Hadassah opens new rehab center 4 months early as war stresses existing facilities

After Oct. 7, the Jerusalem-based medical organization diverted existing resources and raised additional funds to open Gandel Rehabilitation Center ahead of schedule and create a fortified hospital on its Mount Scopus campus

Hadassah’s new $137 million, multi-story rehabilitation center was scheduled to open in May on the medical organization’s Mount Scopus campus, the result of years of planning, fundraising and construction. But on the night of Oct. 7, seeing the devastation from the Hamas attacks and fearing an even greater conflict, Hadassah Medical Organization’s director-general, Dr. Yoram Weiss, made two decisions: to construct a fortified hospital on the campus that could operate even under heavy attack and to open the rehabilitation facility to patients by January.

“People thought we were crazy. But we did it,” Weiss told eJewishPhilanthropy last week during a tour of the facility, the Gandel Rehabilitation Center, which began receiving patients last month and will double its capacity in the coming weeks.

Weiss, who walked through the partially constructed center like a proud father showing off a newborn child, stressed that while he “loves to brag” about the facility, he gives full credit to its rapid opening to his staff.

“People dedicated their lives to this,” Weiss said. He offered as an example a worker he passed in the halls earlier. “That guy is in the reserves. When the army gives him a few hours off, he doesn’t go home. He chooses to come here. It drives me nuts. People have a dedication to this place that’s simply amazing.”

This new fortified hospital project and the earlier timeline did not come cheap. Among other things, the war caused a major worker shortage as foreign workers fled the country, Palestinian workers were initially barred from entering Israel and Israeli men were called up en masse to the reserves. And Hadassah wasn’t just looking to complete construction on schedule, it was looking to finish it four months early.

“We went into acceleration mode,” Carol Ann Schwartz, the president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, told eJP. “Originally, the first phase was going to be finished in the second or third quarter of 2024. When the war broke out, it became: No, the first phase has to be finished now. It has to be finished yesterday. How are we doing this?”

Schwartz said her organization, which founded and still owns the Hadassah hospitals, was determined to raise the money necessary to make those two goals happen after hearing and seeing stories of Hadassah doctors operating while rockets could be seen raining down in the background. 

“When things like that are shared with us, we look and say, ‘OK, we need to make sure we raise these funds,’ Schwartz said. “So we went out across the wires, making phone calls, talking to people. I met with 10 different donors in person in Cincinnati and talked to them about the needs that the hospital had. And every single one of them gave me checks, transferred funds. It wasn’t, ‘I’ll pay you over a two-year period.’ It was, ‘You need this money and you need this money now.’”

Since Oct. 7, Hadassah has raised more than $16 million, not only for the rehabilitation center, fortified facility and the supplies that Hadassah hospitals need, but also to support the youth villages that Hadassah runs.

More than $8 million of that has already been transferred to the hospitals, with $5.5 million going specifically to expedite the work on the Gandel Center. More than $400,000 was allocated to the youth villages.

Unlike Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem and other major medical centers in Israel, the Mount Scopus campus did not have a fortified area that could function as a hospital if the area came under rocket and missile fire. To address this, Hadassah directed workers to rig up an under-construction underground parking garage with the infrastructure necessary to operate a fully functional five-ward, 130-bed hospital.

This was out of an understanding at the time that the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7 may have only been a prelude to a full-scale assault by the more powerful Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon. While this threat of full-scale bombardment has not yet been realized, the lower-level attacks by Hezbollah have forced Israeli border towns to evacuate and the situation remains a major concern for Israeli authorities, with high-level diplomatic efforts underway to prevent an all-out war on this front.

Seeing this as the top priority for the medical organization, Hadassah directed its contractors to pull all of their available workers from other projects, including a renovation job on the Ein Kerem campus, and put them on this effort, working around the clock. This five-ward hospital, protected by a several-inches-thick steel door, was completed within a few short weeks, with specialty equipment shipped in from abroad. 

Weiss recalled that when the hospital bed manufacturer complained of staffing shortages, making it difficult for him to fill the order quickly, Hadassah sent volunteers to the factory to help with the final stages of production. Though the underground facility is currently unused — computer monitors and other equipment are covered in plastic sheets — it could be up and running and full of patients in hours, Weiss said.

Once the more pressing matter of a fortified emergency hospital was completed, Hadassah turned its attention to the rehabilitation center, Weiss said.

Even before the Oct. 7 terror attacks and ensuing war, in which over 10,000 people have so far been injured, Israel lacked the rehabilitation facilities and staff to sufficiently treat all those in need of care.

According to The Times of Israel, Israel has only 0.3 rehab beds per 1,000 people, below the OECD average of 0.5 beds.

Jerusalem in particular was also in need of a large rehabilitation center. “In Jerusalem, we had one [rehabilitation] ward with 34 beds, under the best circumstances,” Weiss said.

He credited Hadassah Medical Organization Board Chair Dalia Itzik with prompting the hospital to open the rehabilitation center after she heard from an acquaintance from Jerusalem who was forced to go to Tel Aviv for rehabilitation treatments because there was nothing available in Jerusalem.

“She said, ‘This cannot be,’ and reached out to Hadassah, the Women’s [Zionist Organization of America], to start the project of building a rehabilitation center. That was about six years ago,” Weiss said.

Schwartz recalled the event similarly. “They came to us and said, ‘The country needs this,’” she said.

Hadassah’s America organization and Hadassah International set out to raise the money for the center. The largest donation, over $20 million, came from the Gandel family of Australia, representing the largest-ever gift from Australia to Israel, according to The Australian Jewish News. The Israeli government has also given approximately $27 million (NIS 100 million) toward the project.

Once completed, the Gandel Rehabilitation Center will be able to provide treatments to 10,000 patients annually in four in-patient units with a total of 132 beds.

Currently, the center has 30 in-patients, with plans to expand to 74 by the middle of the month. Around the same time, the center plans to open its state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pools, Weiss said. Though there are already patients using the facilities, the building is still in the process of opening. Some pieces of equipment have yet to be assembled and installed. Others are ready-to-go, but covered in plastic sheets to keep them pristine before being put into service. 

By October 2024, the hospital plans to open its outpatient floor, which will be able to provide treatments to some 140 people each day, Weiss said.

For the patients that are receiving treatments, the new facility marks a major improvement from the rehabilitation ward in Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus.

One patient, Elazar, was seriously injured when the tank that he was serving in was hit by an anti-tank guided missile in Gaza, causing a fire and filling the vehicle with smoke. Elazar, who did not give his last name, said he sustained burns to much of his body, requiring some skin grafts to his face, and severe damage to his lungs from the smoke inhalation. 

He told eJP that the new facility allowed him to do more running sessions than in the old one, which was speeding up the recovery process for his lungs. Elazar lauded the rehabilitation center’s belief in the need for patients to play an active role in their own care. In his case, this meant applying many of the treatments to his burns.

“They let me take care of myself,” he said. “That gives you strength.”

Weiss noted that many of the rooms are equipped with ceiling lifts, which allow patients with limited mobility to move themselves, instead of having to rely solely on staff for help.

The center has six floors in total — four above ground, two below. Of these, four are either built or on track to be built, while the other two will require further fundraising before they can be completed, Weiss said. He added that there is also a plan to turn the roof into a rooftop garden for patients, but this too will require further funds.