“I’m the meshugena doctor who started this,” Dr. Stephen Kutner jokes good-naturedly, referring to Jewish Healthcare International (JHI), the nonprofit that the 76 year old ophthalmologist founded in 1999. Though he might humorously call himself “crazy,” he is serious about the work JHI does. The organization sends doctors and other medical professionals in all specialties into poor countries to provide services to patients and educate local health workers. For this enormous volunteer effort, Dr. Kutner was recognized by the Jewish Federations of the North America as one of the five finalists in the most recent Jewish Community Hero of the Year contest.
Though JHI treats a range of conditions, Dr. Kutner’s early foray into medical service work was at first limited to his own specialty – ophthalmology. Project Vision (which is now part of JHI) provided basic eye care and screenings to recent Russian olim (immigrants) to Israel. Though Israel offers citizens free medical care, the healthcare infrastructure was overwhelmed by the arrival of 900,000 immigrants in the 90s, and Dr. Kutner answered the call though he was still working full-time at his Atlanta, Georgia practice.
But in the late 90s, some of his Israeli colleagues approached him about doing even more. “’They said, ‘We have all these people coming in from the former Soviet Union and their health situation is catastrophic.’ It wasn’t just bad in ophthalmology. It was bad across the board, including primary care, blood pressure, all kinds of general health issues that they hadn’t been treated for back home,” he said. The Israelis suggested expanding the focus to include primary care and prevention.
They decided to do a couple of test projects in the Ukraine. “We took some small teams into a city in the Ukraine and started doing work. Screening, evaluation, consultation and care. And it worked rather well.” Initially, Kutner and his team of American and Israeli professionals had been concerned about their reception in the Ukraine since they didn’t speak the language or understand the culture. “But the community loved the idea of us working with them. Not only the patients but also the professionals, who were really starved for training after the fall of communism in 1989, after which they didn’t have the resources they needed to maintain their infrastructure as well as their education.” After Kutner returned from the Ukraine, he approached the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta about funding. “They thought it sounded like a great challenge but also a great opportunity.”
JHI now runs missions at least three times a year with Kutner, who sold his practice in 1999, devoting himself to the work full-time. They have projects up and running in Moldova, Kishinev, Odessa and most recently, Minsk, Belarus. Also, they have sent teams to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and to Haiti after the earthquake.
Though JHI does nonsectarian work – most of the populations they work with are not Jewish – they are guided by three very Jewish principles: tikkun olam, mitzvot and tzedakah. Even if the people that JHI helps have never heard those Hebrew words before, they’re definitely feeling their impact. “We’re a Jewish organization in countries that are mostly not Jewish. However when we showed up to different sites, we sent a message — that the power of the Jewish people was caring about others, not just ourselves. Any person, anywhere, regardless of race or religion, who has a special need that can’t be addressed where he is, can be in touch with us [JHI] and we’ll try to take care of the need.”
As to the benefits that the medical volunteers reap, Dr. Kutner is equally enthusiastic. He is especially excited about the connections that the American and Israeli professionals make while serving together. “We formed a kesher. Everybody comes back from a trip saying that it was a mission of a lifetime.”
Looking to the future, Kutner doesn’t seem to be slowing down. “Next year is going to really be busy. We’re going to be sending more teams into Haiti. In addition, we’re going to be working with the Jewish Agency of Israel to screen recent immigrants. We’re also going to be developing programs working in youth villages in Israel where most of the children have been neglected, abandoned. There are a lot of needs that aren’t being addressed.”
Just as he plans to help address the medical needs of the future generation, he also hopes to engage them in service work. JHI is partnering with Hillel to get students more involved, and a volunteer mission to Haiti is in the works where the students will serve alongside the medical professionals.
Let’s just hope that the young ones can keep up with the likes of Dr. Kutner.
If you would like to volunteer, donate or learn more about JHI, you can visit their website.