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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Part 28 (written 2004)

(Continued from previous week)

When the American Committee was in its infancy, it was made up of local men and women, who would meet to discuss, for example, whether to send $5000 or even $6000 to Jerusalem that week. As the organization grew, and the needs of the hospital increased, well-known industrialists and businessmen were asked to join in order to broaden the reach of the organization.

As a result, Ludwig Jesselson, chairman of the board of PB; Charles Bendheim, owner of PB Chemicals; and Max Stern, chairman of the board of Hartz Mountain Food came to lead the organization. The New York office of SZ became the hospital’s main financial supporter and was eventually able to send millions of dollars to Jerusalem each year.

I joined the American Committee in June 1960 and two years later became its treasurer. I would remain in that capacity for over 30 years, being elected later also to its board of directors as well as to the board of directors and board of governors of the hospital in Jerusalem.

In 1990 I had a falling-out over a major policy difference and I resigned from all positions. This difference concerned only the American Committee, not the hospital itself.

One story regarding the hospital bears repeating since it involves the political and religious outlook of certain groups of Orthodox Jews.

In the mid-1960s, when SZMC was still housed in the old building on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, the executive board of the hospital decided to engage Prof. Meir as the director general of the hospital, to take the organization into the 20th century. David had been at that time a pathologist in New York. Although I was not involved in the selection process, obviously David must have shown the leadership qualities and medical knowledge necessary to impress the board.

Certain political factions in Israel, to which Prof. Meir did not belong, were afraid that upon becoming director general he would permit autopsies at the hospital that were prohibited by Jewish law. These people, both in Israel as well as in the United States, tried their best over many months, by both legal as well as illegal means, to influence the executive board members and others to change their minds and appoint someone more to their own liking.

They used smear campaign ads in Jewish newspapers and magazines, handed out leaflets in many public buildings and picketed the homes and offices of the members of the board. Also, these foolish people felt that I could influence Mr. Jesselson, a member of the board, just because I worked for him at Philipp Brothers.

The method they used with me was a series of nightly phone calls, over a period of many weeks, usually at around 2 a.m. It is always scary to be woken up by a phone ringing in the middle of the night, but this, at least initially, was much worse. They threatened to kill my wife and throw my children out of the window and other similar kinds acts if I did not influence Mr. Jesselson.

I want to remind the reader—these callers were Orthodox Jews.

Although my wife, throughout the entire episode remained very fearful and upset, once I realized who was behind those calls, I relaxed. I could easily have changed my phone number, or unlisted it, but it would have been only a matter of time before they found it out. How? I knew that a certain attorney in Washington Heights was involved with the group and was feeding them information as to my family’s whereabouts and activities. It was also recommended to me to just take the phone off the hook at night, but then they would have called during the day. I was not going to react to this attack on my family by hiding from the group. This was, and still is, not my style. I was going to fight back and I did.

My daughter Esther, being a teenager in high school, had her own telephone line and number. I discussed the problem with the local police and they agreed to the following. The police gave me a direct telephone number to a detective sergeant at the local precinct. Whenever we received a call on my line, I was going to wake up Estie (if she was not already awake) and have her call the sergeant on her line. The police would then notify the telephone company and they would start a tracer to try to locate the caller. My job was to keep the caller on the line for as long as possible to give the telephone company maximum tracing time. I kept them on the line, needling them, laughing at their threats, and making believe I was listening to their entreaties until they got tired. I once kept them on the phone for 58 minutes.

But this could not continue for much longer.

By Norbert Strauss

(To be continued next week)

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