A century of Sinai

The hospital celebrates 100 years on Chicago's West Side

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Sinai volunteers give back to their community by cleaning up Douglass Park through the hospital's "100 Steps Forward" initiative. 

This year, Mount Sinai Hospital celebrates a century on Chicago's West Side, and 100 years of redefining medical care and what it means to be part of the life of a community.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, German and Eastern European Jews immigrated to Chicago by the thousands to escape religious persecution. By and large, the German Jews settled on the city's South Side and the Eastern European Jews on the West Side. At the time, this geographic divide within the Chicago Jewish community reflected an equally tangible difference in language and religious customs, disparities which often prevented a consensus when it came to the intersection of Jewish law and medicine. 

In 1881, Michael Reese Hospital opened its doors on the near South Side to cater to the local German Jewish community. Eastern European Jews on the West Side were welcome at the hospital, but many chose not to seek care there because the hospital did not keep kosher.  As a result, large segments of the Chicago Jewish immigrant population struggled to find health care.  

In 1912, the Maimonides Kosher Hospital of Chicago was founded in Lawndale to fill this service gap. Due to a funding shortfall, Maimonides closed its doors four years later, but Maimonides board member Morris Kurtzon-determined to keep alive the dream of a West Side hospital-bought the Maimonides building and established Mount Sinai, which opened as a teaching hospital in 1919. 

"The establishment of Mount Sinai Hospital gave this once disenfranchised community an opportunity to receive the care they deserved and live healthy lives," explains Karen Teitelbaum, president and CEO of Sinai Health System. "It also gave Jewish doctors and nurses a place to practice medicine, free from discrimination that confronted them elsewhere at the time.

"In the decades since, Sinai has remained committed to helping everyone who comes through our doors, consistently delivering health care-and hope-to those who need it most," she said. 

More than 45 years before the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, and a decade before the standardization of health insurance, Mount Sinai made quality health care affordable and available for those in need. Embodying the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and hachnasat orchim (welcoming and caring for the stranger), the hospital's open access policy ensured that anyone in need of medical attention received care regardless of ability to pay. 

It was because of the "support of the Jewish community, particularly the Jewish United Fund," explained Steven Koch, Kurtzon's grandson and former Chairman of the Board of Sinai Health System, that Sinai was able to absorb the costs for patients who could not pay. 

In the latter half of the 1900s, the demographics of the West Side began to change. After much of the Jewish community moved away from North Lawndale, Mount Sinai stayed resolutely in place, continuing its commitment to serve residents of the West Side-now largely African-American and Latino families.

 In the decades that followed, Mount Sinai led the medical community in cutting-edge clinical and non-clinical practices. Key among them: 

•  Sinai established what is now the oldest home health care program in the State of Illinois in 1953. 

• The first in-vitro fertilization clinic in the Midwest opened at Sinai in 1983.

• The Midwest's first rehabilitation hospital, Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, became a part of Sinai in 1984, and continues to rank among the nation's top 14 resident programs for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 

• In 1990, Sinai was designated as a Level 1 Trauma Center-one of only five in Chicagoland-a distinction it holds to this day. 

• To provide the West Side with accessible, convenient mental/behavioral health care, in 2012, Sinai merged with Holy Cross Hospital. 

The mergers with Schwab and Holy Cross led to the foundation of Sinai Health system, comprised of Sinai Children's Hospital, Sinai Community Institute, Sinai Medical Group, and Sinai Urban Health Institute, and serves over 150,000
patients annually.

For 100 years, Sinai has led the Midwest in a variety of medical disciplines, but what makes Sinai unique is the hospital's enduring commitment to advocacy and the holistic health of its community. 

"Chicago is the birthplace of community organizing, where impassioned and engaged citizens work together to improve communities from the ground up," said Teitelbaum. "Sinai has used this same principle to redefine the role of a hospital in urban areas-piloting and promoting programs beyond health care, essentially working with the community to deliver for the community.

"Ours is also a city of immigrants; at Sinai, serving the health needs of immigrants is more than a program, it is part of our DNA," Teitelbaum said.

In so many ways, Sinai's story is; the story of Jewish Chicago. Founded by immigrants, for immigrants, Sinai catered to the health needs of a marginalized community with the utmost respect for the religious and ethnic diversity of that population. As new faces joined the Sinai community, the hospital remained a passionate source of welcome and care, operating according to the principles of equal opportunity and tikkun olam

In the century to come, Sinai will remain a place of healing and a sonorous voice for the people of Chicago. 

In celebration of their centennial, Sinai is hosting a year-long volunteer effort called "100 Steps Forward," the purpose of which is to find meaningful ways to give back to the greater Health System community. There will be a centennial celebration on Oct. 10 at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

To learn more about Sinai's centennial and to experience firsthand accounts of the Health System's impact, visit www.sinai100.org

Sinai Health System is a partner with the Jewish United Fund in serving our community.

Jenna Cohen is a freelance writer and non-profit professional living in Chicago.


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