(Courtesy of DVI) Dr. Harry Harcsztark, formerly of Teaneck, arrived in Israel November 20, 2019, as a new oleh making a new life living in Jerusalem. As a new citizen of Israel, he decided to start his new life by volunteering at the Trudi Birger Dental Clinic in Jerusalem, through a special program called Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI). DVI provides free dental care and oral health education to thousands of needy children in Jerusalem every year, regardless of race and religion, thanks to the benevolent support from our friends and visiting volunteer dentists from around the world.
DVI provides critical basic dental services to the poverty-stricken communities of Jerusalem and surrounding areas with both Jewish and Arab residents. With a total population of a mere 830,000, Jerusalem has over 200,000 youth living under the poverty line. DVI’s Trudi Birger clinic treats disadvantaged children and at-risk youth (aged 4-26). Volunteer dentists from around the world, together with their Israeli colleagues, perform about 1,000 treatments each month. In 2019, 140 volunteer dentists from around the world performed 10,798 treatments, helping 2,711 kids in crisis and at-risk youth in Jerusalem. During the past 40 years, over 6,000 dentists have volunteered at DVI.
This was Dr. Harcsztark’s first time volunteering at DVI, and he has already offered to volunteer in the future on an as-needed basis in his off time. As an experienced volunteer dentist with the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship USNS Mercy in Southeast Asia for four summers and in Africa on a separate mission, Dr. Harcsztark said, “The team who works at the clinic full time makes it so easy. They are welcoming of all of the volunteers, are expert assistants during treatment, and the team makes for a very pleasant working condition. Those who don’t speak Hebrew do not have to worry about translating as the team members are fluent in English as well. The full-time dental supervisors are pediatric dental specialists who are open to different treatment modalities as presented by the international dentists, and the clinic itself offers state-of-the-art equipment and treatment. In addition, as far as traveling through Jerusalem, there is no problem with security and safety. I know! I now live here.”
And each of these patients has a story, a reason why they live under the poverty line, and their problems matter to DVI volunteer dentists. In the photos, Dr. Harcsztark is seen with Arab children from a local village who fall under the poverty line and were referred to DVI by the municipal welfare services when the children were very young. Patients must be referred to the clinic by social workers who determine that they are eligible to be treated by this free clinic. All eligible children regardless of race, color or religion are treated. Over the years, these young adults have built up so many positive experiences with DVI and its volunteer dentists that they look forward to being treated! The clinic prides itself in its very friendly atmosphere with totally pain-free treatment.
This dedication of our volunteer dentists to Jerusalem goes beyond routine Zionism. But according to another volunteer dentist, Dr. Bers, “I enjoy this opportunity to come to Israel to work for this amazing organization every year. We treat children and young adults who live in extreme poverty or are exposed to other risks and otherwise would not receive dental treatment whatsoever, totally for free. DVI does not discriminate against anyone; the many children are from different backgrounds, nationalities and religions. Personally, this is a unique opportunity to contribute to Israeli society utilizing my talents as a dentist for both the youth and for the elderly in the special free dentures Project for Holocaust Survivors and Needy Elderly. This is both an honor and humbling privilege. Not to mention very rewarding.”
DVI gives Jerusalem’s at-risk youth a chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps: Most of the at-risk children and youth between the ages of 4 and 26 are referred to DVI through the Municipal Welfare Office, with a greater and growing focus on at-risk youth who were referred by the Jerusalem Municipality’s “Kidum L’Noar” (at-risk youth) program, the Atnachta homeless shelter, the Elem shelter and absorption centers that specifically cater to Ethiopians. A significant percentage of patients are new immigrants, are being given a boost toward self-confidence, successful assimilation and integration into Israeli society. In 2015, DVI also began working with shelters for battered women, treating young mothers and their children, including WIZO, Isha l’Isha and the “Bayit Cham.” For the poor; abused; at-risk youth; new immigrants; children with cancer; post-IDF soldiers who cannot afford care; kids from “pnimiot” (dormitory schools for religious kids who are either immigrants to Israel without their parents, or have been removed from their home for one reason or another) including Boys Town, Yeshivat Bayit HaShem, Girls Town (Bayit L’Plitot, just for young women), Weingarten (just for young women) and Bayit HaCham (Malcha); and others, DVI is not only the only option, the only truly free clinic in all of Israel, but is a refuge of kindness and caring from dentists like Dr. Bers.
To illustrate the impressive scope of this tiny organization’s work, DVI treated over 2,711 patients in 2019 alone—all absolutely free! And DVI is the most bang-for-the-buck charitable organization in the state of Israel, thanks to the “in-kind” donations of volunteer dentists and dental companies, including Henry Schein and the Jewish-French-owned Septodont company who supply all of the clinic’s materials and supplies (and much of the equipment) absolutely free. As a result, the estimated value of the treatment provided by DVI to youth alone in 2019 was $1,093,311 and for the eldery the value of treatment provided was $325,143 (using the average pricing schedule for Israel, which was uploaded into DVI’s patient record system for this purpose). Yet DVI’s total cash expenditures were only $603,245!
