Heart-to-heart effort boosts Israel’s image

There are nearly 50 million people in the East African nation of Tanzania and only one pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon. That would be Dr. Godwin Godfrey, who owes his training to an Israel-based nonprofit, Save a Child’s Heart (SACH). 

The doctor was in the Los Angeles area in October, speaking about the international organization that trains doctors from across the globe to perform delicate, life-saving surgeries on children from developing countries with congenital heart problems. It’s also devoted to offering free open-heart surgery in Israel for children from developing nations.

Godfrey is a surgeon who learned about SACH from a German pediatrician at his hospital in Mwanza, Tanzania, according to an interview posted at saveachildsheart.org. As part of his five-year training process with the organization, he spent time studying pediatric cardiology, pediatric intensive care and cardiac anesthesiology at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. 

David Litwack, SACH’s U.S. executive director, explained that the organization began in 1995, founded by the late Dr. Ami Cohen, an American who made aliyah. Its goal is to work on many levels, Litwack said: “saving lives around the world, training the doctors and building bridges of understanding [between various cultures and Israel].”

The organization’s West Coast arm came together serendipitously after Judy Shore and her husband, David, creator of the TV medical drama “House,” stumbled upon it while abroad.

“We were invited to Israel along with the cast of ‘House’ a few years ago, and we stopped at SACH,” said Judy Shore, now the organization’s West Coast chair. “David and I go to Israel very often, but we knew very little about SACH. Wow! We were so moved.”

On Oct. 6, the Shores opened up their Pacific Palisades home to host a meet-and-greet for about 25 people that raised awareness and donations. Without an official office in Los Angeles, Judy Shore and Jack Mayer, SACH Western regional director, both work out of their homes to help the operation.

“SACH has been active on the East Coast for a while, but we would like to have more of a presence here,” Judy Shore said. “It’s an amazing nonprofit. They have saved the lives of over 3,000 children from over 40 countries. Not only do they bring children to Israel for surgery, but they also train doctors from other countries to perform heart surgery [in their respective countries].”  

David Shore said: “There’s a lot of good charities out there who do a lot of good, but usually what they do is make a crappy situation slightly less crappy. This organization, for these kids, takes a crappy situation and makes it go away, gives them life.”

For the Shores, becoming actively involved with SACH came easily. Not so for some of the children it tries to assist.

 “[The organization] recently performed successful surgery on two children from Syria. This was no easy trip. They ended up traveling via Europe to Israel to avoid people in their country knowing that they were going to the Jewish state,” Judy Shore said. “A third child was supposed to come, but the parents decided not to make the trip. That child has died.”

Many of the children who receive operations are Palestinian, she said. 

“They also have to be careful about people within their community knowing that they are being treated in Israel,” Judy Shore said.

Nancy Pardo, a Calabasas mom, began volunteering for SACH more than a year ago and can relate to its mission of helping kids. She meets with Los Angeles-area rabbis to spread the word and enlist young volunteers. She has another goal, too — bettering Israel’s image in the world’s eyes by raising awareness of SACH. 

“It’s so important politically,” Pardo said. “Even the Israelis don’t even know. I have cousins in Holon in the hospitals that don’t even know about it. Anything we can do here will help.”

At Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, where Pardo’s two children attend classes, Godfrey spoke with middle-schoolers in October, and Pardo facilitated a Mitzvah Day event on Nov. 3 where kids constructed rainbow loom bracelets to send to SACH children in Israel. 

“It was unbelievable,” she said. “The kids were so interested [in Godfrey]!”

Looking ahead, SACH plans to open clinics in Ethiopia and Romania. 

“They are working with physicians in both countries,” Judy Shore said. “An Ethiopian doctor is training in Israel right now.”

Locally, there is talk of putting together a gala in 2014 after the High Holy Days, she said. 

Meanwhile, back in Tanzania, the need is great, and Godfrey’s journey has only begun, Judy Shore noted.

“He has his work cut out for him.”

‘Hakuna Matata’ meets tikkun olam

On Jan. 3, 2007 I accompanied my family to what I thought would be a normal dinner at a delicious Mexican restaurant. I was wrong.

That was the night I found out that I would have to leave all of my friends and go away for six and a half months, spending about two months each in Africa, Southeast Asia and Israel, where, as a family, we would be doing a mix of traveling and volunteering.

While everyone around me was telling me how amazing it would be, I was positive it was going to be the worst six months of my life. I was a normal 13-year-old girl who did not want to leave all of her friends, miss her graduation and all of the other perks of finally being a big eighth-grader.

Only two months before we left, I became a bat mitzvah. Along with the typically excessive amounts of jewelry and more money then any 13-year-old should have within her reach, I got one present that really stood out from the rest. It was a letter from family friends Greg and Justine Podell, with a promise to donate $3,000 to an organization I would find on my trip that would touch my heart. I was still relentlessly opposed to going on the trip, but this gift empowered me to feel that I could make a small difference (little did I know how far $3,000 could go in some of the places that I was visiting) and provided a unique way for me to view my experience and understand my responsibilities to myself, my family and the world.

Our first stop was Tanzania, a country in East Africa, just south of Kenya, and one of the poorest countries in the world. While we were there, I spent a lot of time at an orphanage called Matumaini, which means, “hope” in Swahili. I tried to visit the orphanage every day, and I formed incredible relationships with almost all of the kids living there. I loved the kids so much; they were always so happy and hopeful, even though they have close to nothing, not even running water or clothes and shoes that fit. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted the money to go to them.

I was able to return to Tanzania during my spring break of 2008 (my freshman year in high school), this time with another volunteer and without my family. Before I left for Africa, I showed my fellow students at Limudim, my religious school at Ikar, pictures of the orphans, and gave them a mini Swahili lesson (who knew that hakuna matata really does mean “no worries”?). I had each of the students write letters to the kids in the orphanage. When I got to Tanzania, in addition to reading the letters (after we translated them), I had the orphans write letters back, which I sent along with a picture of their Tanzanian “pen pal.”

Returning to Tanzania convinced me that I really wanted to use Greg and Justine’s gift for the benefit of Tanzania. Two of my fellow volunteers, who were also moved by their experiences in Tanzania, started nonprofit organizations. I have decided to give the money to those organizations.

The first one is called the Knock Foundation. The primary focus of the organization is to continue to support the needs of the orphans at Matumaini. The money I’m giving to that organization will create a fund that will pay the secondary-school fees for the orphans. While Tanzania offers public education, many kids cannot afford even the very small fees. My intention is to raise additional money for this fund as well as money toward the purchase of books and other school supplies

The second organization is called Team Tanzania, which is dedicated to organizing Americans, primarily young people, in improving lives in Tanzania by partnering with local community development organizations based in the Kilimanjaro region. Team Tanzania aims to motivate Americans to become involved in any number of ways: from donating money to donating time; from traveling to Africa, to speaking to friends, family and neighbors about Tanzania and its people.

This magical gift really brought everything together for me. Greg and Justine’s gift, combined with this trip and preparing for my bat mitzvah, taught me to take a deeper look at the world around me and consider where

I want to take a stand in helping the world become a better place.

Of course, I realize that not everyone will be able to go on the kind of trip that I went on or receive a gift as generous as Greg and Justine’s, but any gift that encourages us to consider tikkun olam in a deep and meaningful way is the best gift of all.

Maya Wergeles is sophomore at Santa Monica High School and a student at Limudim, the religious school at IKAR.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.