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Israeli Eye Doctor Treating Thousands of Ethiopians

January 12, 2021 | by Adam Ross

When Dr Morris Hartstein’s children asked to go on a volunteering trip together, he had no idea that it would change their lives and help over 5000 Ethiopians.

One of Israel’s leading eye surgeons, Dr. Morris Hartstein, 57, was born in St Louis, Missouri. Following in his father’s footsteps, he qualified as an ophthalmologist and then specialized as an oculoplastics surgeon operating on bone and soft tissue around the eye. In 2004, he was working for Saint Louis University when he and his wife Elisa embarked on a ten-month sabbatical in Israel.

“With four kids under the age of six, it had been an intense few years, developing our careers while building our family. We were looking for ‘something,’ and had spent a very meaningful six months in Israel just after we were married, so we decided to go back.”

Dr. Hartstein examines the eyes of those waiting for his help, photo credit Zohar Tsabari

Assigned to the Asaf Harofeh Hospital near Tel Aviv, the Hartsteins settled into their new life. “We felt an energy we really liked and the kids were happy. A few months in, it was already clear to us that we didn’t want to leave.” After extending his sabbatical for a second and third year, he made the move permanent.

South African Safari

Morris Hartstein opened up his own practice and Elisa started a clothing line for nursing mothers. In 2012, the family traveled to South Africa for a safari vacation where a drive past some of the country’s shanty towns made a deep impression on their youngest son Zack, then 12. “He asked if we could go somewhere on our next family trip where we could volunteer.”

The idea registered with the whole family and they began looking into all kinds of ideas, but nothing seemed right. Eventually, they wondered if there was still a Jewish community in Ethiopia. This happened the same time that an acquaintance was hosting an Ethiopian cuisine night. The family went and were put in touch with several key figures involved in supporting the remnant Jewish community of Ethiopia – 10,000 men, women and children in the Gondar compound in the north of the country who were waiting to emigrate to Israel.

Zack and Eliana on the families first trip in 2012

They met Abraham Nagussi, a longtime activist and former Member of the Israeli parliament (Knesset), and Rabbi Menachem Waldman, who had also dedicated his life to bringing Ethiopian Jewry to Israel.

“I’m coming over,” Rabbi Waldman said, after Dr. Hartstein called him to ask about the possibility of volunteering. He showed up in the family’s living room later that evening, filling them in on what was happening on the ground in Gondar, and the groups of volunteers who had visited in the past. “By the time he left, our minds were made up.” The Hartsteins planned their trip for January 2013.

Dalia Hartstein, with children in Gondar.

“They have come to see you”

When the family landed in Gondar, they were struck by what they saw. “The living conditions were dire. There was no clean water for washing and bathing or access to medical care. In our modern times seeing dozens of people living in one-room mud huts with no toilets, refrigeration, or enough food was shocking.”

The family got busy playing guitar, singing and teaching songs among other things, and it didn’t occur to Morris to share his profession with those he met. “We were there to volunteer with our children.” But one morning he met one of the contacts from Israel who had helped him arrange the trip and word got out.

A few hours later, a crowd of 300 people gathered as the Hartsteins finished afternoon prayers. “What are they waiting for?” Dr. Hartstein asked a translator.

“They have come to see you,” he replied. “They want you to check their eyes.”

The Hartsteins teaching songs to families in Gondar

Taken aback, he looked to his children. “Check them dad,” they urged him. “That’s why we’re here.” Armed only with a penlight and aided by a translator, Dr Hartstein spent the remainder of the day examining an array of eye conditions that he could recognize but do very little about. “All I could do was say what I had seen and suggest that they seek help from a hospital nearby.”

“That first trip to Ethiopia opened our eyes to a level of poverty we had never seen before. We could not stop thinking about the kids and the people and the utter need.” Unable to let the experience go, they decided to return later that year, but this time to open a fully functioning eye clinic.

Eye Clinic in Gondar

Dr. Hartstein applied for a license to practice in Ethiopia and trained his family in the various jobs needed to open an eye clinic. He taught his then teenage sons Zack (14) and Jonah (12) to use a portable eye chart and how to refract lenses, while Eliana (18) and Dalia (17) would dispense the medicines he would prescribe.

When they arrived back in Gondar, excitement swelled as an even bigger crowd had gathered, eager to be seen. Hartstein examined each person himself and gave instructions to his children on what to do next. Elisa coordinated the clinic, managing the queues and keeping things moving.

