Dr. Rick Hodes is an Orthodox Jew who has devoted his life to “tikkun olam,” “healing the world. His motto is the Talmud’s statement that “He who saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Dr. Hodes has spent most of his professional life working with the poor and sick in Ethiopia, treating hundreds of patients and taking seventeen children into his own home to raise them as his family. His salary is paid by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, and he raises the money for his patients. A new 30-minute documentary about the doctor, his work, and the children will be shown on HBO. The director is Susan Cohen Rockefeller.
I spoke to Dr. Hodes by phone as he was preparing to fly back to the US from Ethiopia.
How did you come to Ethiopia?
I came first in 1984 because of the famine. I came as a relief worker. I was a resident at Johns Hopkins and I took five or six weeks off and worked in the famine camps. For a while I was the only doctor for several thousand starving people.
What surprised you about Ethiopia?
The depth of the culture, the depth of the ancient Christianity, how people in Ethiopia really know who they are. They don’t think of themselves as black. They don’t think of themselves as African. They really think of themselves as Ethiopian. Even their Christianity is very much involved with their Ethiopian identity. If you go to a Christian ceremony, it will be very Ethiopian as well, with the colors and flags. Ethiopians know who they are. They really like their culture. They have their own religion, their own food, their own system. If they’re not in Ethiopia and find someone else from Ethiopia, they feel very close to them, especially if they are from the same region.
I have heard that in Ethiopia everyone carries the children around, that everyone takes care of the children as though they belong to the whole community.
They carry the children on their backs, there’s a lot of physical contact, child abuse is much less here. The rate of psychological problems from lack of care seems to be lower.
As an outsider, was it difficult for you to gain their trust?
Once you start doing good things, they start coming to you. They will ask if I can help them, teach them, do something with them. And learning the language.
What led you to take over responsibility for the children?
Bewoket had run away from home because he was dying. And he ended up in the university hospital. They discharged him to a Catholic mission. I was volunteering there. He was very attached to me. And he was in such difficult shape it was actually easier to have him in my house, where I could care for him. Once I took in one, I met another one, and so on. I try to say that this is finished, but it’s not finished.
Do the kids get along with each other?
Any two people under the same roof will not always agree, but they do well.
What do you do for fun?
They play board games. The healthier ones play soccer. The less healthy ones play Monopoly and card games. It’s funny, three years ago they had not seen a car or a white person and now what gets them most excited is buying a hotel on Boardwalk.
Do they want to become doctors?
A lot of them do. One boy was dying in Gojam and his dad sold two goats to get him $30 to come to the big city. They came to Addis Abeba,, and they spent 20 cents a night to sleep on the floor of the hotel with 20 people. They had no money for the bus so they had to walk six or seven miles to get to me. I reached into my pocket and gave him $10 and I said, “Here, every time you come I will give you more, so spend this. Eat two or three meals a day, sleep in a bed, take the bus, take care of yourself.” And that is when he started getting better.
And now this boy, who had been in a remote school studying to be an Orthodox priest is in eighth grade, speaks fluent English, and wants to be a doctor. When he came to America he told his life story at a fund-raiser and we raised $1 million. There’s another girl who was an orphan, living in a medical college because she had nowhere else to go. I ended up bringing her to Addis Abeba, treating her TB, sending her for surgery, and now she is in 6th grade and wants to be a doctor. When I first met her she said she wanted to be a housemaid because then she would have a place to live and cook. Now she’s living in my house, she speaks English. For $10-12 thousand we’ve completely transformed her life.
What do Americans need to know about Ethiopia?
The depth of the culture and the niceness of the people. It is a poor country, but it is a proud country with a deep culture, a history, definitely not uncivilized.
How does your Jewish faith inspire and sustain you?
I really enjoy being Jewish. I pray three times a day and keep the Sabbath to the extent that a doctor with patients can do that. We just had a big Passover seder. It is an important part of my life, the daily schedule, the weekly schedule, the monthly schedule. It becomes all-encompassing. But one of the nice things about being in Ethiopia is that I feel very welcome here. I respect other religions. Most of the kids are Orthodox Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim.
What I’m personally trying to do is making the world a better place for a few people, helping as many people as I can in that sense. I’m sending 16 kids in May to Ghana for surgery. That’s the greatest thing in the world for me.
Photo credit: Photograph by J. Kyle Keener/HBO