Interview: Dr. Rick Hodes of ‘Making the Crooked Straight’

Posted on April 13, 2010 at 3:59 pm


Dr. Rick Hodes is an Orthodox Jew who has devoted his life to “tikkun olam,” “healing the world. His motto is the Talmud’s statement that “He who saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Dr. Hodes has spent most of his professional life working with the poor and sick in Ethiopia, treating hundreds of patients and taking seventeen children into his own home to raise them as his family. His salary is paid by the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, and he raises the money for his patients. A new 30-minute documentary about the doctor, his work, and the children will be shown on HBO. The director is Susan Cohen Rockefeller.

I spoke to Dr. Hodes by phone as he was preparing to fly back to the US from Ethiopia.

How did you come to Ethiopia?

I came first in 1984 because of the famine. I came as a relief worker. I was a resident at Johns Hopkins and I took five or six weeks off and worked in the famine camps. For a while I was the only doctor for several thousand starving people.

What surprised you about Ethiopia?

The depth of the culture, the depth of the ancient Christianity, how people in Ethiopia really know who they are. They don’t think of themselves as black. They don’t think of themselves as African. They really think of themselves as Ethiopian. Even their Christianity is very much involved with their Ethiopian identity. If you go to a Christian ceremony, it will be very Ethiopian as well, with the colors and flags. Ethiopians know who they are. They really like their culture. They have their own religion, their own food, their own system. If they’re not in Ethiopia and find someone else from Ethiopia, they feel very close to them, especially if they are from the same region.

I have heard that in Ethiopia everyone carries the children around, that everyone takes care of the children as though they belong to the whole community.

They carry the children on their backs, there’s a lot of physical contact, child abuse is much less here. The rate of psychological problems from lack of care seems to be lower.

As an outsider, was it difficult for you to gain their trust?

Once you start doing good things, they start coming to you. They will ask if I can help them, teach them, do something with them. And learning the language.

What led you to take over responsibility for the children?

Bewoket had run away from home because he was dying. And he ended up in the university hospital. They discharged him to a Catholic mission. I was volunteering there. He was very attached to me. And he was in such difficult shape it was actually easier to have him in my house, where I could care for him. Once I took in one, I met another one, and so on. I try to say that this is finished, but it’s not finished.

Do the kids get along with each other?

Any two people under the same roof will not always agree, but they do well.

What do you do for fun?

They play board games. The healthier ones play soccer. The less healthy ones play Monopoly and card games. It’s funny, three years ago they had not seen a car or a white person and now what gets them most excited is buying a hotel on Boardwalk.

Do they want to become doctors?

A lot of them do. One boy was dying in Gojam and his dad sold two goats to get him $30 to come to the big city. They came to Addis Abeba,, and they spent 20 cents a night to sleep on the floor of the hotel with 20 people. They had no money for the bus so they had to walk six or seven miles to get to me. I reached into my pocket and gave him $10 and I said, “Here, every time you come I will give you more, so spend this. Eat two or three meals a day, sleep in a bed, take the bus, take care of yourself.” And that is when he started getting better.

And now this boy, who had been in a remote school studying to be an Orthodox priest is in eighth grade, speaks fluent English, and wants to be a doctor. When he came to America he told his life story at a fund-raiser and we raised $1 million. There’s another girl who was an orphan, living in a medical college because she had nowhere else to go. I ended up bringing her to Addis Abeba, treating her TB, sending her for surgery, and now she is in 6th grade and wants to be a doctor. When I first met her she said she wanted to be a housemaid because then she would have a place to live and cook. Now she’s living in my house, she speaks English. For $10-12 thousand we’ve completely transformed her life.

What do Americans need to know about Ethiopia?

The depth of the culture and the niceness of the people. It is a poor country, but it is a proud country with a deep culture, a history, definitely not uncivilized.

How does your Jewish faith inspire and sustain you?

I really enjoy being Jewish. I pray three times a day and keep the Sabbath to the extent that a doctor with patients can do that. We just had a big Passover seder. It is an important part of my life, the daily schedule, the weekly schedule, the monthly schedule. It becomes all-encompassing. But one of the nice things about being in Ethiopia is that I feel very welcome here. I respect other religions. Most of the kids are Orthodox Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim.

What I’m personally trying to do is making the world a better place for a few people, helping as many people as I can in that sense. I’m sending 16 kids in May to Ghana for surgery. That’s the greatest thing in the world for me.

Photo credit: Photograph by J. Kyle Keener/HBO

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7 Replies to “Interview: Dr. Rick Hodes of ‘Making the Crooked Straight’”

  1. I recently saw some vision of Dr Hodes’ work and like most people i am impressed and humbled by what he is doing for those whom the world seems to have forgotten or doesn’t want to know about. Having suffered from deformity myself i know what its like and these poor kids have the added torment of being poor, unwanted and unable to access good health care. I must say that recently i was told by a number of people that due to my condition i was in fact ugly, deformed, and that i needed to be culled from the human race for what i looked like. It crushed my spirit and my soul. It was heartening though to see that someone like Dr Hodes brings hope and spirit to these kids…i hope they never meet the people that i have and whom have made such terrible remarks about people like me and the kids that are under Dr Hodes’ care. God bless you Dr.

  2. Many thanks, Mr. Van Keppel, for this heartfelt and very thoughtful comment. As a person with more than one disabled family member, I can tell you that those who have deformed spirits are the ones who are most in need of our pity — and that, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, it is important to remember that no one can make us feel inferior without our consent. Like Dr. Hodes, your kindness and compassion are evident in everything you say and it is an honor to have you as a participant in our discussion here. I hope you will return often.

  3. Dr.Hodes, watching your selfless documenter has put tears in my eyes and forced me to look deep in to my soul.I came from the same place where your children came from.I left Ethiopia 35 years ago in the time of the emperor and been living in Europe and America since then.I am now in point in my life where living for one selfish need alone is living half life and will never be satisfactory until you fell your brother ‘s suffering.Thank you Doctor for opening my Eyes.I hope I will see you in Ethiopia soon.

  4. I read the book but was already somewhat familiar with Dr. Rick and Ethiopia. I spent a month in the country. The first half of my trip was spent sightseeing. It is a beautiful country. The second half of my trip was spent volunteering with Canadian Humanitarian. Although I live in the US, I was able to join a CH expedition. My trip to Ethiopia was the best trip I ever took and combining tourism with volunteer work was the perfect blend. I will never forget the people of Ethiopia.

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