Jewish Histories in Multiethnic Boyle Heights

Mt. Sinai Hospital and Clinic: Bikur Cholim Society

by Caroline Luce

The origins of Mt. Sinai Hospital—one part of today’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center—can be traced to the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, a global pandemic that killed some 50-100 million people around the world. As the disease spread in Los Angeles, the City Health Commissioner declared a state of emergency, prohibiting public gatherings and access to movie theaters, schools, and other public spaces. Worried that the prohibitions only added to the isolation and sorrow of the ill, a group of Jewish Angelenos organized an effort to visit them and provide kindness and comfort in keeping with the Jewish value of bikur cholim (“visiting the sick”)–a traditional halakhic (Jewish religious law) principle that deems alleviating the suffering of the ill and offering prayers on their behalf to be an important mitzvah (commandment or good deed). In 1920, the group decided to formalize their efforts by establishing the Bikur Cholim Society and purchasing a small home in Boyle Heights to provide round the clock care for the neighborhood's “Incurables.”
By the end of the decade, the Bikur Cholim Society had expanded their work by moving into a large building on Bonnie Beach Place where they offered care to patients suffering from long-term and chronic illnesses, renaming their facility the Mt. Sinai Home for Chronic Invalids. Such cases were frequent in Boyle Heights, where developers had promoted the neighborhood’s healthful climate as part of their effort to attract new residents, and with a kosher kitchen and small prayer room, the Mt. Sinai Home provided a space for observant Jewish patients to receive care.  Unfortunately, those vital services soon came under threat: the local economy declined rapidly after the stock market crash of 1929, the impacts of the Depression badly straining Mt. Sinai’s resources and prompting the Mt. Sinai Home to declare a financial emergency in 1932.
Community leaders in Boyle Heights recognized that the financial problems at Mt. Sinai were only one aspect of a larger health care crisis in Boyle Heights. The neighborhood’s lower-income, elderly, and immigrant Jewish residents sometimes had difficulty accessing care at local hospitals and the area’s only other Jewish facility, Kaspare Cohn Hospital (Cedars of Lebanon), had relocated to East Hollywood in the late 1920s. So too were non-Jewish residents of the neighborhood in desperate need of care and low-cost health services, particularly long-term care nearby where family members could visit them. Realizing they needed a more comprehensive solution, a coalition of over seventy different organizations came together to mobilize a fundraising drive to address all of the neighborhood’s healthcare needs. In 1940, they had raised enough funds to purchase a lot on the corner of Breed Street and Michigan Avenue, just a half block from the neighborhood’s largest synagogue, the Breed Street Shul (Cong. Talmud Torah), and commissioned architect S. Charles Lee, known for his movie theaters, to design a 12,000 square foot facility on site.
The new Mt. Sinai Hospital and Clinic (or Breed Street Outpatient Clinic) opened its doors in 1941. While it retained its kosher kitchen and chapel, the new facility offered services to “all needy sufferers from chronic ailments regardless of color, race, or creed,” including a variety of outpatient services free of cost for residents in need. With its streamline moderne façade and beds for over one hundred patients, the Hospital and Clinic served as a more expansive and contemporary embodiment of the Bikur Cholim Society’s founding mission, providing comfort, kindness, and care to all of Boyle Heights’ residents. 

Learn more about Mt. Sinai Hospital after World War II at "The White Plague in the City of Angels"

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