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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Doctor in Tanzania Kindles Menorah Amid Refugees

December 11, 1996
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A Jewish doctor sets aside a few minutes each night of Chanukah to kindle the menorah.

On the face of it, his actions are not extraordinary.

But this doctor, Rick Hodes, lights the candles in his examining room at a refugee camp in Kigoma, Tanzania, where he is treating more than 10,000 patients, with at least hundreds more arriving daily.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee recently dispatched two medical teams to Central Africa to offer medical aid to the hordes of people turned into refugees because of the region’s ethnic strife.

The crisis in central Africa, based largely on enmity between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, recently exploded with renewed fighting in eastern Zaire.

The JDC has had a presence in the region since the 1994 civil war in Rwanda, which saw the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people and which precipitated the current crisis in the region.

Hodes, an American who has been working for the JDC in Ethiopia, has been in Tanzania since Nov. 16. While there, he has been keeping a journal, pages of which were obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In the diary, he details what one might expect, such as the camp’s conditions and some of the more poignant medical cases.

But Hodes, an American, also writes about the unusual setting for the Jewish rituals he performs.

“This afternoon during rounds at the government hospital, I saw that the sun was setting,” Hodes writes in his Nov. 27 entry. “I turned to my translator and said, `Excuse me, I need five minutes for afternoon prayers.’ I stepped into one corner of the open ward and in view of the patients, prayed Minchah.”

Upon seeing Hodes’ kipah, one of the patients asked about Hodes’ nationality, according to the diary. After a translator told the patient that Hodes is a Jew, Hodes instructed the translator, “Tell him I was praying for their health.”

Hodes and the two other members of his team — the three are at separate sites in Tanzania — provide medical care for tens of thousands of Rwandan and Zairian refugees.

The other JDC team includes Art Fost, an American Jew from New Jersey. That team is based in Kibongo, Rwanda, and treats refugees coming there from Tanzania.

The United Nations and Tanzanian officials recently announced that they want the more than 500,000 Rwandan refugees in Tanzania to return home by the end of the month.

The JDC medical workers are “virtually the only players in Tanzania,” Gideon Taylor, JDC assistant executive vice president, said in an interview.

Funding for all the medical programs comes from special donations to the JDC Open Mailbox, which is supported by a coalition of 39 Jewish groups. The JDC is the coalition’s operating arm.

Donations can be sent to: the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 711 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017.

The medical teams work in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, a U.S.-based group.

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