Meet the oleh doctor helping Ethiopian Jews

Dr. Morris Hartstein has personally examined over 7,000 people and provided eye drops and glasses through donations and at his own expense.

 IN ACTION in Ethiopia: Eye checks.  (photo credit: Courtesy Morris Hartstein)
IN ACTION in Ethiopia: Eye checks.
(photo credit: Courtesy Morris Hartstein)

The Magazine recently sat down with Dr. Morris Hartstein in his home to talk about his “second full-time job” as an indefatigable volunteer for Ethiopians in need. Since 2013, he has been the sole eyecare provider to approximately 8,000 Jews awaiting aliyah in Addis Ababa and Gondar. He has personally examined over 7,000 people and provided eye drops and glasses through donations and at his own expense.

His wife, Elisa, joined the conversation. (Where not indicated, Morris is speaking.)

Morris, what makes you tick?

I like to give back. It’s what my parents did.

 WITH ELISA and local children at the Hatikva Compound. (credit: Courtesy Morris Hartstein) WITH ELISA and local children at the Hatikva Compound. (credit: Courtesy Morris Hartstein)
It was my good fortune to know your parents in St. Louis – Dr. Jack and Merle Hartstein, of blessed memory. The Jewish newspaper in St. Louis referred to your mom as “an indefatigable volunteer for those in need.” Has this “goodness gene” passed on to your children?

We are fortunate that our kids, too, feel an obligation to give back. Our two daughters, Eliana and Dalia, are officers in the Israeli army, and Zack, our oldest son, is in an elite army unit. They have all worked with me in Ethiopia and have brought their friends. Our son Jonah has learned enough Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia) so that he can work there independently.

Tell us how your children initiated the idea of your family volunteering in Ethiopia.

In 2012, our family traveled to South Africa for a safari vacation. When we drove past the country’s shantytowns, our son Zack, then 12, asked if we could go somewhere on our next family trip where we could volunteer. Dalia spent months on Google checking out volunteer programs. All four kids really pushed us.

What’s a takeaway from your story?

Elisa: One important thing I have learned is the power of listening to your children. Their idea to volunteer led us on this journey.

What were your impressions on your first visit to Gondar?

Elisa: I had never seen such a low level of poverty. A typical family home is one room, and has no running water, toilets or refrigeration.

Morris: Most of the people I met had never been to a doctor.

Since your first trip to Ethiopia, how many times have you been back?

Morris: Eleven.

Elisa: But Morris’s work for the Ethiopian community continues even when he’s in Israel. They call him with questions about various medical situations, including COVID. In effect, Morris has become the medical authority for the Jewish community of Gondar.

Tell us something about your workday in Gondar.

Typically, we’d set up tables in front of the community shul and organize makeshift eyecare clinics to examine the patients. We come into Ethiopia with suitcases full of eyeglasses and eye medications. If surgery is needed, I operate at the Gondar Hospital.

We hire bilingual youth from the Gondar Jewish community to work as our translators from Amharic to Hebrew. My wife and children know how to use a portable eye chart to refract for glasses and dispense medicines that I prescribe. In addition to our family, we have brought friends with us.

Do you work outside of Gondar?

Ninety percent of my time, I’m in Gondar, which is in northern Ethiopia, because that’s where 75%-80% of the Jews now reside. Some Jews still remain in Addis Ababa, about 420 km. away from Gondar, and I also volunteer there on occasion.

How are you planning for the future?

We are developing the expertise of local Ethiopian ophthalmologists. To date, 13 ophthalmology residents and four fellows from Gondar have come to the Shamir Medical Center for training.

And we’re partnering with other organizations which support many of our programs, such as Restoring Vision, The Himalayan Cataract Project, ASOPRS Foundation and the DEAR Foundation. Untreated cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in Ethiopia. We want to continue running two cataract campaigns a year where we perform a large number of cataract surgeries over the course of a week.

How are you confronting the severe problem of malnutrition?

In 2017, along with Prof. Arthur Eidelman of Shaare Zedek Medical Center and local public officials, we examined nearly 1,000 children under age five in the Gondar Jewish compound and found that almost half were suffering from severe malnutrition. Together with SSEJ [Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry], we established a program that feeds 200 nursing mothers and 500 malnourished children five days a week.

In August 2020, I presented our data to the Knesset, and later that year I flew to Addis Ababa with an Israeli delegation led by MK Pnina Tamano-Shata, to show them the dire conditions of the community.

You and your family do so much to help the Ethiopians in need. What can the rest of us do?

Please visit our website (www.operationethiopia.com) and our Instagram page (www.instagram.com/operationethiopia).

Your father was a well-respected ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and one of his hobbies was fixing broken watches. In his words, this involves a lot of fine work – sort of like repairing eyes. Morris, do you have any outside interests?

I love to play guitar, read, and I’m an avid runner.

That is totally fitting for someone who runs to do good deeds on two continents.

More about Dr. Hartstein

Hartstein was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1963.

He received his AB in chemistry from Columbia University and his medical degree from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.

After completing an internship at the world-renowned Bellevue Hospital and at New York University Hospital, he completed a prestigious one-on-one fellowship at Harvard University’s Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

In 2004, when he was a tenured professor at Saint Louis University, he took a sabbatical in Israel with his wife and four children. He extended his sabbatical, and he and his family remained in Ra’anana, where they currently live as Israeli citizens.

Hartstein holds the following positions in Israel: director of Ophthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Shamir Medical Center (formerly Assaf Harofeh Medical Center); clinical associate professor at Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University. He is an author and an internationally known surgeon, having performed over 10,000 eyelid and orbital surgeries. ■

DR. MORRIS HARTSTEIN, 58FROM ST. LOUIS TO RA’ANANA, 2004