Oct. 28, 1991

Notes on the early history of Mount Sinai Hospital

Review by Gil Zohar

The Jewish community of Toronto dates back to a few pioneer settlers from Quebec, Britain, Germany and the United States who arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century.

These families consecrated a cemetery at Gerrard Street and Pape Avenue in 1849. Seven years later the city's first synagogue, later to become Holy Blossom Temple, was established in rented premises above Coombe's Drug Store at Yonge and Richmond.

In 1876 a permanent building was dedicated at 25-29 Richmond Street East accommodating 400 people. By 1881 Toronto was home to 534 Jews.

Due to persecutions and pogroms in Russia in the years following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in March 1881 leading up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the community experienced a huge population growth made up almost entirely of destitute Yiddish-speaking Eastern European immigrants.

By 1913, the city's Jewish community jumped to 32,000 - up from 18,000 two years earlier.

This immigrant population became the target of Christian missionaries. As an inducement, these proselytizing groups offered a variety of material assistance and aids to acculturation, including English classes, a soup kitchen and health services.

To counter missionary efforts, the Jewish community established its own parallel institutions. A Toronto Jewish Hospital Committee met frequently in 1908, calling together delegates from virtually all East European organizations then in existence in the city.

But funds were simply not to be had for a full-fledged facility. In 1909 the Jewish Dispensary opened on Elizabeth Street, serving as an outpatient clinic for immigrants who feared hospitals or who could not make themselves understood there.

The institution was headed by Reverend Maurice Kaplan, cantor of the McCaul Street Synagogue. Miss Dorothy (Dora) Goldstick, the daughter of a local family, who had received a certificate in midwifery from the State Medical Board of Ohio that year, became the dispensary's first nurse.

In its early years, the Dispensary successfully provided medical attention to Jews who had no need of hospitalization or were afraid to enter hospitals. But the burgeoning population made clear the inadequacies of its limited services and the urgent need for a Jewish hospital offering a broader range of services than an out-patient clinic.

As a mohel (ritual circumciser), Rev. Kaplan spent a great deal of time in hospitals. He was well familiar with the cultural difficulties the immigrants faced, in particular the language barrier for those Yiddish speakers not fluent in English, and the irregular provision of kosher food brought by volunteers.

For several years, Kaplan unsuccessfully tried to convince Toronto General Hospital to provide a wing with a kosher kitchen and Yiddish-speaking staff. By 1921 it had become apparent that his negotiations with the TGH were in vain. Jewish physicians would not be admitted to staff positions, nor would kosher food be provided on request.

Mrs. Slova Greenberg, who found the Ezras Noshim (women's auxiliary) society about 1913 and still headed it after eight years, then mobilized its members for the establishment of a Jewish hospital.

The women's group had gained valuable fund-raising experience in door-to-door solicitation for the establishment of a Jewish Old Folks' Home at 31 Cecil Street, which opened in 1917, and ultimately evolved into today's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care at 3600 Bathurst Street.

By 1922, the women together with Dorothy Goldstick Dworkin collected sufficient donations to purchase a two-storey building at 100 Yorkville Avenue. Built in 1871 by James D. Bridgland - the Crown's Inspector of Roads - as his residence, the home was converted into the Lyndhurst Private Hospital in 1914.

The small private institution was changed into the 20-bed Toronto Jewish Convalescent and Maternity Hospital. The following year it was renamed Mount Sinai after the noted New York City Jewish hospital but remained a birthing hospital, and a rather poorly equipped one at that.

The permanent staff in 1923 included Miss Pickles, the nursing superintendent, four graduate and two undergraduate nurses, a cook, a laundress, a housemaid and a janitor, while the 33 Jewish doctors in the city all volunteered some time.

Despite being the only hospital in Canada at the time to offer kosher food, many tradition- and superstition-bound immigrants still viewed a hospital as a place to go to die and were reluctant to use the new facility. During its first year Mount Sinai had to lure patients with the promise of a free baby carriage for the first child born there.

Paradoxically, as Mount Sinai gained acceptance its financial situation deteriorated. The under-equipped facility did not meet provincial standards and so relied entirely for funding upon the Ezras Noshim. But the women, almost all from Eastern Europe, lacked contacts with the wealthier more established Anglophone Jews as well as experience in running a large institution.

The link between acculturated and affluent community and the immigrants was found in the person of Jule J. Allen, who had become wealthy as a pioneer owner of movie theatres and was sympathetic to many aspects of community work.

Allen donated a large sum to the hospital and persuaded others to match it. A member of both Holy Blossom and Goel Tzedec - a rival synagogue founded by Lithuanian immigrants in 1883, he succeeded in drawing in a number of capable entrepreneurs and professionals, including Ephraim Frederick Singer, who in 1929 was elected to the 18th provincial legislature (1930-1934) as a Conservative for the riding of St. Andrew (and the first Jewish member of the Ontario parliament).

