For the past two decades, United Hebrew president and CEO Rita Mabli has overseen the organization’s expansion and growth in New Rochelle. Today, the organization serves 1,000 seniors daily across six lines of business. On its 7.5-acre campus at 391 Pelham Road, United Hebrew offers an array of services aimed at meeting the needs of today’s seniors. Here, Mabli chats with Business Journal reporter Aleesia Forni about the state of the health care industry, an aging Westchester County population and moving up the ranks at United Hebrew.
What made you decide to pursue a career in health care?
“When I was 12 and growing up in the Bronx, my dad got sick. It lasted a long time. I’ll never forget how his doctors and nurses cared for him and helped make him more comfortable. They had a way about them, a personal touch, that’s really a gift. Looking back, I’d say that was the start of my wanting to work in health and human services. Now, when I hear from our residents’ families that the care we provide at United Hebrew is making a difference in their loved one’s lives, I know I made the right choice.”
You later went on to become the first female administrator at United Hebrew before you were named the organization’s first female CEO. Can you talk a bit about that experience?
“After my father died, it was just my mom and me at home. Because she spent her youth working in a sweatshop, my mother was only able to finish school through the eighth grade. She was the smartest, most organized woman I have ever known. She encouraged me to study and to strive to be both smart and kind, lessons I have never forgotten. She also instilled in me a desire to work hard. I won scholarships for both high school and college and was the only woman in my MBA thesis program at Iona College.
When I started at United Hebrew in the late 1970s, women were entering the workforce in droves, but typically not planning to take on leadership roles. I was very fortunate to have managers and colleagues who encouraged me to reach higher. I took chances to advance whenever I could. I earned my nursing home administrator’s license while working full time as United Hebrew’s human resources director. Earning the title of CEO in 1994 was a result of working hard all my life and having a tremendously supportive boss and board of directors.
The number of women in executive positions in health care is somewhat better today than it was then. Women comprise about 80 percent of all health care workers today, but only 20 percent are at the executive level. I’m proud to say that five of the six lines of business at United Hebrew are headed by women, and women comprise 83 percent of our 800-person staff overall.”
Any advice for other women who might be hoping to advance in male-dominated fields?
“Work hard, that’s the first thing. There’s simply no substitute for that. You can pave your own path if you are focused and have a strong work ethic. Don’t be afraid to take the job no one wants. It may be messy, but it may also be a chance to prove yourself. Second, be direct. Women are great communicators and you should not hesitate to participate, to contribute and to take your seat at the table. Third, be confident in your abilities. You’re as smart as everyone else. I feel there is an energy around women today —suffice it to say, women should seize the opportunity to speak up, be heard and control their destiny.”
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over your career and how have you learned from those?
“I learned early on that some people in pursuit of their own agendas will do anything or say anything, even if untrue. So I had to toughen up and learn to push back against workplace bullies and troublemakers. First be a diplomat, then turn into a tiger.”
Can you talk a bit about how United Hebrew has expanded, transformed and diversified over the years?
“Sure. The expansion of our campus has been driven by Westchester’s steadily aging population. People are living longer with more health issues and they need more care. Therefore, we diversified. We went from our initial mission, to provide a home for the aged, to include more levels of care on a truly innovative, state-of-the-art campus of elder care.
We now provide an array of services to fit the fluctuating health needs of seniors, including a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility to restore residents to health or provide long-term care if their needs grow; affordable senior housing for seniors with limited income; an assisted living facility for seniors to live on their own with a little help; and a freestanding memory care facility. By the way, our facility, Willow Gardens Memory Care, is Westchester’s first nonprofit residence devoted exclusively to caring for people affected by Alzheimer’s disease and other memory impairments.”
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Certainly, I’m incredibly proud of building a campus where seniors can age in place and have their evolving health care needs met. I didn’t do it alone. I am so fortunate to have a supportive, visionary board of directors and a dedicated staff composed of individuals who are committed to their work. We have worked hard to create a culture of kindness and respect, where we treat each other, and our residents, like family. As a result, we have one of the lowest staff turnover rates in New York state. That’s something I’m immensely proud of.”
What’s next for you and United Hebrew? Any big projects on the horizon?
“Our aging population is fueling a rise in the number of individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. While there’s no cure, there’s much we can do for those affected (about 40,000 across the Hudson Valley). We’re undertaking a campuswide specialized dementia training and certification initiative to ensure that our staff has the tools and skills to provide the best quality of life possible for our residents affected by dementia. Our next big milestone is our 100th anniversary. We’ll be celebrating throughout 2019 with special events, reflections, and additional new initiatives. Stay tuned.”