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Two former New Jerseyans honored for can-do spirit
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Two former New Jerseyans honored for can-do spirit

When the cell phone rings, it’s often not mom, a friend, or a co-worker on the other end. For tuberculosis patients in Kenya, the recorded message received several times a day is a reminder to take life-saving medication. 

Jonathan Rathauser, a former Belle Meade resident who made aliyah in 2016, is the brainchild behind this intervention. He’s the founder of Keheala, a mobile health company that works to improve health-care access and treatment outcomes for patients across the
developing world. 

“By helping patients take their medications properly the first time we are not only improving their outcomes, but saving future medical costs,” Rathauser told NJJN in a phone interview from his home in Tel Aviv.

Rathauser is one of two former N.J. residents — out of 20 total recipients — to be honored with a $5,000 grant from Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jerusalem-based organization, which rewards olim “who have developed something for social good,” said Jake Sharfman, a spokesperson for the organization.

The other one-time Garden State resident is Zehava Arky, who lived in Morristown, and is launching a multiservice community center in Beersheva this month to assist working families. 

After majoring in environmental studies at McGill University in Montreal and moving to Israel, Rathauser committed himself to “heal the world through technology, medicine, and international outreach,” he said.

Most adults in Africa have cell phones, Rathauser said, so he decided “to do behavioral interventions with them” by staying in telephonic touch with those who suffer from tuberculosis.

The main impediment to improving cure rates is that many patients don’t take their medication properly “because of the stigma of having a disease that can alienate them from friends and families,” Rathauser said. Another factor, he added, is that sometimes, after taking medicine for a month or two, patients start to feel better and then stop taking their medication, resulting in a relapse for failing to complete a six-month regimen.

Keheala comes into the picture after patients are diagnosed and medicated. Keheala’s name and phone number are entered in a patient’s phone “and from there we take over,” he said, referring to setting up the reminders. 

The calls help patients avoid daily clinic visits. Keheala calls back within an hour if the patient doesn’t acknowledge the reminder, then a third time two hours after the first call. After three days without a response, Keheala alerts Kenyan health workers of the patient’s reluctance to engage with the program, and they are dispatched to make a house call. 

The patients are not charged for the service, which is sponsored by the Kenyan government and NGOs. The follow-ups, arranged by Keheala, are especially vital for patients suffering from a drug-resistant strain. 

A sample of 1,200 people in Kenya suffering from tuberculosis showed that the mortality rate of patients who took part in the program was reduced by two-thirds, according to Rathauser. As a result, Keheala is launching a second program in Zimbabwe in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme.

Asked whether running a program that is based in Israel has positive or negative influences on its acceptance in Africa, Rathauser said, “we don’t go around flaunting our nationality. But I was actually quite surprised at some people’s fondness for Israel. We want to serve all patients who need our help, so if that means being quiet about where we come from, we’re OK with that.”

Zehava Arky said, “If you see something lacking in a community, that means you are probably the person who is meant to make it happen.”
Photo courtesy Zehava Arky

After growing up in a secular Zionist family in Somerset County, Rathauser attended McGill University in Montreal and eventually caught the attention of the Israel Lacrosse Association when he captained a team that won the Canadian national championship. He competed for Israel in the World Games in the summer of 2014. He visits Kenya several times a year and coaches young Kenyans in the sport.

Michigan-born Zehava Arky has lived in many spots, from the Philippines to Georgia to New Jersey, and now Beersheva. Her mother is American, her father Nigerian. Although she said her previous religion was “nothing,” she became involved with Chabad while attending Georgia State University, and she’s still a member of the movement.

Eventually she married Baruch Arky and moved to Morristown, where she studied at the Lubavitch movement’s Rabbinical College of America and worked in its office. The Arkys and their 4-year-old son, Mendel, made aliyah in 2014. 

After moving to Israel she became involved in a seed group, a collection of families who wish to build a new community, and formed a partnership with Michla Lichy, a midwife and day care center operator, who had made aliyah from Chicago. The two women began collaborating on a project to ease the burden of child care for working parents.  

“Currently, many women have to choose between focusing on their careers or their family life,” said Arky. “Furthermore, many of the traditional opportunities are in the center of the country, so it is popular for residents in the south of Israel to freelance or work from home.” 

This month they plan to open HubSheva, a workspace center, in a rented building with spaces for meeting rooms, private offices, and children’s playrooms. 

Most Israeli families have two working parents, Arky told NJJN. HubSheva “will provide an opportunity and a solution where mothers with an entrepreneurial spirit can still work while being close to their little ones, in a space that is a supportive and energetic.” 

In addition to providing child care, HubSheva is planning to be a venue for classes, lectures, and special events “to inspire a community culture as well,” she said. 

Thus far the parents of five children have enrolled their kids in their program, which they are hoping to expand. When it does, Arky says it won’t be limited to moms, or even Jews.  

“When we started we had it in mind to be a women’s community space, but we had a few work-from-home fathers who were also very interested in it. So, we decided to open up our services to men as well as women.” And Beersheva’s Jewish population “gets along well with local Arabs and Bedouins” who might someday become HubSheva clients.   

Users are charged by the hour so “you pay for what you use,” as opposed to signing up for more expensive monthly day care or private babysitters. 

In addition to the $5,000 grant it received from Nefesh B’Nefesh that HubSheva will apply to the cost of its launch, her start-up has received aid from Eretz-Ir, a nonprofit that works with local community residents in “propelling educational, cultural, and economic change from the bottom up.”  

Her message to Jews and others in New Jersey is a very practical one. “If you see something lacking in a community, that means you are probably the person who is meant to make it happen.”

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