When Dr. Rick Hodes showed his audience a picture of an Ethiopian boy with a facial tumor so huge it threatened to suffocate him, and then showed the boy restored to smiling normality, it was very clear what motivates him.
But the Long Island native acknowledged that only some cases turn out that well. In a country with only 2,000 doctors to treat a population of 80 million, Hodes and his team at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee confront poverty and tragedy on a scale few Americans ever see, and face an endless struggle to find funding and resources.
On Jan. 27, the JDC’s Ethiopia medical director described his work during a talk at the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains. About 80 people attended the event, hosted by Women’s Philanthropy of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Guests included Women’s Philanthropy of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, with which the Central federation plans to merge in July.
Hodes has worked in Ethiopia for the JDC since 1990, with brief spells dealing with crises in other countries. In addition to its assistance to the Ethiopian Jewish community, the “Joint” has served tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and non-Jews through clinics, immunization, nutrition programs, family planning, and community health.
Despite the horrors he described, Hodes spoke with humorous, unassuming lightness. Wearing a multi-colored crocheted cap and a casual tweed jacket, he looked more like Woody Allen than the honored specialist that he is.
Asked how he can bear the tragedies he faces, he said, “I think about our successes.” Among them are the four children he adopted, as a way to get them medical care under his own insurance.
“Aetna doesn’t like me,” he admitted with a big grin. Some of them are at schools and colleges around the United States. He has also fostered numerous other orphaned children.
Just where this devotion to service came from he doesn’t know. He started out with a degree in geography before switching to medicine, and claimed to have stumbled almost by chance into his extraordinary career.
An Orthodox Jew, he said he always aspired to serve.
“When I was a kid, my favorite books were about doctors who went to remote places to help people,” he said.
Hodes first went to Ethiopia in 1984 to do famine relief work, right after qualifying as an internist. Working briefly at a mission there run by Mother Theresa “changed my life,” he said.
His work is the subject of the HBO documentary Making the Crooked Straight and a book, This is a Soul: The Mission of Rick Hodes.
Among his JDC duties has been providing medical care for Ethiopian Jews preparing to immigrate to Israel. There is one more group of 5,000 waiting to make aliya, he said, although “another group always seems to emerge.”
From 1984 to the early 90s, secret immigrations and rescue operations brought more than 20,000 Jews from Ethiopia to Israel.
Hodes delights in collaborations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, including one case with a “supernatural” dimension.
That case concerned an orphaned Muslim girl with a life-threatening eye tumor. He struggled without success to find a neurosurgeon willing to operate on her for free. Some months later, he said, he was in Minnesota on a trip. He overslept and woke too late to say his morning prayers, so on the way to the airport, he asked his companion to stop at a synagogue. Among the people he got talking to there was a neurosurgeon.
“Within 20 seconds I had my laptop open with the images of her brain scans,” he recalled. “The other doctor was fascinated, and agreed to do the operation. The girl — cared for at a Catholic institution — is thriving.”
Earlier in the week he had spoken to groups in Monmouth and Middlesex counties and still had a number of others to address before returning to Ethiopia. Dov Ben-Shimon, JDC’s executive director of strategic partnerships for the Greater New York area, accompanied Hodes on Jan. 27. Ben-Shimon said that while federation campaign allocations help fund the infrastructure for his work, patient care has to be financed with additional donations.
In the audience were a number of women who have seen Hodes at work in Addis Ababa while on federation-sponsored missions. Mindy Goldberger of Westfield, who traveled there in 2007, said it was an extraordinary experience — made all the more memorable when a member of their group fell ill and Hodes went into action to help him.
Leslie Dannin Rosenthal of South Orange said that seeing Hodes at work was a “life-changing experience.”
A couple of people inquired about ways, in addition to giving money, they can help Ethiopians — those still in Ethiopia (he gave an estimate of 5,000 still remaining) or those in Israel.
Asked if he wouldn’t prefer to work in the United States than deal with the poverty and lack of resources in Africa, Hodes shook his head and said, “It would be less frustrating — but it would also be less inspiring.”