Hadassah hospital director: Philanthropy is for fostering excellence, not paying salaries — that’s the government’s job

In wide-ranging interview, Dr. Yoram Weiss, discusses the challenges facing his medical network in general and post-Oct. 7, as well as his plans to expand to Netivot

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 terror attacks, Dr. Yoram Weiss, the director-general of the Hadassah Medical Organization, had two priorities: Construct an underground hospital at its Mount Scopus campus in case the Hezbollah terror group joined the fighting with its massive arsenal of long-range missiles; and open the Gandel Rehabilitation Center, which was still under construction, in order to provide treatment as quickly as possible to the thousands of people wounded in the initial Oct. 7 attacks and the war.

In January, Weiss led eJewishPhilanthropy on a tour of both the fortified subterranean hospital, which has not yet been needed, and the completed parts of the Gandel Rehabilitation Center, which had just started receiving patients.

Last month, eJP again met up with Weiss in his office at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus for a wide-ranging conversation about the challenges facing the hospital system, his organization’s plans for the future and the role that philanthropy should and shouldn’t play in addressing both of them. 

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Judah Ari Gross: The last time we met, we ran out of time as we started speaking about the role that philanthropy should play in Israel’s healthcare system. 

Yoram Weiss: In my view, philanthropy is only to foster excellence. Philanthropy should not come instead of the government. That’s my opinion. The government has its responsibility for its citizens and needs to take care of them. Only in very, very extreme cases, philanthropy can come in: when someone does not have universal health care, to help cover for this. For example, with refugees. But in all other cases, it’s the state that has the responsibility. 

Philanthropy allows us to plan the future of Hadassah not as a community hospital, but as a tertiary or quaternary care hospital. And what do I mean by quaternary? It’s when I provide services that are specialized, not only for Israel, but outside of Israel as well. When people will come to Hadassah to get services that they can’t get in other countries in the world, because only we’re providing them. And this requires both the infrastructure and the equipment to do that. 

Philanthropy is also helping us where, unfortunately, the government is not very good at. And this is developing the infrastructure. Without the infrastructure, it’s impossible to develop these very advanced or very innovative services that we would like to develop. 

Philanthropy can be used to improve the clinical research, the basic science and also the advanced clinical treatments. I do not think that philanthropy should be used for cleaning the floors or for hiring physicians or nurses. It’s the responsibility of the state to provide us with the funding to do that. 

It’s obvious that sometimes philanthropy steps in where, unfortunately, the government can’t do that. In Israel, because of the high expenses on defense, which now actually will go even higher, we have always had a problem with providing very good health care to our patients. We always had a problem with infrastructure because the government never put in money to develop this, which supports these very advanced services that we’re providing in Israel. And here, philanthropy stepped in, and you see that all over Israel. 

You see it at Hadassah: All our buildings are basically thanks to donors from all over the world — and from Israel — but especially from the United States. We are an American organization, and that’s why you have the American flag here in the room [motioning to the corner of his office where an Israeli flag, Hadassah flag and American flag stood], because we are here thanks to an American organization. 

What happened after Oct. 7 is that, obviously, new issues came up, which before the war were not so important and which are also very expensive. Namely, how to create an environment that is safe for the patients. In order to do that, because of the concerns we have with missile attacks, we had to invest, first of all, in underground infrastructure, which we’re doing, and also creating new areas for shelters in both our campuses.

JAG: Beyond those immediate security needs, what are some of the other areas where you see philanthropy playing a significant role in Hadassah in the foreseeable future?

YW: First of all, we’re finishing two projects. One is the Gandel Rehabilitation Center [at Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus], we’re finishing that, and there’s the Round Building [at its Ein Kerem campus], which we are finishing to renovate — also thanks to donors from all over the world. We’re also starting to discuss another project in oncology. 

JAG: I believe last time we spoke, you mentioned a new project in Netivot. 

YW: Yes. About a year before the war started, we identified Netivot [as a potential location for a new branch]. And the reason is that medicine is changing, in general. In the past, the patient had to drive to the hospital for care. Today, you can bring [that care] really close to the home of the patient. For this reason, about a year ago we opened an extension of Hadassah in Beit Shemesh. It’s a clinic that is serving tertiary care services, bringing these services to the community. And this is exactly the same model that we decided to do in Netivot because we realized at that time that this entire area of Netivot, Sderot, and the kibbutzim and villages around it are basically 35 to 40 minutes from Soroka [hospital in Beersheva] or Barzilai [medical center in Ashkelon]. 

Even before the war, we had already received permission to have a CT and MRI there, and we started building the clinic. So we’re continuing to do that. 

