Rachel Wolf
Rachel Wolf

Shtisel’s hospital with a heart

You know how TV is sometimes unbelievable? When it comes to Shtisel's portrayal of Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center that I know and love, that never happens
Shira Haas, Dov Glickman and Michael Aloni in the third season of 'Shtisel,' arriving on Netflix on March 25, 2021. (courtesy, Ohad Romano)
Shira Haas, Dov Glickman and Michael Aloni in the third season of 'Shtisel,' arriving on Netflix on March 25, 2021. (courtesy, Ohad Romano)

Most nights, as we sit down to watch TV in order to decompress after another long day of juggling work, kids and communal responsibilities, inevitably, my husband will comment on a detail or storyline that is irksome or unbelievable in one of the shows we are viewing. And most often my response, offered with a smile is, “It’s just a TV show, don’t take it so seriously.”

Well, that was how I felt until I watched the third season of Shtisel, an Israeli television drama series about a fictional Haredi family living in Geula, Jerusalem. Since the show came to Netflix in 2018, I have been an avid fan, like pretty much everyone else I know. But this season has been different. This season the characters on the show had various medical reasons to spend time at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, the institution I have dedicated the majority of my professional career to and a place that is deeply embedded in my heart. 

Suddenly, I was paying intense attention to every detail and every nuance of the spaces shown and the conversations shared. Every time one of the characters turned a corner, I came face to face with a piece of artwork or a hallway that brought back vivid memories of the countless visits I have made over the years. As the elevator doors opened, I couldn’t help but look in earnest, expecting to see my colleagues standing there with their patented smiles and kindness. I listened with great concern to what the doctors said, the advice they gave, the care they offered… and it felt personal.

(Warning, spoiler alerts)

As Ruchami and Hanina struggled with their decision to use a surrogate, I couldn’t help but yell at the TV, “Call Rabbi Dr. Avraham Steinberg,” the internationally renowned medical ethicist who heads Shaare Zedek’s Ethics Unit. “He will tell you all of the ways that surrogacy is permitted within Judaism and how to handle every aspect of the process.” I ached for their pain and uncertainty and wanted our brilliant and kindhearted expert to help them navigate this devastatingly harrowing time. 

As Shira Levinson’s family gathered around her father’s bedside in his final days, first to celebrate her engagement to Yosa’le and later to keep a vigil as his health declined, you could see the compassion and the heart filling the room. Shaare Zedek is known as the “Hospital with a Heart” and the music, celebrations and attention to the emotional needs of our patients are some of the hallmarks of this unique medical center. On any given day, you will find staff members, medical clowns, and volunteers throughout the building playing musical instruments, bringing therapy animals, performing magic, sharing homemade delicacies, or simply offering a warm hand and company.

As Shulem sat awaiting his fate in the cardiology department I couldn’t help but express pride knowing that Shaare Zedek houses one of the most advanced and groundbreaking heart centers in the world. Opened in the early ’90s at a time when patients throughout Israel were dying waiting for open-heart surgery, today Shaare Zedek is innovating some of the most cutting-edge technologies and sophisticated procedures available throughout the world. In fact, just last week, Shaare Zedek became the first hospital in the world to perform three mitral valve replacement procedures in one day via catheterization using the Tendyne valve system.

As Lippe drove aimlessly around the Shaare Zedek parking lot, desperate to find a spot, I paused the TV and laughingly said to my husband, “Well, this is the most accurate portrayal of the hospital yet! But, luckily, we did just build a massive parking garage with an additional 842 parking spaces!” 

As Ruchami held her healthy baby in her arms, just minutes after surviving a life-saving surgery, I added her newborn to the list of more than 22,000 babies born at Shaare Zedek each year, more than any other hospital in the Western world!

Since its inception, Shaare Zedek has been the hospital of choice for the Haredi community because of its strict adherence to Jewish Law. But that rings equally true for the religiously and politically diverse population of Jerusalem. It is said that Shaare Zedek is a model of social co-existence, a haven where all who enter its doors are treated with dignity and respect. What binds our patients and staff together at their most difficult hour is so much stronger than whatever prejudices may exist outside of these hallowed walls.

In my 20 years with Shaare Zedek, I have watched this small community hospital burgeon into the internationally recognized, industry-leading center of excellence that it is today. The medical advances being pioneered are awe-inspiring and the level of care is truly breathtaking. Obviously, all hospitals have heart. But there is something deep in the DNA of this hospital that brings that heart to a whole other level. COVID-19 tried its best to challenge this philosophy, but the deep-rooted commitment to treat every patient with humanity, with dignity and with love shined through from day one.

At the end of the day, I know that Shtisel is just a TV show, but details and accurate portrayals do matter. And so, I thank the producers of the show, not only because they offered a wonderful respite from life through their intricate and captivating storylines, but because they managed to capture the true heart and soul of Shaare Zedek. They found a way to capture the extreme emotion and tension that exists every time a person walks through the doors of a hospital, and they managed to spotlight the importance of family and communal support throughout the process.

I have always joked that maybe one day medicine will advance to the point that our hospital will only be needed to deliver babies. If that’s the case then maybe parking won’t be so difficult, and we can welcome the arrival of another Shtisel baby or two. 

About the Author
Rachel Wolf serves as the CEO of the American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, where she has worked for the last 20 years. Rachel is a graduate of Barnard College and lives in New York City together with her husband Andrew and their two toddler daughters.
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