement from ‘The Beth,’ it is impossible to walk through the corridors of the hospital with Lester Bornstein without being stopped every few feet by a hospital employee who wants to hug him and tell him how much he is missed,” said Atkind in a phone conversation. 

But the awards dinner, held July 20 at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston, was also an opportunity to recall Bornstein’s contributions to humanity from a half-century earlier, when he received a Bronze Star as a hero of the Battle of the Bulge.

A few days before the gala, Bornstein recalled his service as he sat on the patio of his West Orange home with his wife, Marilyn. (The Bornsteins are the parents of Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States; see separate story here.)

Born in Boston, Bornstein was drafted and in 1943 was assigned to the U.S. Army’s 186th Combat Engineer Battalion. His mission was to install landmines and disarm those set by the Nazis.

“It was very scary work,” he recalled.

In 1944, after training in Wales, his outfit landed on Utah Beach in Normandy. When they moved to the town of St. Vith, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, he and a friend destroyed the lead German tank in a maneuver that halted a Nazi advance for five days. The battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation and the Belgian Crois de Guerre.

Upstairs in what he calls the “war room,” Bornstein pointed with pride at a framed 1998 citation from retired Lt. Gen. Claude Kicklighter, then deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Army for international affairs. “Not only did your efforts save our troops from encirclement, you struck a blow that led to the ultimate victory, the triumph of freedom over fascism. A grateful nation will always remember your accomplishment and the accomplishments of all World War II veterans,” it reads.

After the war, Bornstein returned to the army for his “dream job” as athletic director at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, DC.

He returned to civilian life for a master’s degree in public health at Yale University and a series of hospital administration jobs. He served as assistant director of Barnert Hospital in Paterson, and moved to Newark Beth Israel in 1957. He became its president/director in 1968, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 1996, when the Beth was sold to the Saint Barnabas Health Care System and the proceeds were used to create the Healthcare Foundation.

“He was a hospital administrator who took a keen interest in his employees, taking the time to speak with them, visit them at the bedside, and ensure that their care was the best that it could be,” Atkind said. “He is a jewel who enriches the lives of all who know him. The Healthcare Foundation is privileged to call him a trustee and friend and to honor him with this award.”

At the awards ceremony, Dr. John Brennan, CEO of Newark Beth Israel Medical Center/executive vice president of Barnabas Health, spoke about the compassion for both the staff and for patients that Bornstein brought to his work at the Beth. 

Healthcare Foundation chair Beth Levithan said of the honoree: “His intelligence, warmth, caring, and kindness permeate all of his thoughts and actions…. His insightful comments about medicine, hospitals, the needs of veterans and all patients help keep us on our mission, a mission which he helped to develop from the birth of the foundation. He is a true source of inspiration and a role model for all of us.”

Among the other honorees was Dr. Michelle Elkins, medical director for geriatric services at Overlook Hospital in Summit, who received the Lester Z. Lieberman Leadership Award for Humanism in Health Care.

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