Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 10/08/21

Erica and Mark Gerson L’Chaim Prize

Heaven sent. Jewish entrepreneur and podcaster Mark Gerson and his wife Rabbi Erica Gerson are committing $18 million dollars to support the lifesaving work of African Mission Healthcare (AMH), a nonprofit Christian missionary organization Gerson co-founded with his friend of 30 years Dr. Jon Fielder. AMH partners with mission hospitals to provide quality, compassionate care to patients and to improve healthcare systems throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

The Gersons are joined in their generosity by the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS) which, through its UBS Optimus Foundation, has agreed to add $2 million to the Gerson’s gift — for a total commitment of $20 million. $11 million of the total will be available to AMH immediately to expand selected high-impact projects. The remaining $9 million will be made available as a donor match in support of AMH’s Transforming Healthcare Campaign that challenges others to expand their support for AMH and its important work.

The gift will make possible life-saving surgery, important infrastructure, advanced medical training and the creation of a maternal health network of excellence at more than 15 hospitals across Africa. I spoke with the Gersons about how their faith guides their giving, why they believe the media pretty much ignores African poverty and Mark’s podcast (appropriately called The Rabbi’s Husband).

JWK: So, that’s a very generous gift you made to the Christian medical missionaries – but, as a Jewish entrepreneur and a rabbi, wasn’t there a nice Jewish charity you could have given the money to?

Mark Gerson: Erica, you wanna go?

Rabbi Erica Gerson: Sure. We are spiritually committed to giving responsibly and getting the most return for our dollar as philanthropists. We’ve done that in Israel with United Hatzalah which saves lives in an amazing way. This is a similar opportunity where we feel that the amount of good that we can do per dollar spent so compelling that it drew us in. It certainly is animated by our commitment to Jewish values, including that every person is equally created in God’s image and worthy of a healthy life.

Mark Gerson: We’re observant Jews. Of course, Erica’s a rabbi. We take our Torah commandments quite seriously. The most frequently issued Torah commandment is to love the stranger. When we think about how we can best fulfill that obligation that place where, as Erica said, (we can) deliver such a remarkable return on investment, where there are so many live saved and so much pain ameliorated per dollar invested – and that’s really how we think about it – is through supporting Christian missionaries working in Africa. Our Christian partners in Africa help us fulfill our Jewish obligations and, in doing so, make us better Jews.

JWK: You launched the L’Chaim Prize to support African Mission Healthcare in 2016. Tell me about that and how the idea came to you.

MG: In June or July of 2015, Nick Kristoff wrote an article and a video blog (for) the New York Times on Dr. Tom Catena who was then the only doctor serving in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Tom’s been a longtime partner of African Mission Healthcare – and one of our deepest partnerships right now. It was around Giving Tuesday in November of that year when we said we’ll match up to I think it was 100 grand for anybody who gives to Tom. We told Nick Kristoff and Nick ran it in the New York Times. Through that mention in the New York Times the match was filled instantly. Then we (repeated) it one or two more times and it kept getting filled very quickly – within a few days. Then we said alright, it’s obvious that, when the great work of Christian missionary physicians is…heralded, support – which is completely indispensable to their work – comes.

I would just add, as an aside, nobody should ever say “I want to do more than give money” or “Money’s not important.” The Christian missionary doctors will all say…without the financial support (they’d) be working with Band-Aids.

We saw that people did rise up in support of Dr. Tom Catena through African Mission Healthcare so we said “How can we systematize this? How can we take this kind of recognition which Nick gave to Tom and this kind of generosity – which our gift which gave people the impetus to give – (and) how can we systematize this?” So, we said “Oh, well, let’s do a prize?” A prize, of course, can be annual and it was annual…The prize gave me the opportunity to go on the radio and talk about…the work of Christian missionary doctors in general. That conversation would not have been possible without the prize. It wouldn’t have been a story that would have captivated the producers’ interest.

