December 31, 2008
L.A.'s Top Ten Mensches: Our fourth-annual salute to big-hearted Angelenos
Gabriel Halimi, Kim Krowne, Manijeh Youabian, Andrew Wolfberg, Susan Corwin, Ari Moss, Dr. Richard Braun, Bracha Yael, Jack Matloff, Neil Sheff
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Jack Matloff: A Surgeon With a Big Heart and a Mission
If a Hollywood casting director were scouting for an actor to portray a famous heart surgeon, he would pick someone like Jack Matloff.
At 76, Dr. Matloff is tall, well built, with white hair, a strong face and large, powerful hands, and, best of all, he wouldn't need any rehearsals to play the role.
Recently, Matloff was chosen as the 2008 Pioneer in Medicine by the professional staff at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he worked from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, but his influence extends well beyond Los Angeles.
Today, there are cardiac surgery centers at hospitals and universities in the United States, Israel, Japan, China, Germany, Russia, Colombia and El Salvador that owe their beginning and professional leadership to Matloff's initiative and training.
At Shaare Tzedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, he not only helped create the cardiothoracic surgery department named in honor of his parents but also led a $15 million fund drive to assure its establishment. Other such departments in Israel at the Hadassah Hospital and in Tel Aviv and Haifa owe much to his personal efforts.
"He became somewhat of a medical hero in Israel," said one colleague.
Born in New Haven, Conn., the son of a milkman, Matloff was recruited by Cedars-Sinai to establish its now internationally recognized cardiothoracic surgery division for child and adult patients, which later added heart and lung transplants to its program.
Asked how many heart surgeries, including transplants, he had performed during his career, Matloff had to pause for a few moments before answering, "Oh, between 4,000 and 5,000."
Even in so-called retirement, hardly a day goes by without calls from doctors around the world asking for professional consultations, from potential patients seeking advice and from college students requesting recommendations for admissions to medical schools.
As the author of well over 500 scientific papers, abstracts and books and a major figure in the development of artificial heart valves, Matloff is widely recognized for his professional accomplishments, but there is another side to the man.
"Jack is a warm and kind-hearted person, who has never lost touch with his Jewish identity," said one longtime co-worker.
Matloff helped to establish a Hillel Center at Yale, one of his alma maters, and also donated a Torah. At Cedars-Sinai, he contributed Torah mantles to the chapel and also initiated the first sukkah at the hospital.
Back in 1982, Matloff performed a quadruple bypass operation on then 54-year-old Aaron Eshman. "The operation was on May 8, and every year on that date, Matloff phones me to congratulate me on my rebirth," Eshman recalled.
Matloff carried his religious outlook over into his daily work, a colleague noted by saying, "Jack never forgot that there is a spiritual side to healing."
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Neil Sheff: Rekindling the Light of Ladino Culture
Neil Sheff would rather not be referred to as a mensch, but not for the reasons you might expect.
If you must label his altruistic nature, he prefers you skip the Yiddish and go straight for the Ladino word: ben adam.
Sheff, 47, has been a steadfast figure in Los Angeles' Ladino-speaking Sephardic community since he was a teen, but you'd be hard-pressed to find much written about him beyond a few articles on the Sephardic Film Festival, which he chairs.
Sheff is driven by a passion for Ladino culture and the larger Sephardic world, but he feels the weight of being one of the few in his generation to carry the Ladino mantle. In addition to the film festival, he also sits on the board of the youth-oriented Sephardic Education Center (SEC) in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
The Sephardic community raised Sheff, an only child, after his Ashkenazi father died when he was 3 and his Sephardic mother was forced to spend long hours working downtown. His friends growing up were mostly seniors, who looked after him and taught him Ladino, the language of Spanish Jews, along with its rich catalog of songs about joyous hope, unrequited love and heavenly reverence.
During a social hour following Friday night services at the former Sephardic Hebrew Center "they would get little Neil up on the microphone to sing songs," Sheff said, while seated on the living room couch in his Westwood home. "All these old people thought I was the best thing since bourekas."
Now an immigration attorney with a family of his own, Sheff volunteers countless hours to promote Ladino culture at a time when the younger assimilated generations count gastronomy as their primary cultural tie.
In a recent week, his activities had included meetings with the Los Angeles SEC executive director to discuss scholarships for teen trips to Israel; the founder of an Israeli soup kitchen, where Sheff and his family volunteered during a recent trip, to discuss how to raise funds in Southern California; and the filmmaker of "The Last Jews of Libya," to help her connect with a Sephardic music group in New York for a possible tour.
Lacking a father, Sheff fell under the wing of Dr. Jose Nessim in the 1970s. A gynecological surgeon who addressed issues affecting the Diaspora Sephardic community early on, Nessim, now 86, was an important figure in establishing the Sephardic Education Center in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila of Sephardic Temple Tiffereth Israel says that Sheff has always been driven by a passion for the Sephardic way of life, the hallmarks of which include moderation, tolerance, caring and compassion.
In addition to caring about Sephardic youth through the SEC, Bouskila said Sheff has also remained committed to the seniors who looked after him early in his life.
