Are you discouraged when you listen to the news lately? I know I am. So it was with great interest that I attended a lecture at our temple given by a fellow member, Sam Hahn. Real heroes – don’t come dressed in red tights and capes.
There is another reason that I was excited to attend this insightful event. As you know, my ultimate goal is to work on, and with, Peacemakers. Currently, I’m finishing my book, “Blasted from Complacency,” the tale of our family vacation in Israel, when we found ourselves in the beginnings of war, and its profound impact on me – touring incredible, sacred and historical sites in between cowering in bomb shelters.
This was another opportunity to dip my toe into what I believe my future will have in store for me – my life’s purpose.
Sam’s organization – Hope in Sight, is a non-profit and non-political interfaith team of optometrists, opticians, ophthalmologists and volunteers, dedicated to providing free eye care to underserved Israeli and Palestinian children. He lives by the belief that it’s not enough to attend services at temple – you have to do good deeds.
By both Israelis and Palestinians being served by Jews, Muslims, Christians and Mormons – the patients will begin to see that we are all the same. He believes eye care transcends religious and political beliefs. Sam and his team are Peacemakers – seeing from another vantage point. They have been doing this sacred work since the summer of 2015.
There’s a surprising shortage of medical eye professionals in the country, and many of the insurances in Israel, don’t cover the eye care needed. A source of frustration for their team is that people can go blind even though in the modern world, we know how to eliminate the cause.
On their trip they did vision screenings in Ramallah, in the West Bank, eye exams at the Ethiopian absorption center in Jerusalem, and provided hundreds of lenses and glass frames. They also held educational seminars for students at the Hadassah Academic College of Optometry and trained Al- Quds university student volunteers to become vision screeners.
The surgeons performed forty-seven cataract surgeries – “old school,” not having the sophisticated equipment that we have in the United States. One of the Muslim surgeons poignantly said:
In the dark everyone is the same
An eye is an eye
Under the sheet is someone who can’t see
I’m here to help.
Sam would be the first to tell you that his venture, since its founding was an eye opening experience, not only for the patients, but for the doctors and volunteers. I believe anyone hearing their story would also be moved – how could you not be? Their work brought tears to my eyes – as we were told that some of their patients were able to see for the first time!
His first assumptions when he took on this bold initiative was perhaps naïve – who wouldn’t want their kids to get free vision care? But he was soon to find out – nothing in Israel is easy. Politics is an insidious dust that settles into every crack and crevice of Israeli existence. Life in Israel is always complicated. Few helpers come to support both sides and each group must be served separately. The mixed religious composition of the volunteers also added both beauty and complexity to their mission.
People trying to assist either side can get trapped in suspicion – why are these people from the other side, trying to help us? Will your efforts be refused because of your religion? Or will human innate curiosity, crack the door open just wide enough to let a glimmer of hope shine through?
Even free supplies of frames and lenses encountered obstacles and had to be rerouted through other countries like Turkey – they could not be shipped from Israel into Palestinian areas due to the Palestinian boycott of Israeli products and companies. The Israeli and Jordanian governments also ultimately prevented one shipment of donated supplies from being delivered because they came from Saudi Arabia.
A profound point Sam made was – “when kids don’t see well, it’s difficult for them to learn in school.” What happens to people’s ability to make decisions for themselves, when they are uneducated? I believe, they can become victims of accepting what they are told – by people who may have distorted agendas. But then again, who determines what a distorted agenda is? Each person has their own frame of reference which interprets their own reality. Sam made a profound observation from their travels – “the more education everybody has, the more open they were to living in Peace.”
Israel is a complex fabric of normal living and danger – a reality of daily life. Going into the West Bank and East Jerusalem can be disconcerting and sometimes frightening…
One volunteer spoke about her experience when on their way to Bethlehem. Palestinian teens were throwing pipe bombs, and the Israeli soldiers started shooting off tear gas. She told Sam not to walk next to her – he “looked too Jewish.” Indiscriminate pipe bombs – don’t ask how many lives did you save today?
Yet they discovered they were also treated with grace and appreciation. A highlight for his team was when they were in Ramallah, and their driver treated them to a surprise dinner at his home. The driver lamented that he wanted to have Peace in his country. But the governments have to change – for a better future for his children, and all the children of the next generations.
It was clear as each of the volunteers shared their experiences, that the interactions with the local patients and their families, had a profound impact on them. The psychological bridges that were built in the chain of humanity will be felt for years to come.
So here we see even good deeds can be fraught with danger working in Israel. Each obstacle was confronted – and his team usually found a way to prevail. I am humbled and grateful by the humanity that these volunteers have shown. Meeting people like these, gives me hope.
I invite you to Join Me On My Journey…