Smiles all around

A veteran community dental care provider expands its operations.

moshe kahan dentist (photo credit: Samantha Pearson)
moshe kahan dentist
(photo credit: Samantha Pearson)
'Dentistry is not just the relief of pain. It enables a child to open his mouth, to smile, to communicate and to have self-esteem," explains Moshe Kahan, director of a new clinic on Rehov Koresh that is expected to provide free dental treatment to 1,500 of Jerusalem's poorest children. The pristine new building is the latest addition to the Health and Community Service Center (HCS), which has also been running a similar dental clinic in the Bukharan Quarter since 1986. Considering that 4,600 children are currently on the books of this older clinic, that's a total of just over 6,100 new smiles in Jerusalem. And if the children are smiling, their parents must be beaming. According to the city's Department of Social Services, over half of Jerusalem's children are living below the poverty line. This means that when a child gets a severe toothache, the whole family must cut back on essentials to afford the extraction procedure, Kahan explains. Health funds and most private health services do not cover basic dental care in Israel. However, under HCS Jerusalem Children's Dental Program, providing that the child is initially signed up between the ages of seven and nine, he will receive free dental treatment until he gets married. "What's more, none of our dentists will extract a tooth that could otherwise be saved," adds Kahan. In a country where the dentist's chair is a rich man's throne and few can afford a crown, let alone a filling or a root canal, it is up to private charities such as HCS to fill the gap left by the government. In the case of this particular program, Kahan's organization is fully subsidized by the PEF Israel Endowment Funds - an American foundation that distributes private donations to charitable projects across Israel. The foundation has so far donated $3 million towards the area of dentistry alone. Although the PEF funds everything from school libraries to ballet and baseball, the foundation's president of 12 years, Ben Frankel, explains why he saw these dental clinics as a top priority. "Dentistry is so very important," he says. "If problems are not treated at the very beginning, when a child is young, they only get worse and can end up affecting the whole body." While Frankel's foundation has put its money where its mouth is, the city's problem is that it has no real budget to sink its teeth into. A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, Sara Sharon, asserts that the municipality does have some money to help Jerusalemites with the cost of their dental care, but admits that it is a relatively small amount. "We are grateful to everyone who wants to help us," she adds. In an ideal world, Kahan says, it would be better if Israelis did not have to rely on the kindness of strangers for basic healthcare but, nevertheless, he understands the government's position. "It would be wonderful if dental treatment were part of one of the packages that people could insure themselves against, but let's be realistic. Not every medication that a cancer patient needs is covered, so there are even life and death situations where the government isn't paying. In this context, it's hard to say that they should be spending more on dentistry." The municipality still works closely with the HCS program, and is even responsible for referring children for treatment, says Kahan. "I tell Social Services how many children we can afford to treat, and then their social workers go out into the community and select the kids that are most in need," he explains. News of the clinic, however, often spreads by word of mouth much faster than any social worker can make it around neighborhoods. Every time a new child is registered with the program they receive their own toothbrush free of charge and, according to Kahan, it is not long before their brothers, sisters, neighbors, friends and cousins all want to know how they can get one of their own. With two more clinics opening up shortly in Beersheba and Bat Yam, it looks like the toothbrush is set to become next season's must-have accessory. This is one new fad that their parents can finally afford to smile about.