Elisa Hartstein coordinating the eye clinic

“It was an incredibly bonding and energizing experience. Nobody ever got tired. Late at night, we would come back to this kind of hotel where the shower dripped one drip at a time, and the beds were ridden with bedbugs, but no one complained.”

Zack and Jonah with boys at the compound

“It was a thrill to be able to share with my kids how it is possible to help people and how you can turn around someone's life around by improving their eyesight.”

Returning to Ethiopia

Since this first official trip as an eye doctor, the Hartstein family’s ties to Ethiopia and the Jews at the Gondar compound has grown and expanded. “Every time we’ve gone back another opportunity arises for us to help.” Each of the children has been back multiple times. “Whether it is assisting with my medical efforts, playing with the kids, teaching them Hebrew, or distributing clothing and other donations that we bring, they are always keen to go back and help.”

Checking eyes in Gondar even during COVID

Hartstein’s work expanded in a significant way in a partnership with the Himalayan Cataract Project. The charity, which funds surgery, also operates in Ethiopia where cataracts are the leading cause of blindness. With a team of surgeons, Hartstein established a makeshift operating room in a village near Gondar, where they plowed through a backlog of 200 cataract surgeries for both Jewish and non-Jewish Ethiopians alike.

“Over a week, we worked pretty much non-stop. The need is overwhelming in every way shape or form.”

Dr. Hartstein examines a man ahead of a cataract operation.

Training in Israel

Seeing the need to help develop the expertise of local doctors, in 2015 the first Ethiopian doctor landed in Israel to train under Hartstein for a month. During his trip Dr. Tesfalem Hagos from Gondar University learned about advanced technology and practices that he could take back to Ethiopia.

Dr Alemnew Demissie spent a year training with Hartstein at the Assaf Harofeh Hospital. He is the sole oculoplastics surgeon for 18 million people.

At the time, there were only 200 eye doctors in Ethiopia, which has a population of 110 million. Fifteen of them have received training in Israel. Today there are only five oculoplastic surgeons in Ethiopia; three of them received training in Israel, including Dr. Alemnew Demissie who received funding to train for an entire year. “It will make a big difference,” Hartstein says, “but it’s just a drop in the ocean. This doctor returned to Ethiopia and is responsible for a population of 18 million people.”

Food project

Concerned for the overall health of the children in the compound, Hartstein returned, this time, with doctors and officials conducting a four day study of 1000 children which showed they were severely malnourished. The results triggered an emergency feeding program, sponsored by SSEJ.ORG (Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry), providing 500 children and 200 nursing mothers with two meals a day. Other contributors to the project include The Dear Foundation, The Mandel Foundation, NACOEJ, and the Jewish Agency.

In 2018 Hartstein was invited to accompany President Reuven Rivlin on Israel's first state visit to Ethiopia.

Invitation to the Knesset

In August 2020, while a civil war was ongoing in Ethiopia, Hartstein was invited to present his findings at the Knesset. Among those present was Pnina Tamano-Shata, Minister for Aliyah and Integration, who was very moved by what she heard of the declining conditions at the compound. Tamano-Shata was inspired to put extra pressure and find extra funding to speed up the aliyah of the remaining Jews.

On December 3 2020, Hartstein joined a special delegation led by Tamano-Shata which brought back 315 Ethiopian new immigrants.

“Among the new immigrants were many who I had treated over the years,” Hartstein said. “Seeing them actually arrive to start their new lives in Israel was incredible.”

With Israeli Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and community leaders at the Addis Ababa compound

The power of listening to your children

“When I look back, it is a real expression of ‘tikkun olam’, the Jewish concept of fixing the world. To me this is a big part of what being Jewish is all about.”

Dr Hartstein and his family have improved the eyesight of approximately 5,000 Ethiopians, and the number is far higher when considering the impact of the training Hartstein has helped make happen.

With some of the 315 new immigrants on their way to Israel, December 2020

“There is no question that it has given our kids a sense of context in the world and a deep appreciation for things we may not have always thought to be thankful for – a stable house, food to eat, clean bathrooms, warm showers, medical care. It puts things in perspective.

“However, my wife says the most important thing she has learned is the power of listening to your children. They deserve the credit here. They wanted to do something to help; they wanted to make a difference.”


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