Newark Beth Israel Medical Center celebrated its 110th anniversary last week with a look back at the two Jewish immigrants who were its founders.
Some 100 celebrants gathered Oct. 26 at the Beth’s Parsonnet-Danzis Auditorium, as the grandson of its namesakes recalled the “Beth’s” evolution from a 21-bed facility to one of America’s leading hospitals.
“By today’s standards, that first hospital was very primitive,” said Beth Israel heart surgeon Dr. Victor Parsonnet, grandson of the medical center’s founders, Max Danzis and the first Victor Parsonnet. The original building, the doctor said, “had open wards for adult and pediatric care and iron beds, and the operating room was far from sterile, with lights hanging from the ceiling windows open to the outside atmosphere, and caps and masks worn casually.”
But, Parsonnet noted, “education was paramount, and from the beginning there was a nursing school and there were interns.”
He traced the hospital’s roots to the shtetl in Ukraine that was the boyhood home of his grandfathers.
After moving to Newark, the two immigrants “sadly discovered that Jewish patients could not gain access to the local hospitals, and Jewish doctors could not find staff appointments.” Together, the two men raised $4,000 to purchase the Pennington Mansion on the corner of West Kinney and High streets in Newark.
Within 20 years the facility outgrew its small quarters. In 1928, philanthropists Louis Bamberger and Felix Fuld donated funds for a new hospital in a then rural area called Lyons Farms. The Spanish-style building had 350 beds, a school of nursing, and an outpatient service building. The entire complex cost $3.5 million.
It made room for Jewish and African-American physicians denied positions elsewhere; in 1960 the first black doctor officially joined the staff.
Parsonnet’s connection with the Beth did not end with his forebears. Beginning in 1955, he spent the bulk of his career there, serving as director of surgery and accomplishing a number of medical firsts, including performing the first coronary bypass surgery in New Jersey in 1971.
‘Born at the Beth’
Today Newark Beth Israel Medical Center is a state-of-the-art institution on Lyons Avenue. Although it was sold by the Jewish community to the Saint Barnabas Healthcare System in 1996, it carries on “the traditional institutional goals of high quality care, ecumenical care, and service to the underprivileged.” Proceeds of the sale were used to establish the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, which continues to offer grants for health care and quality-of-life programs in the Jewish community and beyond.
Speaking at the event was Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest NJ. She spoke of the pride of area residents who were “born at the Beth,” a legion that includes novelist Philip Roth, comedian Jerry Lewis, and poet Allen Ginsberg.
“The phrase ‘Born at the Beth’ is not new,” she said. “It dates back to 1931, when the members of the Newark Maternity League originated the idea for a Babies’ Alumni group and asked new mothers to enroll their children as ‘Beth babies.’
“For years, youngsters received birthday cards from the Beth,” said Forgosh. “This was one way for families to stay connected to their neighborhood hospital.”
She recalled the urban upheaval of the 1960s, when the hospital’s board of directors asked: “Should we stay, or should we go?”
“It was no secret that its patients had left Newark for homes in the suburbs and that their doctors had no choice but to follow their patients,” said Forgosh. But the decision was made to remain and continue to expand its facilities.
“In 1901 we had 12 physicians; today we have over 800 members of the medical staff,” said the afternoon’s final speaker, Darrell Terry, the medical center’s chief operating officer.
“There were 24 nurses then. Now we have over 1,300 nurses. In the past decade we trained over 600 residents to become physicians,” he said.
Noting the hospital’s state-of-the-art technology and advances in pediatrics, geriatric care, and heart transplants, Terry said the medical center was committed to the Newark community.
And, he noted happily, “I am one of 60 current employees to be born at the Beth.”