For one week of her family trip to Israel last month, Dr. Aliza Staiman’s sightseeing was restricted mainly to the mouths of impoverished children.
The Teaneck dentist and mother of four girls had always taken an interest in Dental Volunteers for Israel, a ‘5-year-old program in which 4,500 dentists from ‘0 countries including several from Bergen County have given their time to treat kids referred by the Jerusalem Department of Social Welfare.
Dr. Aliza Staiman and Dr. Aaron Brandwein prepare for work in the DVI clinic in Jerusalem.
"Every year at the annual American Dental Association convention, DVI has a booth, and I always say I’ll do it," said Staiman. This year, she arranged to precede a family trip to Israel with a shift at the free clinic.
She was pleased to find that the four-chair facility soon to be expanded to six was manned by a "phenomenal" staff and equipped with up-to-date dental tools courtesy of the Long Island medical corporation Henry Schein Inc.
She was less pleased to see the toll taken by Israel’s failure to provide either dental insurance or dental hygiene education in schools.
"I saw seven to eight patients a day and did extractions, fillings, minor endodontic procedures, and even root canal on baby teeth," she said. "There’s a lot of sugar and candy in Israel and no fluoridation in the water. The amount of decay was much more than what I see here, and the pattern of decay was much faster progressing. There was especially rampant decay among Ethiopian children."
The clinic was begun by the late Trudi Birger, a Holocaust survivor who made a vow that if she survived the concentration camps, she would make it her priority to help Jerusalem’s needy children. Today, there are some 130,000 children from 5 to 18 living below the poverty line in Israel’s capital city. The clinic treats up to 150 of them daily, free of charge. There is a mandatory six-month recall program.
Volunteer dentists stay in area apartments provided by owners who live overseas. "The head of the clinic said there are so many empty apartments in Jerusalem, and he’d like people to consider providing those apartments to DVI because housing the volunteers is a major cost," said Staiman.
Because less than 5 percent of its funding comes from government grants, DVI is dependent on donations. The clinic operates four days a week but would stay open longer if the budget were larger, Staiman learned. "There is a tremendous waiting list. The more money they have, the more kids they can see."
Each child and parent first meets with staff hygienists, who outline basic dental hygiene and give each child floss and a toothbrush often the first they’ve ever had. The pediatric dentist in charge then writes a treatment plan and turns them over to a volunteer dentist, whose work is monitored by assistants on the clinic’s permanent staff.
Most of those Staiman treated were haredi (fervently Orthodox) children from very large families. "It’s an underprivileged, non-educated society," she said.
"I found the children very well behaved," said Staiman, "but mostly they just sat there and had very little give-and-take with me even though I speak Hebrew, so I felt kind of removed from them. Yet I felt like I was just doing something so good and so helpful because otherwise these kids would be losing a lot of their teeth to infection."
She came back with a certificate of appreciation, drawings made by children in the waiting room, and a determination to encourage donors and dentists to support DVI.
"I’m going to go back next year," she said. "It was an opportunity to use my free time to help kids who have no other alternative."
For information, see DVI’s Website, dental-dvi.co.il.