EG: I would just add that your first question – which is a great question – is pretty much always the first question. What are a couple of Jews doing funding Christian medical missionaries in Africa? The L’Chaim Prize was an effort on our part to brand it as Jewish because we learned from the New York Times coverage that what he highlighted there is exactly what you (did). He said there’s a Jewish couple funding Christian missionaries who are taking care of people of all faiths and no faith. He really loved that connection and it was clear that the readers of the New York Times did as well. So, we realized that the curiosity of us being a Jewish couple funding Christian medical missionaries who are giving care to people of all faiths is something that really touches people. We hope that the L’Chaim Prize is yet another way to draw people’s attention and just get more people to see this good work because, when people see it, they want to fund it.

JWK: Speaking of attention, why do you think the media, more or less, turns a blind eye to what’s happening in Africa?

MG: That’s a phenomenal question – and I’ll tell you why it’s a phenomenal question. Because it’s answered in the Bible. Why does the Torah never tell us to love our children? Erica and I have four and we know the answer. Because no one needs to tell you to love your children. It’s something that we will do naturally and instinctively. The Bible tells us 36 times to love the stranger. Why? Because it’s difficult and completely non-intuitive. So, the Bible has to tell us over and over again and in several different ways to love the stranger.

And, John, that’s the answer to your question. Why doesn’t the media cover it? The Bible answered that questions thousands of years ago – because we don’t naturally love the stranger. We have to be told by the Bible to do so. Frankly, when the media gives people the opportunity, sometimes they step up but one could go through one’s entire life – and have a happy and fulfilled life – and never think about the four-year-old in Burundi who has no access to surgeons. So, that’s why the media doesn’t cover it – and that’s why we launched the prize. It’s just people acting normally that the media doesn’t cover it but the Bible comes and says don’t make that normal. Be different. You are obligated to love the stranger.

That’s why our work with African Mission Healthcare – strategically in our work with the prize – specifically is an aspect of how we fulfill that Jewish obligation. And it’s not just the media. It’s not like lots of people are (saying) “How can we help in Africa?” or “What’s going on in Africa?”…and the media’s just not covering it.

EG: It’s easier to raise a million dollars for a local New York hospital – which is a drop in the bucket for that hospital – than to raise $100,000 that can do significantly more for a health facility in Africa. People are drawn to what’s near them.

Part of what we try to do – both within our own family in trying to help our kids understand what we find important and, also, as an organization to try to help other people to more easily make that leap into loving the stranger and wanting to fund medical care for the stranger – is finding those points of connection. For me, as a mom having had four C-sections myself all of which were critical to my safety and to my unborn children who needed to be delivered that way, knowing that a C-section is not available for four out of five women that need it in many of the countries where we serve is heartbreaking. Knowing that for $250, which is probably the cost of the flowers that my friends sent me in the hospital, I could go ahead, or they could go ahead, and fund a C-section, that’s where people can start to feel some sort of point of connection in their life.

For our own children, we look at a great website called watsi.org which showcases particular medical cases, many of which are sourced through African Mission Healthcare. When my children see a point of connection – whether it’s a child with the same broken bone that they had or a child with the same name or someone who’s the same age – that stranger just becomes a little bit more familiar and then that calling sense of (a) need to help becomes a little bit easier. So, we hope that people can look at some of the work of African Mission Healthcare and make those connections that will inspire them to give.

JWK: Do you ever get concerned about being labeled a “white savior”?

MG: No. Thankfully, it’s been quite the opposite. We’ve developed some great friendships…We’ve had challenges but that’s not been one of them.

EG: I’ll add that I think one of the reasons UBS has endorsed African Mission Healthcare as a really responsible way to give in Africa is because they see the way we operate – which is that we turn toward the experts on the ground in these individual countries and even at the individual institutions to teach us what’s needed. We don’t want to make the mistake of those who look from afar and say “Here is what you need,” “Here are the innovations you need” or “Here’s what we’re interested in funding.” It’s really the opposite process.

Even for the L’Chaim Prize, Mark and I had zero involvement in selecting the winner. We have experts who have practiced medicine in these challenging settings across the continent of Africa who together decide who is best positioned to use this money effectively. And when we fund African Mission Healthcare, it’s the institutions saying what they need to succeed. That can be anything from they need help building a solar plant so they’re not relying on diesel which takes a lot of money and causes a lot of other problems or they need housing to house new faculty or they need a particular piece of equipment that will help them to better heal a particular ailment that happens in their region. So, we really look for the local experts and want to make sure that we’re not coming in as Americans trying to be saviors. 

