When the sun sets Saturday, members of the Aitz Hayim congregation in Highland Park will sit shiva on the floor of Marc Slutsky's home to mourn the destruction of a temple and a hospital and lament attempts to destroy their spirit.
They will turn to the solemn scriptures traditionally recited on Tisha B'Av, the Jewish day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem's Holy Temple—the center of ancient Judaism that symbolized God's presence in the world.
They then will venture to Michael Reese Hospital on Chicago's South Side to mourn another once powerful monument of Judaism where doctors and nurses served God by caring for humanity.
"Jews came [to America] with the basic premise we would take care of our own," said Slutsky who practiced psychiatry at Michael Reese for more than 20 years.
"Jewish hospitals became a manifestation of that."
The unconventional observance seeks to draw inspiration from an era in which Jewish hospitals represented the philanthropic and intellectual contributions of the American Jewish community. It also underscores modern efforts to breathe new life into anachronistic rituals and holidays largely unobserved by the American Jewish population.
Observed in either July or August, Tisha B'Av marks the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem—events that took place 656 years apart, but reportedly on the same date.
Over time, the fasting day has come to commemorate other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the 1492 expulsion from Spain and the opening in 1942 of the gas chambers at the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland.
"There is a tradition of seeing it as part of a larger arc of the High Holiday season," said Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell of Aitz Hayim. "You start at this really low point to appropriately come to terms with the stark reality of our lives and our history that destruction is real and it's something we need to come to terms with. As anybody who has been in mourning knows, the first step is just to grieve. From there, you start climbing up and start to do introspection."
At Aitz Hayim, congregants start their introspection on Tisha B'Av. While Orthodox congregations traditionally fast and recite from the Book of Lamentations, members of Aitz Hayim have added a more personal touch—pondering the evolution of classic Reform Judaism, what they perceive to be a decline of American Zionism and gentrification of neighborhoods that has converted many of the city's synagogues into churches.
This year, Slutsky invited the congregation to ponder the death of Jewish hospitals in America following a recent tour of Michael Reese, where he reminisced amid the rubble about what used to be.
"It epitomized a different way of practicing medicine," Slutsky said. "Doctors spoke to each other about patients. There was an attitude at the hospital about real personal patient care."
Michael Reese was one of 60 Jewish hospitals established in 24 U.S. cities between 1850 and 1955 to cater to Jewish patients who faced anti-Jewish stereotypes and hostility. The hospitals treated immigrants and indigents and hired Jewish doctors and nurses who encountered discrimination elsewhere.
"There's something about the calling of maintaining life and people's physical well-being that is essential in Jewish values and indigenous to the Jewish community," said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. It is why saving a life transcends all other Jewish laws, including observance of the Sabbath, he said.
In fact, the Jewish hospital movement was one of the most ambitious endeavors in American Jewish philanthropy, said Robert Katz, a professor at Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis. "These institutions were often the local Jewish community's most visible and impressive charitable enterprise," he said.
Shortly after it opened in 1881, Michael Reese Hospital earned a reputation for being one of the best—an exemplar of an era when medicine was a charitable pursuit, not a competitive industry.
In its prime, Reese trained more doctors, did more research, delivered more babies and provided more free care to the indigent than any other private hospital in the area. A doctor there developed the first incubator for infants. Another pioneered major innovations in cardiac care. When much of its middle-class Jewish clientele and constituents migrated to the suburbs, Reese struck a deal with Mayor Richard J. Daley to stay and rehabilitate the South Side.
But eventually, the hospital ended up with a disproportionate number of patients with no insurance or insufficient Medicaid coverage. The hospital was sold in 1991. A series of for-profit health care companies, most recently Arizona-based Envision Hospital Corp., tried to make Reese turn a profit.
Last month, Chicago proposed an $85 million deal for the purchase of the Michael Reese Hospital property from Reese's landlord Medline Industries as a potential site for a 2016 Olympic Village. The only tangible remnant to be preserved by Chicago's Jewish Federation will be a statue of the hospital's namesake, a German Jewish immigrant.
A less tangible remnant exists in the form of the Michael Reese Health Trust formed in 1996. In eight American cities, the sale of Jewish hospitals yielded grant-making foundations.
"That's a structure that's kept the impulses for serving the broader community and values in the framework of health care," Kotzin said.
Herbert Wander, the chair of the trust, said the foundation has tried to preserve the hospital's mission and Jewish value of tikkun olam, Hebrew meaning to make the world a better place.
"It's a mitzvah [commandment] to visit a family that has lost somebody," Wander said. "You could eulogize this as having lost something very valuable to the community and it's important to memorialize it."
Byron Sherwin, a Jewish theologian and ethicist at the Spertus Institute in Chicago, said the observance was a creative approach to reviving a holiday that some Jewish leaders have lobbied to remove from the Jewish calendar since the 19th Century. Another movement to cancel the holiday came about after the creation of the state of Israel.
But Slutsky said Tisha B'Av makes practical sense from a psychological perspective.
"The psychological experience of Tisha B'Av transcends the regaining of Israel," he said.
"That's why, in a sense, the Temple and the great liturgy that developed around the Temple becomes the paradigm for how we can experience and cope with other losses. If we lose Tisha B'Av, we lose the capacity to handle other losses. It's really a very human tool that allows us to be able to cope with what would otherwise seem overwhelming."
Slutsky also said tying the loss to a Jewish holiday imbues it with more meaning in a way that could yield benefits for society at large. He hopes people are inspired to contemplate not only what has been lost but also what values are worth fighting to save.
He believes the fate of the South Side hospital underscores the demise of American health care.
"You realize that quality that made Reese so special is missing from the way health care is delivered," he said. "People had a sense of being part of a community. They had a sense of responsibility."