SINAI AT 100: The West Side hospital celebrates a century of healing and caring

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, Mount Sinai Hospital has defied the odds to remain a robust medical institution in its original location.

Mount Sinai founder Morris Kurtzon.

Founded by Lithuanian Jewish immigrant Morris Kurtzon to serve the then-teeming Jewish West Side, Mount Sinai did not pack up and move north with the rest of the area’s Jewish population in the 15 years after World War II. Instead, Mount Sinai stayed put and simply switched gears to serve the African-American and Hispanic residents who moved in by building up its base of operations around Ogden and California avenues.

Established as a community hospital, Mount Sinai also has kept that role even as it has evolved into a regional medical and trauma center.  Fellow community hospitals serving heavily Jewish areas, such as Edgewater, Bethesda, Weiss Memorial and Forkosh Memorial on the Far North Side, have either closed or been absorbed by much larger medical systems, part of a trend where size does matter.

As Eastern European Jews began moving into the West Side in large numbers in the late 1800s, Maimonides Hospital was established as a Jewish hospital at the intersection of California Avenue and 15th Street. When it closed in 1916, Kurtzon purchased the building for $50,000. Kurtzon was determined to keep alive the dream of a West Side Jewish hospital and declined an offer from the University of Illinois to buy the building. On Dec. 7, 1919, Mount Sinai Hospital opened its doors.

Michael Reese Hospital already operated on the near South Side, oriented toward the older German Jewish community in that area and was too far from the homes of the new arrivals.

“At the time, there was no hospital that operated under kosher practices and that meant there were groups of the Jewish immigrant population that struggled to find health care,” said Karen Teitelbaum, president and chief executive officer of Mount Sinai.

“The establishment of Mount Sinai gave them an opportunity to receive the care they deserved and live healthy lives. It also gave Jewish doctors and nurses a place to practice medicine, free from discrimination that confronted them elsewhere at the time.”

Another wave of immigrants, this time from the Soviet Union, would be served by a Mount Sinai satellite clinic established on Touhy Avenue in 1973.

The entire timeline, West Side or North Side, was being remembered even before New Year’s 2019. A launch event for caregivers was staged in December 2018. Stories of Sinai’s impact over 100 years are being placed on the website and their social media channels each month. A volunteer community service project is planned for the summer. Topping it all off will be a celebration event at the hospital in October.

Daniel Koch, left, and Steve Koch.

But no centennial soiree would be complete without the presence and oral history of brothers Steve and Dan Koch. The grandsons of Kurtzon, both circled back to the old home grounds after establishing themselves in other pursuits.

Steve Koch served on the Sinai board for a total of 24 years, the last seven as chairman, until 2012 before leaving to serve as Rahm Emanuel’s deputy mayor.  He spent nearly five years as Emanuel’s second-in-command. Dan Koch gave up a life of near-paradise in Hawaii to come back to run Kurtzon Lighting, his grandfather’s first business, then and now just a few doors down from the hospital. Morris Kurtzon used to start his day at the factory, then walk to the hospital to serve as de facto CEO.

“Steve and Dan have carried on their grandfather’s legacy in many ways,” Teitelbaum said. “The Koch brothers exemplify their grandfather’s dedication to the Jewish population and the West Side of Chicago. In our centennial year, we are proud to carry on the legacy of Morris Kurtzon.  The work Sinai has done to serve our community for a century owes a great deal to the Koch brothers and the entire Kurtzon family, as well as decades of dedicated Sinai caregivers, staff and board members.”

Dan Koch is the digger and writer, chronicling as best as possible on-line the pre-history of Mount Sinai and Jewish hospitals in Chicago. He moves the story along through Kurtzon’s early stewardship of Mount Sinai. Steve can then pick the story up with oral history. His anecdotes about his grandfather precede a more recent remembrance of steering Mount Sinai through headwinds of the late 20th century.

“The real reason Mount Sinai came into existence was its serving of kosher meals – which Michael Reese did not do – but also because Mount Sinai provided care to a more religious population (as recent immigrants),” said Steve Koch. “From the very beginning, Sinai had the precept of open access. If you couldn’t afford it, the hospital would still care for you.”

The establishment of a Chicago hospital that could reasonably care for all Jews while training Jewish physicians came in fits and spurts during the city’s first 75 years.  Always, though, Jews were recognized as caregivers and healers.

In an essay for the Chicago Jewish Historical Society, Dan Koch quoted Dr. Joseph Bolivar DeLee, the founder of the Chicago Lying-In Hospital, as saying “….the civilization of a community may be measured by the care bestowed on the sick….the Jews have always been famous for the care bestowed on their unfortunates…..”

A small Jewish hospital was constructed by the United Hebrew Relief Association in 1868 on LaSalle Street between Schiller and Goethe streets in what is now River North. However, the hospital and the 13 patients then in treatment died in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned a mile further north to North Avenue.  Five of the seven synagogues and all B’nai B’rith lodges in the city also were consumed in the conflagration.

Michael Reese Hospital was constructed at 29th and Ellis in the 1880s, originally to serve the German-Jewish community concentrated in the area. However, the increasing immigration from Eastern Europe settled five miles away on the West Side – a long streetcar ride.  Wrote Dan Koch: “When Reese opened a dispensary in the West Side ghetto in 1894, it offered only non-kosher food and German-speaking physicians to a local Kashrut-observant Yiddish-speaking population.