MG: I think that’s an important point also. When we started the conversation you mentioned our $18-million dollar gift – but also UBS is amplifying that with two-million themselves and they’re bringing lots of people to the table – literally to our dinner table – to inspire others to give. They’re an incredible partner. They’re giving an enormous amount of money and their reputational capital is also indispensable. So, they’re phenomenal…Their corporate philanthropy is so rigorous, so thoughtful, so ROI (Return on Investment) focused. They’re the best. They put, obviously, a ton of money behind this initiative…and they’re bringing their advisors and their clients over to our house and (they) do all kinds of other stuff to really help inspire others to give.

EG: They turn down 95% of the thousands of the organizations that people put before them to ask for endorsements. So, this means a lot – that they’ve not only endorsed African Mission Healthcare but are coming alongside with matching funds and helping to amplify the message. I think that (they share the) concern that a lot of people have when they want to help in Africa (which is) they’re just not sure how to do it responsibly, how to make sure that those dollars are actually getting where they need to go and having the impact that’s intended. We’re really honored that they agree that African Mission Healthcare is an address that people can turn to and know that their money will be well spent.

JWK: Turning to another subject, Mark, you have a podcast called The Rabbi’s Husband which sounds a little like a sitcom title.

EG: Catchy, isn’t it?

JWK: It is catchy. So, you deal with some pretty deep subjects. Tell me a little bit about the podcast and how it came about.

MG: It came out with a book in March. It’s called The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life. The book is about the Haggadah. So, pursuant to the book I just launched a podcast to be in conversation with people from all walks of life – all different professional backgrounds, all different religious backgrounds (to talk about) biblical passages meaningful to them and why – because so many people love the Bible and derive so much wisdom from it, obviously people who are Jewish and who are not Jewish, it doesn’t matter.

JWK: How did the two of you meet?

MG: I used to have Shabbat dinners every Friday. Erica came as a guest in February of ’07. We were engaged in June and married in November.

JWK: Obviously, you both share a common set of values. You also both seem to have a positive attitude toward money in that you’re not embarrassed or ashamed to have it but you also use it wisely and compassionately to help others.

MG: We might be the largest donor to African Mission Healthcare but we’re definitely not the most generous donor. The most generous donor is this woman we met in Buffalo. This church had us in to…talk about African Mission Healthcare and this woman came up afterwards and said “I had to walk here because I couldn’t afford any transportation. Somebody saw me sitting where I was…and gave me $20 but, given what I just heard, I’m giving it to you to give to African Mission Healthcare.” So, that’s our most generous donor. The fact that we give a lot of money doesn’t make us the most generous donor. People who make sacrificial gifts are the most generous donors.

Once you learn how much good money can do – once you learn that if a woman in Africa has a 20% chance of getting a C-section – at least in large parts of Africa, I’m thinking about Uganda, in particular – which means she has an 80% chance of not getting it and, if she doesn’t get it, she’ll either die – good chance of that – or she’ll get…a birth-injury tear that will literally plague her until she gets surgery which she likely will never do because of how few surgeons there are. So, her life will either be ended or effectively destroyed (for lack of) a procedure that (costs) $250 (or) $500 (or) I can help someone who has a hernia to get it repaired and back to work. I mean you just want to keep doing more and more of it. You just realize how important financial resources are in partnering with people who are delivering the care and just how much good money can do. So, it’s our hope – and UBS’ hope too – that others learn about the sacred work of Christian missionary doctors and, particularly, their unbelievable effectiveness and just how far money can go – where $250 can totally transform a woman’s life. What we give is obviously a multiple of that but that’s all it is – a multiple of that. It’s just the best deal ever.

EG: It you want another statistic that’s printed somewhere, in Tanzania where we actually got a chance to visit…Dr. Steve Swanson is saving preemies (and) micro preemies and the average cost is $800 for the full stay per child who goes on to live a wonderful and healthy life and, otherwise, would not have survived. That’s just extraordinary.