Indeed, it is part of DVI’s mission to help these kids escape the vicious cycle of poverty. DVI founder and Holocaust survivor Trudi Birger suffered greatly as a child during the war. At that time she vowed to help prevent the suffering of other children if she should survive. As a successful microbiologist in Israel, she began to fulfill that vow to assist needy children. Trudi soon identified dental problems as a common cause of terrible suffering of impoverished children, and in 1980, when the government cut dental care from public health programs, she found her cause. Trudi established DVI that year and oversaw the organization for the remainder of her life. Inspired by her passionate devotion to Jerusalem’s children and by the profound rewards of being in the clinic and the good work itself, the dedicated volunteer dentists from around the world picked up where Trudi left off to ensure that DVI would continue to provide these critical services to the most underprivileged families of Jerusalem.
In keeping with Birger’s philosophy that true tzedaka (charity) means giving to others not what you would otherwise discard, but what you would want for your own children, DVI strives to provide the poorest kids with the highest level care in the state of Israel. Thus, clinic policy is such that endodontists perform root canals. And the clinic is well equipped for this, with a variety of instruments for visiting endodontists and a microscope. Additionally, Hadassah Dental School authorizes DVI as a pediatric training facility and, in fact, sends its own pedo residents there to learn from DVI Director Dr. Roy Petel, who performs all check-ups and determines course of treatment, to maintain standardization of treatment with volunteer dentists from around the world. Dr. Petel also teaches pediatric dentistry at Hadassah Dental School and serves as the general secretary for Israel’s Pedodontic Association. Another DVI director, Professor Eliezer Eidelman, was previously Hadassah’s pediatric program director and is highly regarded in the field. Some famous lecturing dentists regularly volunteer at DVI. Thus dentists from some countries are able to formally count their volunteer time as continuing education hours, and almost everyone agrees that it’s some of the best continuing education they’ve ever received.
Many volunteer dentists come back every year—after having discovered that for tourism, a week or two barely scratches the surface of things you really want to see. Chock-full of truly unique sightseeing, Israel attracts tourists who come with little interest in the Holy City—thousands of bird watchers stream in every year, as just one example, since Israel is strategically positioned at the obvious resting point on the migration route from Europe to Africa, luring about 1 billion birds to visit Israel annually. And the volunteer dentist’s perspective is more discerning than that of a typical tourist, as volunteers are provided with an apartment, and come to know what it’s like to live in a typical Jerusalem neighborhood. Dentists are welcome to bring guests to their apartment, which is provided at no cost to them, but must pay their own airfare. After dining in the homes of their neighbors or DVI host families, dentists begin to feel part of the community. A good number of DVI’s non-Jewish dentists have taken up studying Hebrew, to more thoroughly penetrate the local culture, and to understand what Israelis are saying around them.
Part of Israel’s charm is the nosy way strangers join in on each other’s conversations—don’t be surprised when your fellow bus passengers chime in on your private tête-à-tête with their own opinion or advice. Your business is their business too, and while they will most likely interrupt in order to argue and tell you why you’re wrong about something, they won’t hesitate to invite you for Shabbat dinner or to help you in any way they can. Lending a helping hand is the Israeli way—it is not some great mitzvah (good deed); rather, not to do it is a true embarrassment.
Volunteer dentists think of their trip to Israel as a working vacation. At the same time that they come to know Jerusalem, they help improve the quality of life in the Holy City. Dentists who come to volunteer in Israel truly help Jerusalem’s poorest people to overcome the cycle of poverty. Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are particularly prone to dental disease: 80% of all decay occurs in just 25% of kids. We know this to be true from the kids who come to DVI for help, as our volunteer dentists are astonished by their level of dental decay. Lack of access to dental care directly affects the matriculation and academic success of low-income children and, thus, the cycle of poverty. Families living below the poverty line have problems with their teeth due to a poor diet, a lack of oral hygiene habits and the inability of parents to provide regular dental treatment or the lack of awareness of the importance of such treatment and prevention. As more youth arrive at the clinic every year, DVI volunteer dentists and supporters are committed to investing their time and money in an effort to ensure that DVI’s young patients have better, healthier lives.
Dr. Harcsztark will soon be working in a local Jerusalem private dental office and lecturing to local dentists on the uses of Botox and dermal fillers, while Dr. Bers is a member of the Dean’s Faculty and a clinical instructor in the urgent care clinic at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
The DVI clinic is actively looking to recruit more volunteer dentists and raise additional funds to ensure the next 40 years of service! So if a working vacation in Israel sounds good, please email [email protected] and schedule your trip today! Or for more information on DVI, please visit http://americanfriendsofdvi.org/.