Wednesday, I went from a conversation with an 1199 member at Yale – New Haven Hospital to a dinner at Yale’s Slifka Center for Jewish Life with Marvin Lender (that’s right – the one with all the bagels), prominent Jewish philanthropist and Chairman of the Board of the Hospital. The topic? Jewish tradition and business ethics.
I showed up with fifteen-some friends eager to discuss, in light of Jewish tradition: the Hospital’s three-year refusal to make a contract offer with across-the-board raises for its unionized food service workers, who’ve now twice gone on strike (although in a meeting with students a few months back, the Hospital’s Vice President for Public Relations claimed that they hadn’t, and he had to be corrected by the Vice President for Labor Relations); the paralyzing, and empirically justified, fear of the Hospital’s non-union workforce, who make significantly less than the Local 34 and 35 members who perform identical work beside them, that discussing organizing will cost them their jobs; and the Hospital’s failure, even after its latest reforms, to formulate a policy which ensures access to healthcare for New Haveners lacking full health insurance.
Lender’s response to the first few questions along these lines have two basic parts. First: He could serve on “any board I wanted to,” but “I chose Yale – New Haven Hospital” because of its work helping people. “My heart goes out” to “those poor people” who work there and “love their jobs” but “are being targeted by the unions.” The Hospital “is too busy helping people” to “get into a – excuse me – a pissing contest with the unions.” Second: Secular organizations, like Yale – New Haven Hospital, “aren’t like Jewish organizations,” in that there’s a rigid structure and so “my job isn’t to tell [Yale – New Haven Hospital President] Joe Zaccanino what to do.” The Board just “hires and fires” him. So “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on specific issues.”
When we questioned Lender’s categorization of a non-profit Hospital’s service to the poor and treatment of its workers as “day-to-day issues,” he became visibly more uncomfortable and markedly more curt. He was relieved to get a question from one of the couple people in the room not there to talk about the hospital, this one about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and spoke sympathetically and articulately about his responsibility, as a confidante and ally of leaders of mainstream Jewish organizations, to pressure them to commit to a two-state solution. So I expressed my agreement with his principle that those in positions of influence over powerful leaders who’ve gone astray have a moral obligation to speak out, cited some sources from Leviticus, Megillat Esther, and Pirkei Avot to that effect, and urged him to push Yale – New Haven Hospital into line with our shared ethical tradition. His response: “Are you trying to tell me that Esther or Mordechai with Chairman of a Board?”
Lender became increasingly rude as Jared Maslin, drawing on his experience at SHOUT helping the poor file applications for Yale – New Haven Hospital’s Free Bed Fund, tried to briefly describe the process to contextualize his question. “Are you going to ask me a question or not?” Lender asked, to which Jared replied that he wanted to make sure everyone in the room could understand the situation, prompting Lender to tell him that that was a waste of time. Jared, taken aback somewhat, suggested that he and Lender could talk about the issue after the dinner, to which Lender responded adamantly, “Now we won’t.” So Jared related that his experience suggests that the application system intentionally erects intimidating and often insurmountable beuracratic boundaries to dissuade those who need assistance from seeking it, and asked Lender what he would think of giving a third-party of some kind oversight over the process. Lender’s response: “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on that ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”
Shaking his head in his hands during questions, Lender announced, in a supreme moment of irony, “I’d didn’t come here to talk about this. I didn’t come here to talk about the Hospital. I came here to talk about business ethics.” That just about said it all. He then accused us of being rude and insisted that he was being “respectful” anyway, and accused us of “wasting the time” of all the people there who didn’t care about the Hospital, a peculiar sentiment given that all but a few of us had come specifically to discuss with one of the most powerful leaders of the Hospital how it’s treatment of the New Haven community clashed with religious and ethical values and what he planned to do about it.
Towards the end, Lender insisted that those who wanted to talk about the Hospital should “send me a letter.” That sounds like an invitation to me.