Abram Khlibnikov read that a person could rapidly go blind from glaucoma, and he was tired of waiting for care at his home in Tel Aviv.
Desperate not to lose his eyesight, the retired aerospace engineer made a hasty decision earlier this month to fly to Philadelphia, where he thought getting eye surgery would be as simple as walking into a doctor’s office.
The treatment that Khlibnikov received upon arrival in the United States shows that this country can still be the sort of place immigrants dream about, even when it isn’t exactly what they first envisioned. When relatives wouldn’t board the 75-year-old man, he ended up at a gathering place for many older Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union: the Klein JCC, where strangers treated him like an old friend.
Khlibnikov moved to Israel from Ukraine more than a decade ago, after his wife had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. Khlibnikov had hoped to move to the United States, but the wait was too long so they traveled via boat from Odessa to Haifa.
Khlibnikov had anxious visions of what life might look like if he were blind and trying to care for his paralyzed wife — and so decided to take action. He left his wife with a nurse from an Israeli social service agency and boarded a plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. A day later, he walked into the JCC with his luggage and little ability to communicate why he was there.
Khlibnikov said he already knew during the 10-hour flight that he might find himself in dire straits upon landing. The day before leaving, the daughter of a cousin, whom Khlibnikov had been in contact with, called and told him not to come, that he couldn’t stay with them. He had already purchased the plane ticket and travel insurance, though, so the medical tourist didn’t change his plans.
On Jan. 13 at Philadelphia International Airport, police approached Khlibnikov, who was sitting alone in the luggage area. They realized he couldn’t speak English. They found a Russian cab driver who pieced together Khlibnikov’s story and decided the JCC was the best place to take him.
The cabbie apparently knew the center had a number of Russian-speaking staff members and offered programming and social services for senior citizens.
Klein JCC president Andre Krug described Khlibnikov’s situation as a “perfect storm.” Khlibnikov had purchased travel insurance under the misconception that it would cover any health issues. He had a rude awakening.
“I can’t analyze what moves people to do certain things but when a person shows up at our door we’re supposed to help this person,” Krug said.
Khlibnikov left Philadelphia on Tuesday without receiving the surgery he thought he urgently needed. The JCC staff arranged for him to see a doctor from Wills Eye Institute who told him the Israeli doctors had been treating him properly. The doctor also communicated with an American colleague now living in Israel who agreed to see Khlibnikov and offer a second opinion.
During the week and a half he was here, the JCC put Khlibnikov up in a nearby hotel and staff members picked him up each morning for meals and programming at the facility. This was his first trip to America, and by the end of last week, all he’d seen was the inside of an airport, a taxi, the hotel and the JCC. On Friday, a family in the Northeast invited him to their home for Shabbat.
“It’s unbelievable how kind and warm people are and how they care about me,” Khlibnikov said through a translator.
Krug said his staff has joked about the potential impact of Khlibnikov spreading the word in Israel about the kind strangers at the Klein JCC.
“My staff is laughing about it,” said Krug, himself a Russian immigrant who moved here in 1999 and has worked at the JCC since 2004. “He’s going to go back and tell how good everyone in America is, and we’re going to have an invasion.”