In marking an Israeli hospital’s roots, the path leads to a humanitarian

The founders of the Jerusalem pediatric rehabilitation hospital, with Haim Margalith at center, his jacket open. (ALYN Woldenberg Family Hospital)

The founders of the Jerusalem pediatric rehabilitation hospital, with Haim Margalith at center, his jacket open. (ALYN Woldenberg Family Hospital)

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost relatives and friends.

BALTIMORE (JTA) – The contemporary multi-building complex that is the ALYN Woldenberg Family Hospital in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood had its roots nearly a century ago with a modest goal: treating children with orthopedic problems.

It was the brainchild of Dr. Henry Keller, an orthopedic surgeon from New York who visited prestate Israel in 1918 to learn of the country’s health care situation. A decade later he returned to conduct research on children with physical handicaps.

In 1931, he and several other Jewish New Yorkers opened a clinic on King George Street in downtown Jerusalem to treat these children. The clinic moved the next year to Bezalel Street and in 1934 to a building on Ben Yehuda Street — a fourth-floor walk-up, odd considering the nature of the clinic.

To mark the 80th year since its formal establishment, the renowned facility is publishing a retrospective book and in November will hold a gala at the conclusion of Wheels of Love, its annual five-day fundraising bicycle ride throughout Israel.

Efforts to locate the family of one of the co-founders from Keller’s team were unsuccessful. But working from information provided by Itay Bahur, an Israeli author hired by the hospital to write the anniversary book, “Seeking Kin” found the family of Haim Margalith, ALYN’s first president, living in Baltimore.

Unprompted, Joel Finkelstein, 81, recognized Margalith, his stepfather, from a photograph.

Margalith married Finkelstein’s widowed mother, Rose, after meeting her on a cruise in the 1960s, Finkelstein said. Margalith moved to the United States from his native Israel, and the couple lived in a garden apartment in Baltimore’s Pikesville neighborhood.

Asked what biographical and professional information he knew about Margalith, Finkelstein mentioned his stepfather being from Safed, attending law school in Egypt — “He told me it was because Israel didn’t have law schools, then,” Finkelstein said — and having decades earlier worked as a legal representative for several organizations whose names he could not remember.

The details matched what Bahur had provided.

Finkelstein recalled Margalith as “calm, quiet and very nondescript, but a wonderful man, highly intelligent, highly intellectual.”

In the 1970s, an ill Margalith returned, alone, to Israel, where he died several months later. He is buried on the Mount of Olives, and Finkelstein remembers leaving his tour group on a 1976 visit to say Kaddish at the grave.

Margalith had one or two children living in the United States, but Finkelstein said he does not know their whereabouts.

Locating Finkelstein was important, said Maurit Beeri, ALYN’s director general, because “as we celebrate 80 years of helping children, we want to thank the founders and express our appreciation.”

“At a time when people struggled with attaining the bare necessities in life, they invested their time, effort and personal funds towards the weakest in society,” she said. “What drove these people?”

According to Bahur, Margalith was born in Safed on Dec. 28, 1892. He studied at Jerusalem’s Lemel School until 1909 and at a pedagogical institute until 1913 before attending law school at a French college in Egypt. He then moved to the United States, back to prestate Israel and returned to America in about 1940. That’s where Bahur’s trail of Margalith ended.

Bahur then approached the Israeli radio program “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (“Searching for Relatives Bureau”), which requested the assistance of “Seeking Kin.”

During his first stay in the United States, Margalith helped establish a foundation in New York that raised money for building a clinic in Jerusalem to treat children with physical disabilities. The foundation originally was called the Society for the Aid of Crippled Children in Palestine; the geographical designation was soon changed to “the Near East.”

Along with Keller, Rebecca Gertrude Affachiner and Margalith, the core group of founders included Murray Rosenberg, who served as treasurer, and Shlomo Nafcha, the general executive secretary. They were intent on fundraising so that patients would not have to pay for their care.

“At that time,” Bahur said of the group, “they were ALYN.”

ALYN today is a cutting-edge, 120-bed facility with a 345-person staff and a $15 million annual budget equipped to treat infants to teenagers requiring rehabilitation from severe injuries or conditions even beyond the orthopedic. A school on the grounds caters to children unable to attend mainstream schools.

The hospital’s early incarnation as the Ben Yehuda Street clinic included a school where the students learned such trades as bookbinding, silversmithing and rugmaking, Bahur said.

“Henry Keller was a big believer in social medicine: That kids shouldn’t just be cured, they should study and be part of society,” he said.

Only eight children now live at ALYN full-time. In each case, Beeri said, their parents cannot, or refuse to, care for them.

They include two 13-year-olds who have lived at ALYN since they were 18 months old. One, a Jewish boy with Hadad syndrome, a congenital respiratory disorder, recently celebrated his bar mitzvah.

Another is an Arab boy born with congenital myasthenia, which causes weak muscles; his father lives in Abu Dhabi, and his mother’s second husband refuses to allow the boy to live at home, even though he “absolutely” could be cared for there, Beeri said.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

“There are no stories of institutions; there are stories of people,” Bahur said of ALYN.

With Margalith’s family found, Bahur said he would like to learn about the man with a view toward better understanding why he did “such a beautiful thing” in founding the hospital.

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at if you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends. Please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.)

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