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When a planeload of secular Israelis landed in Addis Abba shortly before Pesach last spring, they were greeted by a small Ethiopian boy holding aloft a hand-made sign reading: “Ask me about a Passover seder.”
The man behind the sign was Dr. Rick Hodes, medical director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Ethiopia. His accomplishments in saving lives are legendary and have been chronicled in numerous articles and books. Moreover, Dr. Rick, as he is widely known, was the subject of an HBO documentary, “Making the Crooked Straight,” and other films.
To understand why an American doctor would want to motivate perfect strangers to participate in his seder, one needs to understand what makes Dr. Rick tick.
Richard Hodes was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Syosset, Long Island.
He graduated from Middlebury College with a degree in geography. When his father pointed out the career limitations for geographers, Hodes enrolled in medical school at the University of Rochester and subsequently trained in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He first went to Ethiopia during the famine of 1984 and returned in 1985 as a Fulbright Professor, teaching medicine at Addis Ababa University. He was hired by JDC in 1990.
As JDC’s medical director, Hodes is responsible for taking care of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel between the time the Israeli authorities have selected them and their departure. His clinic staff consists of himself plus one Ethiopian physician and several nurses and aides. At any given time, he looks after more than 4,000 people.
“We need to keep them healthy and take care of whatever comes up,” Hodes says in an interview with JNS.org.
In addition to his work for JDC, Hodes’s clinic takes care of seriously ill, often destitute, Ethiopians, and it is for them that he has performed countless medical miracles, especially in the area of cancer and diseases of the spine and heart. A number of these are described in great detail on his website: www.rickhodes.org.
Hodes, who is single, lives in a modest house in Addis Ababa with several of his adopted Ethiopian children, all former patients. When we met him, he was accompanied by 18- year-old Dejene Hodes, one of his adopted sons. He had tuberculosis of the spine when he was adopted from Mother Teresa’s Mission. Hodes sent him to Dallas, Texas, for back surgery and Dejene remained there for two years. He is now perfectly fit, recently graduated from the Yavneh Jewish Day School, and plans to study engineering in college.
Hodes is an observant Jew who says he is “anchored” by the Jewish calendar. He prays and puts on tefillin virtually every morning, keeps Shabbat and celebrates all holy days and festivals. When asked why he has devoted his life to the people of Ethiopia, he replied, “We, of course, have to look out for other Jews, but we absolutely must help the rest of the world. After all, we are commanded to perform ‘tikkun olam.’”
JDC began its operations in Ethiopia as part of Prime Minister Golda Meir’s “African Strategy” and is recognized as an NGO by the Government of Ethiopia. In addition to operating its clinic, JDC builds schools-20 of which have so far been completed outside the capital- digs wells to supply fresh water, and funds scholarships to enable (mostly Christian and Muslim) girls to obtain higher education. When asked “Why only girls?” Hodes replied that “the only way for the world to get better is to make sure girls are educated.”
According to Hodes, the average Ethiopian does not quite understand Judaism and thinks it is some branch of Christianity. Ethiopian Jews recognized as such by the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel in the early 1970s know they are Jews and are different from other people religiously. Relations between the government of Ethiopia and Israel are amicable, and Hodes believes the average Ethiopian “is really pro-Israel.”
In western eyes, Hodes, even at 5-foot-3 and 123 pounds, is a giant. But when it comes to treating ordinary Ethiopians, he says he competes “with witch doctors.”
“I’m not their first choice—local healers are!” he says.