Rabbi Elimelech Firer never intended to become a living and breathing repository of medical knowledge.
He was a Chasidic yeshiva student studying in kollel when he first intervened with a doctor to help a sick relative, after studying up on his disease and its possible treatment. He was then asked to help a friend who needed a portable ventilator that was too expensive.
From the first experience, others began asking Firer for medical advice and assistance with referrals. From the second experience, Firer raised money to purchase expensive medical devices to loan them out.
The rabbi, who has no formal medical training but has read seemingly everything there is about medicine and health – and remembers it – and seems to have connections with every doctor and hospital, has since been able to advise and assist tens of thousands of people over the last 40 years, including matching patients who have rare diseases with specialists around the world.
Ezra Lemarpeh, the nonprofit medical support organization Firer founded in 1979 in Bnei Brak, Israel, assists patients with medical services for rehabilitation, adult and child cancer patients, those with serious illnesses and disabilities, and offers ambulance services and transportation for treatment overseas.
Firer and his organization have helped Israelis and non-Israelis, Jews and non-Jews, religious Jews and secular Jews, men and women.
All this help costs money, so the organization has undertaken a huge fundraising event set to take place later this month. The event will honor the 70th birthday of Israeli rock star Shlomo Artzi, and was to include 13 popular musical artists. The artists who had been scheduled to appear in the charity concert are all men.
That’s because the rabbi asked that in keeping with his strict Orthodox requirements, there be no female performers.
Late last month an Israeli news magazine reported the concert would not include women, and the public uproar began. Several of the artists pulled out, and the rabbi and his organization have come under loud criticism for their exclusion of women.
Let’s be clear, this is a private fundraising event that is not taking any public funds. Many of the artists had no problem with the conditions until the public criticism became deafening.
Doesn’t the rabbi who has been running his organization and giving of his time unstintingly for the last 40 years have the right to have his own religious beliefs respected at a fundraising event to support his organization?
I know many of the people who are complaining about Firer’s religious beliefs have their own strong beliefs, clearly, about the place of women in the public sphere, about respect for their secular beliefs and about the feeling that the haredi Orthodox have too much control in Israeli society. So they don’t have to support the concert by paying admission and showing up.
I will bet, however, that a friend or loved one has benefited from the services of Ezra Le'marpeh, and they probably never stopped to consider whether or not they should accept help from a haredi organization in their time of need.
In fact, especially in the medical sphere, Israelis accept help from organizations founded by or largely supported by the haredi community on a daily basis, and these organizations do not withhold their help if the person who needs it is not Jewish, religiously observant and male.
Those organizations include Yad Sarah, which loans medical and rehabilitative home care equipment for free, and also provides oxygen service, wheelchair transportation, national emergency alarm system and services for the homebound. Or Ezer Mizion with its Jewish Bone Marrow Donor Registry, as well as programs for special needs children, cancer patients and terror victims – and its distribution of over half a million hot meals annually to family members of hospitalized patients, not to mention sandwiches when you find yourself unexpectedly waiting with a loved one in a hospital emergency room or for someone in surgery.
These organizations, and also Firer, have all received the Israel Prize for their contributions to Israeli society – honors that are well deserved.
The Facebook page of Chaim Shemesh, the non-haredi artistic director of the event, has had a lively discussion about whether or not it is right to exclude female performers from the event. He summed it up in a comment to the Jerusalem Post: “The value of life is a supreme value. Rabbi Firer and the association help save thousands of people a year regardless of religion, race or gender, and I am proud to be part of an event that will raise funds to enable the nonprofit to continue its sacred work. Period. Everything else is irrelevant.”
Perhaps a musical event was not the best choice of fundraiser for Ezra Le'marpeh. And let’s be clear – I do not support the removal of women from the public sphere.
But if Firer can see past a person’s gender, religious beliefs and nationality to help them, then why can his critics not see past his religious beliefs to help him and his organization, or at least to not hurt it?
Marcy Oster is a former Ohio resident who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Karnei Shomron in the West Bank. To read more of Oster’s columns, visit clevelandjewishnews.com/oster.