Dr. Debbie Cohen-Stein, a kidney specialist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, has seen her share of rural poverty.
As a medical student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the South African native worked in clinics in poor, black townships. But nothing prepared her for what she saw when she entered the Jewish Agency for Israel’s compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, said the 47-year-old mother of four.
The Wynnewood resident spent two weeks there late last year to treat one of the last waves of Falash Mura — Ethiopians who are descendants from converts to Christianity but have returned to Judaism — to emigrate to the Jewish state.
The Jews there, she said, didn’t have shoes, lived 10 to 12 people per room and were malnourished.
“A lot of them had never seen a doctor,” she said. “This is the most rural place you can imagine. There is no paved road. There is no economy there. There is no infrastructure.”
She marveled that the Jewish Agency, working closely with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was able to get any food or medical care to the compound at all, given its remoteness and distance from the capital.
“They were doing the best they could do,” she said. “It was incredible that the Jewish Agency went in there and didn’t abandon these people.”
The Jewish Agency announced in June that it would be ending aliyah from Ethiopia with two flights carrying about 400 people at the end of August. It also announced it would close the Gondar compound, ending a nearly 30-year effort to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel.
Some of the better known phases, such as Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1991, brought an estimated tens of thousands of Ethiopians to Israel. Since the late 1990s, thousands of Falash Mura have gained intermittent permission. In the last three years, about 200 Falash Mura each month have immigrated to Israel.
Cohen-Stein was in the eastern African country while on sabbatical from Penn, volunteering through the nonprofit group Jewish Healthcare International. The organization sends doctors to communities in need, both Jewish and non-Jewish, throughout the world.
Her team saw about 400 people who had already been approved to emigrate and assigned to a flight. While there, she also gave lectures in treating hypertension at a nearby hospital and medical school.
She found that many of the patients had untreated maladies: poor eyesight, malaria, tuberculosis and advanced cancer. Few had problems that are typical in Western societies like diabetes or high blood preassure, she said.
The doctors’ role, she said, was not to delay the individuals from making aliyah — unless they had a highly communicable disease. Rather, it was to let officials and doctors at various absorption centers in Israel know what to expect and to begin treatment immediately.
She said she’s continually amazed that Israel will accept immigrants — many of them older and ill — who won’t bring any immediate benefit to the country’s economy. But she said that from what she could see, she was confident that the children would adapt quickly, and the number of examples of Ethiopians who moved to Israel as teenagers or young adults and found great success is reassuring.
From a Jewish perspective, the physician said, she was moved by the hundreds of people who prayed in the compound’s synagogue three times a day. A day school parent who travels to Israel frequently, Cohen-Stein said she’d never before seen such religious fervor or Jewish pride.
The Jewish presence in Gondar is a huge anchor of the economy there, she said, and many non-Jews are somehow employed in the operation.
“Once they pull out,” she said “it is going to affect the general population because it is such a poor place.”