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Opening the Gates of Shaare Zedek

Upon completion, Shaare Zedek was the most beautiful building in Jerusalem
Title: Opening the Gates of Shaare Zedek
Location: Jerusalem
Document: American Hebrew
Time: 1898

Concerns over hygiene and public health plagued the daily lives of residents in the Old Yishuv throughout the 19th century. Grinding poverty, malnutrition, squalid living conditions, and a dearth of adequate health care facilities in Ottoman Palestine facilitated the spread of disease. In order to alleviate the deplorable health situation, and to provide a viable alternative to the local missionary-run hospitals, three Jewish hospitals were established in the Old City in the later decades of the century. The first was the Meir Rothschild Hospital, named for and funded by Baron James Mayer de Rothschild of France, followed by Misgav Ladach and Bikur Cholim.

At the turn of the 20th century, members of the Kollel Ho”d (Holland and Deutschland) community embarked on an ambitious initiative to build a new Jewish hospital, the first one to be constructed outside the Old City. A plot of land was purchased on the outskirts of the small Shaare Zedek neighborhood, down Rechov Yaffo. The hospital would eventually assume the name of the neighborhood, though for decades it would be referred to as “Wallach’s Hospital” after its legendary founder.

Born into a prestigious Neo-Orthodox family in a small town near Cologne in 1866, a young Moshe Wallach attended medical school in Berlin and Wurzburg. When he was 24, he was dispatched to Jerusalem by the Frankfurt community and the Vaad Hapekidim V’hamarkalim in Amsterdam, which oversaw funding for the Old Yishuv, to assist with medical care. Settling in the Old City, he had the distinction of being the first known physician to perform a tracheotomy within its walls. Following several years of making house visits and operating a private clinic — he was also a mohel — he returned to Europe to fundraise in Germany and the Netherlands for building Shaare Zedek.

Upon completion, Shaare Zedek was the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and its spacious wards and grounds made it the largest state-of-the-art facility in the city. The ceremonial opening took place on January 27, 1902, the birthday of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II. Dr. Wallach was appointed the general director and chief physician of the hospital. He wanted to have the most modern medical facility in the country, with high hygienic standards, the first quarantine ward for infectious diseases, vaccinations, and even a dairy on hospital grounds to provide fresh milk for the patients — no small luxury in Jerusalem of that era.

Providing medical care at a high standard was just one facet of Dr. Wallach’s vision. He was also a prominent activist within the Eidah Hachareidis and a close confidant of Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld. Dr. Wallach’s religious vision for the hospital included an active shul and fully kosher kitchen; the hospital administration was to adhere to halachah, and work on Shabbos was limited to life-saving activities or performed by non-Jews. Dr. Wallach’s vision of a top medical facility adhering strictly to halachah is still upheld in today’s Shaare Zedek.

Dr. Wallach carried a large key ring and personally opened and locked the doors to the hospital’s wards every morning and evening. Having never married, he devoted his life to Shaare Zedek and lived within its walls even following his retirement in 1947 at the age of 80.


Shaare Zedek for Eternity

With Har Hazeisim’s cemetery inaccessible during the 1948 War of Independence, temporary measures were hastily arranged to alleviate the situation. Dr. Wallach allocated a strip of land at the edge of Shaare Zedek’s property on Rechov Yaffo for burials — and was himself interred there when he passed away in 1957. During the cemetery’s brief period of operation, burials included Eidah Hachareidis head Rav Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky and Yeshivas Kol Torah founder Rav Yechiel Michel Schlessinger (the brother of Dr. Wallach’s assistant Dr. Falk Schlessinger). When Rav Dushinsky’s son and successor Rav Yisrael Moshe Dushinsky passed away in 2003, he was laid to rest next to his father in this long-forgotten cemetery.


Schwester Selma

Dr. Wallach was assisted in his holy work by the head nurse Schwester Selma Mayer, whom he recruited from Hamburg in 1916. She devoted the rest of her long life to Shaare Zedek, establishing a nursing school, training its graduates, and caring for patients until her passing at the age of 100 in 1984. She never married, and she resided in a room within the hospital and seldom took a vacation.


Dr. Moshe Wallach’s yahrtzeit is 7 Nissan.


The popular Machaneh Yehudah–Rechov Yaffo tour with Yehuda Geberer includes a stop at the old Shaare Zedek hospital building and the historic kevarim in its small cemetery.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 955)

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