What we’re also trying to do now is to involve the faculty of medicine [at Hebrew University], which Hadassah owns 50% of, together with the Hebrew University. We are also looking at opening an extension of the School of Medicine in this area, together with Sapir College [in Sderot]. Some of the education could be provided in Netivot. We’re thinking of a premed program or maybe a nursing school. We’re still looking together with the Tekuma Authority [the government body responsible for Gaza border reconstruction] to see what are the best services to put there. And we’re looking maybe to open a school for physician assistants over there.

JAG: I thought Israel didn’t have physicians’ assistants.

YW: Yes, in the States, it’s very common. But we don’t yet have it in Israel. We’re trying to start it in Israel, and we want to put a school for that. I’m a big promoter of that. We have actually already submitted a request to the Israeli Council for Higher Education. 

The idea is to have an advanced clinic in Netivot and, together with Hebrew University, branches of the School of Medicine, and then at the end creating a startup community as we have here in Jerusalem. Because here in this campus, we have more than 700 people who work in startups, who are not part of the hospital. We provide them with the infrastructure, and they use it to do their biomedical or medical research. And we have an accelerator, which was established together with IBM, where we have already more than 25 companies that graduated in six cohorts. And they brought in, after their initial phase, more than $80 million in investments.

JAG: And where do things stand in terms of the timeline of the Netivot clinic? 

YW: We hope that by the end of this year, the clinic will be ready, that by Jan. 1, 2025, we’ll start caring for patients. 2025. 

JAG: And in terms of the medical school programs?

YW: I don’t know that yet, it’s too early. We’re just starting to work on it.

JAG: And what are some of the challenges facing Hadassah today?

YW: You need to have the infrastructure, technology and the people. The people are the most important, and the real challenge is how to keep good people here. You can quote me: ‘Jerusalem is becoming a city where it’s very, very difficult to convince people to live here.’ Because unfortunately people like you with knitted kippot, or [secular] people like me — they don’t want to stay here in Jerusalem. I don’t need to tell you about the complexity and how diverse the population here is. 

I think the state needs to put effort into attracting to Jerusalem non-religious groups or [national-religious] knitted kippah-wearers. And you can write it down. I say it to the government, I say it to the municipality. 

I should say I have full respect for the Haredi community. Don’t misunderstand me. I consider them my best friends. It’s important that [that] be written too. We embrace them. I appreciate them. Part of the effort we had in preparing the underground hospital in the Mount Scopus campus was thanks to the Haredi community that came and helped us. So I have full respect for them. 

JAG: From what I understand, salaries are also a major struggle in keeping people at Hadassah.

YW: Salaries are a problem because what’s happening today in Israel is that the health management organizations, the kupot holim, have very significantly increased the amount of money that they pay physicians who work in their clinics. To the point that today a physician that is working in a clinic can make three times more money compared to what he earns in the hospital. And they don’t have to be on call. And they don’t have to have shifts on Friday and Saturdays. This is creating huge pressure on the system. People that have been trained in one or two fellowships, at a certain point — because of money — tell us, ‘Thank you, we’re going to go work in the community now. Easier life, better money.’ And this is a major, major stumbling block for the hospitals.

JAG: So how are you getting around that stumbling block? 

YW: It’s difficult. Very difficult.

JAG: And that’s not something that you want to turn to philanthropy to help you with?

YW: No way! This is the responsibility of the government. I’m fighting with the government about it. Philanthropists should not cover these issues. This is not for philanthropy. This is the responsibility of the government, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance.

JAG: In terms of the people and in terms of Hadassah’s stated mission of promoting peace. I know that in a number of hospitals, especially in the beginning of the war, things were tense among the staff and between the Arabic-speaking staff and patients and their families. How has that been for Hadassah?

YW: I’ve been here at Hadassah for 34 years. I was the director of the surgical intensive care during the Second Intifada. We have seen times of tensions as we’ve seen today. 

We have Arab patients, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Haredi Jews, secular Jews, all of them being here together, working together in full collaboration. Is it a difficult period? Yes, it’s a difficult period. But I think that what transpires is that our mission here in this hospital is to save lives, and I think anyone who works here understands that. 

I just had a patient from Tel Aviv who was discharged yesterday, and she was here with her husband who’s a very wealthy businessman. And yesterday when I came into his room before they left — they were here for a week — he said: ‘You know, Yoram, after being here for a week at Hadassah, I understand maybe there’s a chance for peace.’ 

Really, the way people work together, the respect that they have to each other… I always say: Keep politics out of the building. 

If there’s someone working at Hadassah, they can say whatever they want outside but not on the social networks. We won’t tolerate it because social networks are very inflammatory. And I’m saying always to people, you have the right to have your own opinions. But when you’re here at Hadassah, no politics. 

I don’t want to dwell too much on this because, like you said, it’s a sensitive period and I don’t think too much is gained by focusing on the places where there are issues. But I want to tell you, we have had quite a few soldiers coming through here, and I had not one soldier complain about the Arab staff.