As many of my fraters will know, I have “retired” from my positions at the School of Dental Medicine of the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Erie County Medical Center. My “retirement” has been very active. Jane and I have purchased an apartment in a Jerusalem suburb and we divide our time between Israel and Buffalo. During the spring months, I have been teaching oral pathology at the Hebrew University School of Dental Medicine, as a volunteer. In addition, I have accepted the role of Co-Director of the Jewish Healthcare International (JHI) program in Riga, Latvia.
The mission of JHI is to enhance the health care services to Jewish communities in need throughout the world. Emphasis is placed on communities at risk in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. This nonprofit organization provides ongoing consultation by sending teams of volunteer health care professionals to these communities on a regular basis and by providing the professional supplies needed to enhance the quality of medical and dental services. Their missions are multifaceted and include patient consultation, educational seminars, donations of professional material, and a Jewish renewal experience. JHI has enjoyed the financial support of the AO Foundation and of several individuals and philanthropic organizations. Frater Ben Williamowsky is a member of the Board of JHI and acts as liaison between our fraternity and JHI. (I currently serve as Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of JHI.)
My most recent visit to Riga took place in November 2007 (my previous visits were in 2004 and 2006). I should like to recount my experiences, with special mention of the role of AO in Riga.
The JHI program in Riga is based at the Bikur Holim Jewish Hospital. Bikur Holim was established in 1924 and quickly became a leading center for health care in Latvia. The Second World War brought misery and destruction to the Jewish population of Latvia and the hospital. In 1940, the Hospital was nationalized, as a consequence of the incorporation of Latvia into the Soviet Union. In 1998, the property was returned to the Jewish community of Latvia. Since the revival of the Hospital, the oral health care program has been aided by local chapters and the international body of AO. JHI has also played a significant role by sending several dental missions. Many fraters served on these missions, and the hospital acknowledges their assistance with much appreciation.
Since the end of the Soviet era, dental care is no longer free in Latvia. It is estimated that 90% of dentists have private practices. Bikur Holim is a private hospital and receives no state subsidy. It is a very important resource for the Jewish community, many of whom are elderly and rely on community resources for their health care. The dental clinic was opened in 1993 and, as noted, receives support from international Jewish organizations.
The local AO chapter was founded on May 20, 2002, and the charter is prominently displayed in the Bikur Holim dental clinic. The 9 charter members included the dental professional staff of the hospital. Dr. Leonid Baron was among the founders and is the current chapter President. Tatiana Soldatenkoba is the Dental Clinic Director, and fraters Inesa Klabina and Igor Klyabinsh are members of her staff. Dr. Arkadij Gandz, the hospital's Director, is also a chapter member and plays an active role in the administration of the clinic.
During an earlier visit, I met with Dr. Baron and presented greetings from our then International President, Steve Braunstein. It was a personal pleasure to convey this message, because Steve was my student and resident and remains a good friend. Our International Editor at that time, Dan Uditsky, provided several copies of the latest issue of the Alpha Omegan, which I presented to Dr. Baron for the chapter's information.
Our professional activities have included consulting with Drs. Gandz and Soldatenkoba on hospital and clinic administration matters. We emphasized the interaction of oral and systemic health and the importance of a comprehensive oral examination and treatment planning. With the collaboration of my Country Co-Director, Dr. Sheldon (Dov) Sydney, an Israeli periodontist and Tel Aviv faculty member, JHI has established a “Dental Center of Excellence” at the Bikur Holim Hospital. This program has provided continuity between JHI missions and given overall direction to our endeavors. Dr. Sydney continues to provide oversight of the periodontal and implant program. Another Israeli colleague and Tel Aviv faculty member, Dr. Ofer Moses, has also demonstrated implant procedures to the dental staff. My colleagues and I have presented lectures and seminars to the hospital medical and dental staffs. Dr. Rina Adut, the Director of Dental Public Health Services for Tel Aviv, accompanied me on the most recent mission. Dr. Adut has experience in dental public health and geriatric dentistry. She shared her expertise with members of the dental staff, the medical and nursing staffs, and the elderly of the Jewish community.
Any Jewish visit to Latvia must include a pilgrimage to the Holocaust memorial sites. Nazis herded members of the Jewish community into the major synagogue and burned it to the ground, murdering the congregants. The foundation remains as a stark memorial. Rumbula Forest is the site of the mass murder of 25,000 Jews from the Riga ghetto in 1941. It is estimated that 40,000 Jews from throughout Europe were murdered in Bikernieki Forest and are buried there.
But a Jewish community exists! A few Holocaust survivors remain. Jews have come to Riga from the former Soviet Union and businessmen seek opportunities in the new member countries of the European Union. I dined with Holocaust survivors in a “warm house,” an activity supported by the Jewish Agency. A Jewish Community Center, providing meals and cultural activities, is supported by the Women's International Zionist Organization. One synagogue in the Old City was not destroyed, because of its proximity to neighboring buildings. On Shabbat morning, I customarily daven along with over 50 co-religionists—a most moving experience.
JHI plans to continue the multifaceted program at Bikur Holim, with special emphasis on “hands on” demonstrations of contemporary health care practices. It is anticipated that Bikur Holim will continue to develop a comprehensive health care program, to benefit the Riga Jewish community, as well as to serve as a model health care resource for the community at large. With the continued support of the Alpha Omega Foundation and the voluntary efforts of our fraters, JHI will improve the oral health of the residents of Riga, who look to the Bikur Holim Hospital for superior health care.
© 2010 The Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity. Published by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.