Ethiopia's 'Jewish doctor'

PHOTO: Dr. Rick Hodes discusses his work in Ethiopia with listeners at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center Monday, Sept. 11. Dr. Hodes has been working in Ethiopia since the mid 80s and currently is Medical Director in Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. (Rockne Roll/The Jewish Review)

The Jewish Review
“I have the largest collection of the worst spine deformities of the world.”
That’s an unusual self-description, but Dr. Rick Hodes is anything but typical. It’s a collection he’s amassed over more than 30 years practicing medicine in Ethiopia, work that has led to him being described as “a true Jewish hero.”
Dr. Hodes, who spoke at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center Monday, Sept. 11 and at the Eastside Jewish Commons on Tuesday, Sept. 12 at events sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, is Medical Director in Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. He arrived in the landlocked east African country, home to 120 million people, in the late 1980s and provided medical supervision for Operation Solomon, which evacuated over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991. He later worked with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa’s organization, and now with the JDC. 
He’s treated an enormous variety of afflictions, including rheumatic and congenital heart conditions rarely seen in industrialized countries, but he has become most notable for his work treating spinal cord defects, many caused by spinal tuberculosis. 
“If you go into a shoe store, what’s the first thing they do? They say hello, then they look at your shoes,” he said at the beginning of a story about one of his thousands of patients. “If you meet Rick Hodes, I’m a spine doctor, so when you meet me, you say hello and I somehow check out your back.”
Dr. Hodes’ first spine patients ended up becoming his adopted children – when he first saw them, there were no doctors outside the United States who would treat them. It occurred to him that they only way he could get them life-saving surgery would be to legally adopt them and add them to his health insurance. Under Ethiopian adoption law, he would be obligated to them for life. The decision was challenging.
“I looked up and I said to the Almighty, ‘what do you want me to do?’ There was no answer,” he recalled. “Three days later, I actually got an answer. And it was if he sent a fax to my brain, and the answer was this: ‘I’m offering you a chance to help these boys. Don’t say no.’”
Hodes said he’s experienced numerous moments of divine intervention over the course of his years practicing in Ethiopia. One instance he recalled was seeking radiation treatment for a boy with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a procedure that was not available in Ethiopia at the time. Later that same day, he was asked to give a presentation to a visiting delegation from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. 
“Whenever I’m giving a talk in Ethiopia, I ask, ‘Are there any medical people in the room?’” Dr. Hodes recalled. “One guy raises his hand.”
It was Dr. Jeff Foreman – a radiation oncologist. Dr. Foreman arranged for the patient to receive treatment in Detroit and has worked with Dr. Hodes on other cases. 
Born into a fairly secular upbringing on Long Island, Dr. Hodes has become more observant over the years. His efforts at observance have paid  dividends for his patients, as he recalled when he was visiting Minneapolis,  while searching for treatment options for a woman with an advanced brain tumor. He woke up too late one morning on a business trip to put on tefillin, , so between meetings, he asked the person showing him around the city to drop him off at a synagogue so he could pray. As he was donning his tefillin, the black leather boxes worn during certain prayers, he struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him. 
“I said, ‘What do you do here in Minneapolis?’” Dr. Hodes recalled. “He said, ‘Well, that’s very specific, I’m a skull-based neurosurgeon.’”
The doctor operated on Dr. Hodes patient, who made a full recovery, now lives in Minneapolis and recently had a child. 
“So if you ever don’t know what to do about some aspect of life, go to synagogue, go to your house of worship, whatever it is, say hello to the person next to you,” Dr. Hodes said. “You never know where it’s going to lead you.”
In a country that is roughly two-thirds Christian and 30 percent Muslim, Dr. Hodes is often known as “The Jewish Doctor.” While there remains a small Jewish population in Ethiopia today, the vast majority of Dr. Hodes’ patients are not Jewish. He recalled a particular patient whose father came from a village where “Israel” was used interchangeably with “hell” - the son needed reconstructive surgery following a hyena attack that was only available in Israel. They went to the Israeli embassy in Addis Ababa to get the paperwork sorted out for their journey, and met with the Ambassador, who asked them to wait while she gathered clothing for the son from her own child’s wardrobe.
“The guy said to me, ‘Doctor, what kind of ambassador gives you clothes from her own kids?’” Dr. Hodes recalled. “And I said, ‘a Jewish mother.’”
The young man received nine weeks of treatment at Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. 
“He came back with more clothes than Imelda Marcos,” Dr. Hodes said. “And he was a new kid. The [father] went on television and he said, ‘You wouldn’t believe this country. Israel is the greatest country in the world.’”
Today, Dr. Hodes is seeing hundreds of new spine patients every year, referring cases to Ghana for treatment. He hopes, along with JDC, to build facilities and train Ethiopian physicians to perform these services in Ethiopia in the coming years. 
“We’re changing people’s lives left and right,” he said. “I want to thank you so much, because really, we’re one team. I’m in Ethiopia. And you’re 10 time zones away, almost on the other side of the world. But I can’t do anything that I do without the interest of the support of the American community.”
In closing, Dr. Hodes quoted Maimonides, who wrote that the greatest mitzvah, or path to holiness, is to free a hostage. 
“The way I think of my work now is freeing hostages,” Dr. Hodes said. “They’re captives of their own bodies.”
For more about Dr. Hodes life and work, visit To learn more about JDC’s global relief efforts, which is supported by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and includes ongoing work in Ukraine and Morocco, visit 


Add Comment