The last 120 years have brought about scores of changes to the Ladies Hospital Aid Society, but one thing has remained constant: the organization’s commitment to addressing health care needs in Western Pennsylvania.
About 30 guests turned out for a Nov. 6 luncheon at Rodef Shalom Congregation to celebrate the 120th anniversary of LHAS and to fete past presidents and descendants of its founders — 17 Jewish women, all Eastern European immigrants, who realized their vision of building a hospital to serve Jewish patients in Pittsburgh and where Jewish doctors could work without facing discrimination, which was a serious issue at the time.
In 1898, Annie Jacobs Davis rallied 16 other women to form the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society, setting membership dues at 10 cents a week. In the early days, that money was used to pay ward rates for indigent Jews admitted to existing hospitals.
“What can be done when a body of people is in earnest is evidenced by the Hebrew Ladies’ Hospital Aid Society,” began a 1904 article that appeared in the Jewish Criterion, the Chronicle’s predecessor paper. “A band of seventeen women determined to take care of the indigent Jews who could not afford to pay for hospital treatment and whose home surroundings were such as to seriously interfere with a proper treatment. They did not go among the wealthy to secure funds for the purpose, but they went among those whose sympathy was with the movement; who knew that at some time they themselves were likely to need the assistance of the organization. As a result even the poorest people in the Pittsburgh district managed to contribute ten cents a week toward the maintenance of the society, and today there are over 500 of these ten cent pieces coming from as many women… The aim of the movement is to establish a hospital of their own, so that patients will receive the care of their own people.”
In 10 years, the women raised $25,000 toward the construction of Montefiore Hospital, which opened in 1908, and the society eventually changed its name to Ladies Hospital Aid Society. Throughout Montefiore’s history, members worked to raise money, establish patient-care programs, and serve the charitable needs of the hospital.
In 1990, Montefiore was sold and became part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The LHAS has continued to remain active but now serves as a fundraising arm of UPMC.
Maxine Horn is the granddaughter of founding president and “mother of Montefiore Hospital” Annie Davis, and was the only descendant of a founding member to attend the luncheon. Horn recalled joining LHAS in the late 1950s, shortly after she married.
“It was just what we did in those days,” she said. “I was still in the aura of my grandmother and all the good she made possible. The women at that time were incredibly active and resourceful in making good happen, especially Jewish causes.”
The society has undergone significant changes in recent years, Horn noted.
“It’s not the same organization,” she said. “My grandmother founded it for hands-on purposes. Montefiore was a place for young, Jewish residents to come in, and also a place to provide kosher meals and a place for Jewish people to feel comfortable. Now, it’s a fundraising arm of the hospital. I don’t know if there is a Jewish component.”
Membership in LHAS has changed as well.
“The names changed over the years,” Horn said. “I didn’t recognize any of them. I understand why it happened — the hospital changed from being a Jewish hospital. I do have a little regret that there is not a Jewish component anymore, but I understand it.”
Before the sale of the hospital to UPMC, LHAS “was very Jewish; that’s a big change, really,” agreed Carol Bleier, author of “A History of Montefiore Hospital of Pittsburgh.” “The way they were originally, they did things for Montefiore Hospital. Now, when there is no Montefiore Hospital, they reinvented themselves.”
The mission of LHAS has expanded to include health needs of the entire Western Pennsylvania community. It has implemented programs for the elderly and women’s health care, including the LHAS Arbor at Weinberg Village and the LHAS Prevention and Early Detection Center at the Hillman Cancer Center, and has allocated thousands of dollars for college scholarship grants to financially support future health care professionals and nursing students.
Marcia Weiss, who served as LHAS president from 2001-2003, is not as active in the group as she once was. Still, she reflected on her time at its helm as “a wonderful opportunity, a wonderful experience. It’s a great organization. They are all over the community now and they help many other organizations in need and people in need.”
Anecdotally, membership in LHAS has dropped significantly from its early to mid-20th-century heyday, although the society did not provide the Chronicle with its membership numbers. The society is actively seeking new members, according to its leadership.
At the luncheon LHAS Community Grants were awarded to five local organizations: $10,000 to Propel Schools Foundation to support a portion of the student wellness facets of its afterschool services; $12,805 to the Aleph Institute to help fund its Out-of-School program which focuses on the needs of those experiencing food insecurity; $15,000 to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, Get Healthy With Clubhouse, to cultivate a holistic after-school environment; $13,160 to Riverview Apartments, Inc. to provide food subsidies for extremely low income residents; and $7,500 to The Friendship Circle, Kids Who Care program, which provides an opportunity for middle schoolers to begin work in advocacy, leadership, and community involvement.
Although four of the five grant recipients this year were Jewish organizations, that is “not typical,” explained Taylor Van Dyke, LHAS administrative assistant, noting that the society welcomes grant applications from the wider community.
“This past year, though, we wanted to focus on these organizations because the Jewish community has done so much for us,” she said.
Several of the luncheon attendees waxed nostalgic about the days when the LHAS was a centerpiece of their lives, providing a grand social network as well as a means to contribute in a meaningful way to the Jewish community. Weiss fondly remembered the big gala fundraising balls the society hosted every year.
“My father was a physician and my mother and father would always go to the Ladies Hospital Aid balls at that time, the affairs,” Weiss said. “It was really the social organization in the city.”
Eileen Finestone was the president of LHAS from 1976 to 1978, having come to Pittsburgh from New York when her late husband, Stephen, was offered a job at Montefiore. He worked as chief of anesthesiology there for more than three decades.
“We didn’t have any family in Pittsburgh, so Hospital Aid became my family,” said Finestone, who fondly recalled working with a committee of 100 women on the annual ball.
“That was really fun, it really was,” said Weiss, a friend of Finestone’s for more than 40 years. “It was work, but it was fun.”
“But nothing lasts forever,” Finestone said. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at