These men, however, agreed to lend their support only on condition that the Ezras Noshim relinquish control in favour of a board of directors. The former reluctantly acquiesced and the transfer of power was accomplished late in 1923. The board consisted almost exclusively of men, primarily members of Holy Blossom or Goel Tzedec.

Singer, who assumed the hospital board's presidency, was able to fuse together the Eastern Europeans and the old community. After the takeover, the Ezras Noshim effectively withdrew from the hospital organization. In the spring of 1924, Mrs. Dworkin was able to attract some remaining women into a Ladies' Auxiliary, whose principal purpose at first would be to raise money through social functions. Only in 1925 did the hospital begin receiving provincial grants. That year the Toronto Jewish Medical Association was formed consisting of 40 doctors who became attending physicians and surgeons.

Both paying and charity patients were accepted, and the institution was non-sectarian. The professional staff was upgraded with nine fully trained nurses, and students ceased to be employed, but the Ladies' Auxiliary provided meals and mended linen.

Even under the new administration, however, things did not run smoothly. The hospital constantly fell into debt as services expanded. A particular drain on its resources was the acceptance of interns and the opening of an out-patient department to replace the Dispensary late in the 1920s.

This necessitated campaigns for extra funds including bazaars and moderately successful door-to-door collections, which brought the hospital into conflict with the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Founded by Jule Allen in 1916, the federation had a policy that its constituents not run separate appeals. (Today Mount Sinai is outside the umbrella of the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto and its United Jewish Appeal fundraising arm.)

By the end of the decade, the hospital had become so popular that it had become overcrowded and plans for expansion were under way. Plans for a two-storey surgical wing facing Yorkville Avenue were drawn up and built in 1928 by Benjamin Swartz. The simplified Georgian style, popular in the 1920s and 1930s, included pilaster columns emblazoned with a Star of David.

The Depression seriously inhibited the expansion campaign, which was headed by Otto Bernard Roger, an English Jew recently arrived to take up a position with the Shell oil company in Toronto. In the early 1930s Mount Sinai was in such difficulty that some board members had to make personal loans to keep it open.

Under Roger's aegis, the modernization and expansion to 86 beds was completed in 1934. Even with the addition by the Toronto architects Kaminker & Richmond, the hospital was still inadequate. By the mid-1930s, board member Benjamin Sadowski and colleagues began looking for alternate hospital sites. Sadowski's dream was to elevate Mount Sinai to a teaching hospital associated with the University of Toronto Medical School.

The medical staff did not accept Sadowski's vision with complete enthusiasm. At that time, discriminatory quotas severely restricted the number of Jews admitted to Canadian medical schools, and intern and staff appointments at Toronto hospitals. The physicians felt they finally had a hospital of their own, and did not want to lose their new independence. (See Abraham I. Wilinsky's A Doctor's Memoirs, which discusses his career as a urologist at Toronto Western Hospital at length but also the generally hostile environment encountered by Jewish physicians.)

Sadowski prevailed, however, and in 1943 a site was purchased on University Avenue at the corner of Gerrard Street. Construction was put off till World War II was over. At the end of the war, the Hospital for Sick Children claimed this site, stating that the war intervened with its plans to purchase the same block. After negotiation, the site was turned over to HSC, which in turned provided an alternate location on University Avenue at Elm Street.

With the opening of the 330-bed hospital at 550 University Avenue in 1953, the Yorkville Avenue building became the Mount Sinai nurses' residence. A decade later it became St. Raphael's Nursing Home.

The building has been abandoned since the nursing home closed a number of years ago and was recently demolished except for the facade. Plans were drawn up by Brian Andrew, a design partner in the Toronto architectural firm Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden, to restore the facade as part of a much lareger proposed redevelopment of the Yorkville-Scollard streetscape. Andrew calls the ruins of the old hospital "a large hole in the fabric of Yorkville Avenue."

Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden has designed similar projects including Cumberland Court and Hazleton Lanes, as well as the Scotia Plaza and CN Tower. Jasmac Canada, the developer, made an application to the Ontario Municipal Board in a request for an amendment to the zoning by-law to permit mixed used development.

Plaque for the original site of the Mount Sinai Hospital

This building, constructed as a private residence by James D. Bridgland in 1871, was purchased by the Ezras Noshim (women's auxiliary) society in 1922 and converted into the 20-bed Toronto Jewish Convalescent and Maternity Hospital.

Renamed Mount Sinai the following year after the noted New York City Jewish hospital, it slowly expanded to become more than a birthing clinic. A two-storey surgical wing was added in 1934 bringing capacity to 86 beds.

Serving a generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, Mount Sinai was the first hospital in Toronto to serve kosher food and not discriminate against Jewish physicians.

After the hospital relocated to University Avenue in 1953, this site continued as Mount Sinai's nurses residence for another decade and then became St. Raphael's Nursing Home.