A hospital merger isn't the kind of issue that usually draws the ire of the Jewish community.
Yet the news in late June that Abington Health plans to merge with the Holy Redeemer Health System, and cease performing abortions as a result of the agreement, has sparked outrage among rabbis and has appeared to unite much of the Old York Road corridor's non-Orthodox community.
A group of eight rabbis dashed off a letter on July 3 to Abington CEO Laurence Merlis explaining how the decision violates Jewish tradition. Specifically, it stated that "Jewish tradition mandates an abortion in the event that carrying a fetus to term would endanger the life of the mother."
Several local religious leaders, including Rabbi Elliot J. Holin of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park, emailed their members with similar thoughts.
In addition, a "Stop the Abington Hospital Merger" Facebook page was started by a Jewish woman. Media reports about the controversy have quoted several Abington doctors with names that clearly sound Jewish. And a letter to the editor in The Philadelphia Inquirer by Eleanor Levie mentions her affiliation with the National Council of Jewish Women.
In fact, Jews have played such a prominent role in opposing the merger that Jewish leaders are taking pains to stress that the controversy isn't framed in terms of Jews versus Catholics. But some have interpreted it this way, judging by some readers' comments, a number of them bordering on the anti-Semitic, posted on Philly.com's coverage of the brouhaha.
One reader wrote: "Jewish-owned abortion clinics which are operated by Jewish doctors account for over 50% of all abortions performed in the United States each year. This is interesting to say the least since Jews in the United States account for only 2% of the population."
"There is a definite concern that we don't want this to be a religious war," said Dr. Sherrie Blumenthal, an obstetrician who has been on staff at Abington for 22 years but has said she will sever her relationship with the facility if it prohibits all abortions. (She also works at a private practice.)
Blumenthal, currently chair of the Pennsylvania Section of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said she has performed abortions over her career but does not do so regularly.
Blumenthal, 66, said she was "proud of the Jewish community" for being outspoken about their concerns. In addition, she said, "there is a very large number of Catholics fighting this. This is not just Jews. This is not a religious issue from my point of view. From my point of view, this is a women's health care issue and the decisions should be made by physicians."
Abington, which includes the 665-bed Abington Memorial Hospital and the 125-bed Lansdale Hospital, has signed a letter of intent to merge with Holy Redeemer, which includes a 242-bed hospital in Meadowbrook, as well as nursing homes and hospices in various locations.
Each side has stressed that many of the details still need to be worked out and a final agreement hasn't been reached.
Though speculation is rampant, it's not known exactly why Abington, apparently a profitable hospital, has decided to merge with Holy Redeemer, which reportedly has been losing money.
It's also not clear which organization initiated the talks. Though both health systems issued news releases, neither has made its officials available to the media or issued detailed explanations, although the leaders of both organizations have indicated that it is in their financial interests to merge.
According to a statement released by Abington, "The system's parent organization will be a secular organization with the goal of developing innovative methods of care designed to keep communities healthy and reduce the incidence of disease.
"Patients receiving care at Abington will have access to all reproductive health services except abortion," the statement added. When asked whether the policy would apply to all abortions, including instances when the mother's life is in danger, a spokeswoman for Abington, Linda Millevoi, said she couldn't give any additional information.
Roughly 50 abortions were performed at Abington last year. Pro-life demonstrators have often picketed at the site.
Abington did issue a statement that the hospital would continue to do in vitro fertilization, offer contraceptive services and perform vasectomies — things that typically aren't done in Catholic hospitals. For some, that has confused the issue further since Abington appears to be adopting some, though not all, of Holy Redeemer's policies.
There is also concern that the move could affect some end-of-life decisions, though none of those specifics have been spelled out yet. "We have no detailed information. It is very frustrating," said Blumenthal.
Merlis, Abington's CEO, met with Rabbi Lawrence Sernovitz of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am last week but did not back away from the abortion decision, Sernovitz said, adding that the CEO expressed his intent to meet with a group of area rabbis and clarify some of these issues.
While Jewish and Catholic organizations mostly enjoy warm relations in the United States — the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Jewish world that has taken place over the last 50 years is considered remarkable — the issues of choice and contraception often prove to be a sticking point.
This was in evidence a few weeks ago when Philadelphia Rabbi Arthur Waskow got in a public tiff with William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, over the Church's opposition to new federal policy mandating that Catholic-run hospitals provide their employees with coverage for birth control and other contraceptive services.
Few issues seem to unify the non-Orthodox Jewish community like reproductive choice. According to a national poll of Jewish voters released in May conducted by Steven M. Cohen for the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring, about 90 percent of Jews believe abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances.
Within a day of hearing about Abington's merger plans, rabbis along the Old York Road corridor had drafted their letter to Merlis.
The signers included Holin of Kol Ami; David Glanzberg-Kranin and Andrea Merow of Beth Sholom Congregation; Seymour Rosenbloom of Congregation Adath Jeshurun; Lance Sussman and Kevin Kleinman of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel; Gregory Marx and David Gerber of Congregation Beth Or; Howard Addison of Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El; Adam Wohlberg of Temple Sinai; and Robert Leib and Sernovitz of Old York Road Temple.
"While we respect Catholic teachings that regard a fetus as a potential life, and understand that a Catholic hospital would refuse to provide abortion services, we are deeply concerned that this decision imposes a Catholic religious worldview on the entire community," the letter stated.
"In making the decision to no longer provide abortions" at Abington Memorial Hospital, "you are in effect saying that one religious tradition's teachings should take precedence over all others," the letter continued. "Should AMH commit to this path and refuse to perform abortion services, it would seriously undermine its status as a community hospital in any meaningful sense of the term."
One rabbi who did not sign the statement was Dov Brisman, leader of Young Israel of Elkins Park, an Orthodox synagogue. Brisman could not be reached for comment.
Daniel Eisenberg, an Orthodox physician at Albert Einstein Medical Center, who writes widely on medical ethics, said that Jewish law takes neither a pro-life nor a pro-choice position, and as a general rule abortion is permitted only when the life of the mother is at stake, in part because the needs of the mother are believed to supercede the needs of the fetus, in part because the life of the latter depends on the former.
Eisenberg said he doesn't find the hospital's decision to be ethically problematic, in part because women can go elsewhere for elective abortions.
Only if Abington refused to perform a medically necessary emergency abortion "would the merger be morally problematic from a traditional Jewish perspective," he said.
The Jewish Social Policy Action Network, a liberal group, weighed in on the controversy with a statement.
"One of the tragedies of this development is the number of patients and health professionals who feel so strongly about this short-sighted policy that they are giving serious thought to going elsewhere," the statement read. "It would be ironic if an attempt to make the hospital more financially secure leads to financial hardships for such a highly regarded medical center."
Rita Poley, a 69-year-old Elkins Park resident who runs the Temple Judea Museum at Keneseth Israel, was so incensed when she heard the news that she felt she needed to do something.
Her daughter suggested she start a Facebook page and within a day, she'd launched "Stop the Abington Merger" group. Since then she has been monitoring it round the clock. So far, it has more than 500 "likes" and more than 6,000 people have viewed the page.
"What we want is that it be stopped and that the merger be ended and that they talk to other more reasonable merger candidates," said Poley.
Poley insisted that the coalition that is forming to combat the merger is made up of a cross section of people. "They are not all Jewish," she said. "This is not just a Jewish issue. This is a community issue."