“Increasingly the split between Orthodox and Reform centered on health care. When Reese opened up a renovated facility in 1907, at the unheard-of cost of $750,000, the Orthodox were of course as pleased as anyone that the community could build such an important institution. But when Reese refused to establish a kosher kitchen for Orthodox patients, citing the extra expense, this became a symbol of the growing split. Other contentious issues were the exclusive hiring of German- speaking doctors, along with a selective patient admission policy, offensive to the Orthodox tradition of accepting any Jew in need. The Orthodox doctors from the Eastern European community lost their patients when they were sent to Reese.”

At the dedication of the hospital’s new entrance in 1951, with the inscription “Behold I Will Heal Thee” in English and Hebrew.

The answer was the founding of an immigrant-friendly Maimonides Hospital on the West Side in 1912. But financial problems immediately plagued the clinic and it closed in 1916. Enter the “angel” Kurtzon. He was typical role-model immigrant success story of the era. Born in Lithuania in the mid-1870s – his grandsons do not know the exact date – he immigrated to Chicago as a child. Before the 19th century came to an end, he established Garden City Plating and Manufacturing Co. and became a pillar of the community. He served on the Maimonides board. He was not going to let the concept of a local Jewish hospital die just as the community’s medical needs mushroomed. His $50,000 contribution led to the re-opening of the clinic as Mount Sinai on Dec. 7, 1919.

Within five years, adding a fifth floor and a nursing school, Mount Sinai continued its expansion from 60 to 220 beds by 1939 under Kurtzon’s leadership.  He would not retire until 1950.

The Kurtzon family chronicles were passed down by word of mouth.  As a child, Dan Koch learned about his senior-citizen grandfather up close and personally.

“I only knew him in the last few years of his life; he was always warm and loving to his young grandson,” Koch wrote. “My most powerful memory of him was of the day my parents walked into my grandparents’ house in Ravinia, holding me. ‘MK’ rose up from his sleeping couch, looking like a great lion to a little boy; heavy shoulders, all wrinkles, a great shock of white hair and a bristly beard. He proceeded to take me in his arms, and rub my tender skin against his. His love for his grandchildren was enormous, and I can say he left me a great legacy in that area.”

Koch went out on his own, attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison for graduate studies in the science of historical and comparative linguistics. He served in the Peace Corps in Borneo. Eventually, he’d land as assistant professor of Austronesian Linguistics at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He and the former Kamla Devi Bhatty were married at Temple Emanuel in Honolulu. The couple decided to return to Koch’s hometown, taking over his grandfather’s business via inheritance.

Meanwhile, younger brother Steve, a trained attorney, came to hospital-board chairmanship from banking amid a 27-year run helming global merger and acquisitions at Credit Suisse. He was in the boardroom years after the great debate at Mount Sinai: whether to pack up and move with the Jews out of the West Side. Social responsibility trumped the eminently practical concept of following loyal patients north by northwest.

“It took a commitment from the hospital board to continue to serve the community it was in, with the same mission of open access to anyone, whether they could pay or not,” said Steve Koch. “It took the support of the Jewish community, particularly the Jewish United Fund. And it took the state’s commitment through (taxpayer) funding.  Sinai has been a little bit of everything. One reason it survived was because it was more than a community hospital. It had both a public-health and an academic mission.

“In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Sinai played a major role as a community anchor. It remains the largest employer in Lawndale, but it also bought real estate and helped community organizations that struggled. In the absence of the hospital, the neighborhood would have deteriorated more than it did.”

In 1972, Ruth Rothstein was named hospital administrator. A pioneering Jewish woman running a large hospital, Rothstein was Mount Sinai president from 1977 to 1990.

Eventually the Sinai Medical System encompassed the core hospital complex (a Level One Trauma Center), Holy Cross and Schwab Rehabilitation hospital and Sinai Clinics in 14 neighborhoods. The Sinai Medical Group employs 300 physicians with 41 medical specialties. The hospitals serve 25,000 inpatients and 330,000 outpatients, with 96,000 emergency-room visits and 1,900 trauma visits annually. As manager of the city’s financial portfolio from 2012 to 2017 under Emanuel, Koch still had good reason to keep a regular eye on Sinai.

“Health care has really changed dramatically over 100 years,” said Steve Koch. “One-hundred years ago there wasn’t health insurance to speak of. There wasn’t Medicaid or Medicare. One-hundred years ago, people didn’t go to hospitals unless they were really sick or severely injured.

“What you don’t find a lot of are urban community hospitals. And even with community hospitals outside urban areas, their ranks have thinned either through mergers or going out of business. Community hospitals compared to an academically-affiliated institution or a public hospital (run by a government body).  Now hospitals are a mix of acute care on an inpatient setting and less acute care that takes place frequently on an out-patient setting. So the role of the hospital has changed significantly.”

One constant has been its open doors, thanks to the boss, then and now.

“I think it is fair to say that its success consumed ‘MK’s’ life,” wrote Dan Koch. “Is it not a great ideal for us to have today — devotion to the needs of the community, no matter the obstacles?”

Concluded Teitelbaum: “While our neighborhood may look different, our mission of ‘Tikkun Olam’ has never changed.”

1 Comment on "SINAI AT 100: The West Side hospital celebrates a century of healing and caring"

  1. Biv Michaels | April 9, 2019 at 3:48 am | Reply

    Nice story. Much I did not know about the hospital even though my aunt worked there in the 1940s and 1950s and lived with my family, Jewish and orthodox. She traveled from the north side of Chicago to go to work there. Love to know how places and values are passed down by our families. Especially since I got to meet Dan Koch on a recent trip it was a neat story.

    Biv Michaels

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.