So, we do give a lot but we get more than we give – the opportunity to (save) multiple lives – and not only help with (present) medical procedures but to train a real future generation of doctors who (will save future lives) with their knowledge. It’s just more than anyone could hope from a monetary gift…In many cases we’re saving a mom who then doesn’t have orphaned children.

MG: Yeah, imagine that! So, you save the mother. You save the preemie and then, if you don’t save the mother, she probably has one to three children at home. So, they’d grow up without a mother. So, now you dramatically improve their life – all for $800. I mean it’s like bring it on! Do more and more of it! I mean it’s the best deal ever.

So, when we talk about Return on Investment…what we think about is literally not only how many lives we can save but how much pain we can ameliorate…If we drill down a little deeper, it’s how many years? You help a 25-year-old mother get a C-section. Let’s say she has one child at home. You save her and/or her baby. I mean how many years did you just save in the case of the mother and/or the baby and dramatically improve in the case of her child at home and her husband for 250 bucks!

JWK: How can people support what you do?

MG: Thank you. Part of what we give is a matching grant for anybody who gives. Anyone who wants to give can just go to our website – africanmissionhealthcare.org – and donate right there…Clients of UBS get their gifts amplified even more…If something moves them particularly – like, perhaps childcare, perhaps surgery…

EG: Perhaps training medical professionals – the doctors and nurses.

MG: That’s the other good example. Probably the most valuable resource in the African medical setting – there are probably a few contenders but certainly one of them – would be a trained surgeon. The surgical deficit in Africa is very high. There are huge areas with one or zero surgeons…We invest a great deal in the training of surgeons. It costs only about $125,000 to fully train a surgeon who will then go out and do 11,000 operations in the course of his or her career, consult on about 100,000 others and train lots more surgeons so that the next generation of Africans doesn’t have a surgical deficit. So, if someone wants to give at that level, that’s the kind of work that could be done.

People called us during COVID and they said “How can we help during COVID?” We said “Look, the reason why Mt. Sinai is the COVID hospital in New York isn’t because they had a COVID specialty. It’s because they’re a great hospital. Great hospitals are prepared for anything and everything. Now, one of the things missing in most African hospitals is oxygen. Doctors in the West can’t imagine that there’s no piped oxygen in the hospital but that is the case in most African hospitals. So, now we’re (providing) oxygen all throughout Christian hospitals in Africa. Basically, whatever someone wants to do…their generosity will go a great distance and will be matched.

JWK: Speaking of COVID, that’s kind of a controversy now – that poorer nations aren’t getting enough vaccines. Do you deal with that at all?

MG: No, we don’t really deal with that. We don’t really deal at the government level.

JWK: Is there anything you’d like to add as we wrap up?

MG: No, these have been terrific questions. I’ll just say, to respond to your question about the media, in The Theory of Moral Sentiment Adam Smith wrote…”If the great empire of China was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake…” – he was talking about a man, I believe, in England – “(and) if he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep to-night but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him than his own paltry misfortune.” So, the Bible answered your question (and) Adam Smith answered your question. People don’t naturally love the stranger. The Bible and Adam Smith articulated it in different ways. That’s why the media doesn’t cover it…Morality is not an acceptance of what’s natural. It’s often a triumph over what’s natural. The quintessential case is it’s natural to be apathetic or indifferent to the stranger. The Bible tells us (to) love the stranger and it tells us when you love someone or something you have to act accordingly or else it’s not real love.

EG: People sometimes ask us “Why Christian medical missionaries? Why not fund seculars?”…I think it’s important for your readers to understand that about a third of all the quality medical care – and by that I mean not just your local (private) practitioner – is delivered by Christian medical missionaries. There are hospitals that all of the different branches of Christianity set up over the years and, as those different denominations have waned, some of that institutional support has gone away over time. Part of how African Mission Healthcare came to be is that we realized we still had incredible human beings who felt called to serve and to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as healers. They’re inspired to live a life of giving as they feel Jesus would want from them but they are lacking the financial resources. So, that’s a lot of where we come in is to help these people who are willing to spend their lifetime giving medical care in Africa but don’t have the time and the ability to raise the funds for it.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11
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