Looking ahead to a possible retirement in 2020, family practice physician Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz had just one plan in mind: to volunteer with Dr. Rick Hodes, a Jewish American who has spent the past 31 years in Ethiopia saving lives as that country’s only spine surgeon.
Rabinowitz had been following Hodes’ career for years and was an ardent admirer of his work, although the two had never met.
Tragically, Rabinowitz never had the chance to retire, or to offer his services as a compassionate and skilled physician in a country beset by poverty and disease. Instead, the longtime member of Congregation Dor Hadash was murdered at age 66 by an anti-Semite on Oct. 27 along with 10 other worshippers at the Tree of Life building.
Hodes was in Pittsburgh just prior to the High Holidays at the invitation of Miri Rabinowitz, Jerry’s widow, to deliver a Selichot lecture for Dor Hadash in memory of Jerry and marking 11 months since his death.
“Rick had been a lifelong hero of Jerry’s,” said Miri Rabinowitz, whose sister is married to a colleague of Hodes’.
Miri Rabinowitz is a research scientist in the department of neurosurgery at UPMC. She works for Dr. David Okonkwo, who specializes in complex spines. It was “beshert,” she said, that while in Pittsburgh, Hodes also addressed UPMC’s neurosurgery department.
Hodes, a devout Jew who grew up on Long Island, is the medical director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in Ethiopia. He has been in charge of the health of Ethiopians immigrating to Israel, and has worked with refugees in Rwanda, Zaire, Tanzania, Somalia and Albania. He is also the senior consultant at a Catholic mission, providing medical services to those afflicted with heart disease, spine disease and cancer.
Selected as a CNN Hero in 2007, Hodes has been the subject of several books and documentaries. He practices in one room in a hospital in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Just as Jerry Rabinowitz had been a fan of Hodes, Hodes also has become a fan of Rabinowitz since learning about his life in preparation for the Selichot address to Dor Hadash.
“This is a guy who connected so well to his patients,” Hodes told the Chronicle. “He touched his patients back in the days of AIDS when everybody was afraid of AIDS patients. He would hug his AIDS patients. He had a personal connection to them. They would call him and he would call them. He was like the model compassionate physician.”
Rabinowitz also had a keen sense of humor, Hodes learned.
“He was just a great guy. I never thought I would end up speaking at his memorial service, but I just admire him so much from what I learned.”
Several hundred people gathered on Sept. 21 for Dor Hadash’s Selichot and memorial service for Rabinowitz, the only member of Dor Hadash who was killed during the Oct. 27 attack. Another member of Dor Hadash, Dan Leger, was shot; he was seriously wounded and is recovering from his injuries.
“Jerry really has such a blessed memory,” said Hodes. “One of the stories that I told was that it was his personal custom, whenever they were asking mourners to stand and say Kaddish, he would always stand and always say Kaddish. And someone said, ‘Jerry, it seems like you are always mourning. Have you lost that many people?’ He said, ‘No, not at all, but I feel like I should stand in respect for people who died because maybe when I die nobody will stand for me.”
In fact, several hundred people attended the funeral for Rabinowitz, filling the Katz Theater of the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. The JCC streamed the service in its gym, which was also full, to accommodate the massive crowd.
Hodes headed to Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985 to assist those affected by the famine. He returned to Africa a few years later to teach, ostensibly for one year. He has been there ever since.
He stayed, he said, because “in every sense of the word, I can’t think of anything better to do.”
Most of his patients are very poor, with many living in mud houses, some without electricity. Some are homeless, including homeless spine patients, many of whose bodies are startlingly distorted prior to Hodes’ care.
“It’s Judaism at its best,” the surgeon said. “We are saving lives who would otherwise die. We are turning people’s lives around.”
Since 2006, he has performed more than 1,000 spine surgeries. He now sees 400 to 500 new spine patients a year, and tries to do about 100 surgeries annually.
“I have perhaps the largest collection of the worst spines in the world,” he said.
While the rate of spine deformities in America is 3%, with about 10% of those requiring surgery, according to Hodes, the rate is much higher in Ethiopia where there are old polio cases as well as a prevalence of the genetic disease neurofibromatosis and many cases of tuberculosis of the spine.
Although Hodes is not married, he has five adopted children, “abandoned orphans” with health issues.
“I wanted to help them, so I adopted them,” Hodes said. He added them to his health insurance, and has brought them to the United Sates for medical care.
Although “minyans are tough” to form in his Ethiopian community, Hodes is nonetheless “observant,” he said. “I put on tefillin every day. I pray three times a day. I’m vegetarian.”
He and the several children who now live with him — the five he formally adopted are grown — celebrate Shabbat at home every Friday night.
Having Hodes in Pittsburgh to address Dor Hadash in memory of her husband was particularly meaningful, said Miri Rabinowitz.
“Rick really was a hero of his,” she said. “Jerry often said that if Jews had saints, Rick would be one of them.”
Part of the mission of Dor Hadash is “social action and healing the world, and Rick lives that every day,” she added. “And he’s just a living example of all that is good and all that is right.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at