U.S.-Based Nonprofit Spearheads Fortified Hospital in Haifa

June 12, 2019
Rendering of Bnai Zion Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Bnai Zion Medical Center

The terrace outside Dr. Amnon Rofe’s office at Bnai Zion Medical Center offers picturesque views of the Mediterranean Sea and the Báha’í Gardens in the northern Israel port city of Haifa. Lebanon is visible, too. Rofe, the hospital’s bespectacled, graying CEO, looks down at a cluster of parked cars in the street below. 

“That’s where the rockets hit,”  he says, flashing a defiant grin. 

“They love to target us. They love to hit hospitals and they almost did.” he adds, referring to the summer of 2006, when Israel was locked in a military conflict with Hezbollah for 34 days. Fighting took place in Lebanon, the Golan Heights and surrounding parts of northern Israel. Residents heard clattering booms and saw billowing smoke. By the end of the conflict, Hezbollah rockets had struck the heart of the city, several hitting less than 350 feet from the hospital, with shrapnel breaking windows. 

Miraculously, nobody in the hospital was injured. “We were very, very lucky,” Rofe says. Still, the episode highlighted the hospital’s vulnerability in the face of armed conflict, always a looming prospect in the region. Rofe recalls the chaos: shards of glass littering the hallways, the hospital staff frantically transferring patients to more secure areas. There was a fear of power outages or a blown gas tank. 

Bnai Zion is the only hospital in the Haifa region without a fortified facility built to withstand an attack. But that will soon change. 

Ground was broken in October 2017 on an ambitious project dubbed “A Hospital in a Hospital” to deliver the medical center its own protected, reinforced section. Now taking shape is a new underground 62-bed hospital, a street-level 45-bed emergency room and a parking lot on the roof. The entire complex will be capable of withstanding nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, as well as earthquakes and natural disasters.  

The $18 million project is slated for completion by 2021. Israel’s Ministry of Health and private donors from Israel and abroad are significant contributors, but the bulk of funding is coming from the Bnai Zion Foundation, a U.S.-based nonprofit that identifies and funds capital projects in Israel in the areas of social inclusion, health and culture. The medical center, formerly Rothschild Hospital, was renamed in the late 1980s after the Bnai Zion Foundation contributed significant funds to renovate and modernize the main buildings.  

“Without the constraints of politics or religion, Bnai Zion Medical Center can flourish in ways that reach beyond the expected while bringing to fruition a true support system for Israel’s most vulnerable population.” 

— Rebecca Harary

“The medical center brings to life everything the Bnai Zion Foundation stands for: care, dignity and love for the people of Israel,” Rebecca Harary, senior vice president of the Bnai Zion Foundation, told the Journal. “Without the constraints of politics or religion, Bnai Zion Medical Center can flourish in ways that reach beyond the expected while bringing to fruition a true support system for Israel’s most vulnerable population.”

Haifa is an incredibly diverse city. Nearly 20% of residents are Arab, including both Christians and Muslims, while the Druze and  Báha’í communities live there, too. This diversity is reflected both in the staff and in the beds of the Bnai Zion Medical Center, according to Rofe. 

“This hospital is an excellent example of coexistence,” Rofe says, walking its halls. “Our staff, our doctors include Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Jews, all working side by side treating everyone in the city of Haifa.” A native of Haifa, Rofe was born in the hospital he now runs. “It’s my home,” he says. “Literally.” 

The hospital also treats Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the occasional Syrian refugee, Rofe says. It’s home to one of the most advanced prosthetics divisions in the world and has pioneered an innovative program to treat sexual abuse victims that’s being replicated around the country. 

Inside the neonatal intensive care unit, Dr. David Haber, the department’s head for the last 25 years, speaks with a Christian Arab couple about their newborn. Haber, who completed his studies at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, points to the premature babies sleeping in their isolettes and says, “Life is the most precious commodity here. This is a unique hospital in a unique country.” 

George Schaeffer, a Florida-based businessman and current board chairman turned private donor of the Bnai Zion Foundation, shakes Haber’s hand and says, “One life means everything here. To me, there’s no country like this. That’s why I give [the hospital] money.” Schaeffer’s name is plastered all over the hospital, due to his many private contributions, including the soon-to-be Irina Schaeffer Labor and Delivery Suites, thanks to his $2 million gift. 

Outside, Tzvika Rom, the project manager on the construction site, paces in a hard hat near bulldozers clearing stone to make way for the underground hospitalization department. 

“This is the most complicated project in this hospital, ever,” he says, citing the thick structural reinforcements needed. “Many engineers from the area come to learn, to check it out. But we’re quite proud of it.” 

The project appears to be on pace to finish a few months ahead of schedule, according to Rom. 

Standing beside him, Erez Shimko, the hospital’s administrative director, holds a rendering of the sleek, modern-looking emergency room. “It won’t have windows but we’ll cover it with mirrors,” he says with a smile. “We just want it to look nice.” 

After observing the construction site with Rom and Shimko, Rofe removes his hard hat and takes refuge in the shade of a tree.  

“After 2006, I said I wasn’t going to rest until we got this hospital protected,” he says. “It’s my dream. We’re getting close.”  

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly titled George Schaeffer as Bnai Zion’s previous board member. He is the current board chairman.

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