"Neil has quietly done a lot for the older people in the community," he said. "He continues to invite them to his home for Shabbat and Pesach. He's always cared for them and their welfare."
Sheff carries on in the hope that past SEC participants, who have grown and now have children of their own, will return to the center to help him rekindle a culture that is slowly dying with the immigrant generation.
"I try to teach my kids some of the songs that we would sing in Ladino, even though most people don't understand it. But just to try to keep it going and keep it alive a little bit longer," he said.
For more information about the Sephardic Education Center, visit http://www.secjerusalem.org.
-- Adam Wills, Senior Editor
FULL TEXT OF SPEECH: HONORING DR. JACK MATLOFF & FAMILY COMMENTS BY STEPHEN MATLOFF SHAARE ZEDEK DINNER 6/16/10 Dad regrets that he cannot be here tonight. As some of you know he took a little fall a couple of weeks ago literally walking through the front door from our trip to Israel and the East Coast. X-rays of his neck revealed a fracture in his 2nd cervical vertebrate and so he is at home somewhat immobilized. For those of you who thought he was a tough guy, you might be interested to know that his x-rays showed another fracture in his neck that none of us – including Dad – knew about! So Dad is a guy who apparently goes around breaking his neck from time-to-time and just toughs it out. In all seriousness, Dad will be down-and-out for a few months but his doctors already are quite happy with his healing. Thank you everyone for being here for this important occasion for Dad and for our family. Thank you also to everyone from Shaare Zedek and the American Committee who have allowed the Matloff family to associate with such an outstanding institution for several decades. And thank you especially to Mr. Harkham and the Luxe staff for graciously hosting us this evening. We have come together tonight because 30 years ago Dad recognized that many of his cardiothoracic patients here in Los Angeleswere coming from Israel and other parts of the Middle East. Some research revealed that 18 month wait times for heart surgery resulted in too many Israeli patients dying while they waited for care and too many others travelling halfway around the world to receive care sooner. Through a series of luck-would-have-it events, Dad teamed up with Shaare Zedek and the leadership of its American Committee to turn a large, unfinished space at Shaare Zedek into a world-class center of excellence in cardiac care. Since 1995, patients have been diagnosed, treated, operated on and rehabilitated for all sorts of heart ailments on Shaare Zedek’s formerly vacant 10th floor in the Jesselson Heart Center and its sub-departments – including the Ruth & Hyman Matloff Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery named for my grandparents. From the clinical perspective, the Center has fulfilled and exceeded all lofty expectations. What some don’t know is that Dad’s original vision for the Jesselson Heart Center included a geopolitical or societal metric, as well: to provide a bridge-to-peace in the region as the Center would treat patients as patients and not as Jews or Arabs or anything else. And in fact, the Jesselson Heart Center is staffed by medical professionals from all walks who treat patients from all walks – side-by-side in every respect and with every respect. So while we all unfortunately still yearn for peace in the region, the Jesselson Heart Center has fulfilled and exceeded expectations from the societal perspective, as well. Now, 30 years later, another large, vacant space at Shaare Zedek is going to develop into a world-class facility. Again, the promise of this facility is twofold: to fill an acute clinical need and to seize upon a great societal opportunity. More out of need than choice, Shaare Zedek’s emergency and trauma capabilities have matured very significantly over the last decade. As the only major hospital within Jerusalem’s city limits, Shaare Zedek was the closest facility capable of treating large numbers of terror attack victims when Jerusalem was too often disrupted during the first half of this decade. As a result, 40% of all victims of terror attacks in the area were treated at Shaare Zedek. Since 2000, the number of visits to the emergency room by adults has grown 103% while the equivalent statistic for ERs at other facilities in the area basically have remained unchanged. Today, Shaare Zedek’s emergency room receives roughly 60,500 adult visits annually – or about 165 per day – in addition to almost 15,500 pediatric visits. So Shaare Zedek already has tremendous expertise in the area of emergency and trauma care. From the clinical perspective, what the currently vacant space we’re focused on tonight will offer once completed is a safe-haven in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack on the area – something that unfortunately is becoming a greater possibility in the current geopolitical environment. In this new Center, victims of new disasters, inpatients of the hospital and hospital staff will be able to continue treating and being treated despite what might be happening outside. And in fact more new trauma patients will be able to be treated than currently can be. From the societal perspective, this new department will become a shining example of an important trend that many inside and outside of Israel have come to recognize and some have begun writing books about. In those books, the very compelling argument is being made that Israel’s importance in the world has extended far beyond its role as a place that Jews from all corners of the earth could go to if they no longer felt welcomed in their homelands. Rather, Israel’s importance in the world today is rooted in its unparalleled generation of innovation in many fields – certainly continuing in agriculture and biotechnology but extending much deeper into every facet of the high tech and energy industries. In short, Israel today is an exporter of excellence in innovation. To some extent, Israel already exports its disaster and emergency response capabilities. It did so most visibly in Haiti earlier this year when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) organized and deployed 235 search and rescue and medical professionals to Port Au-Prince. Within 80 hours of the devastating earthquake, Israelis – who had travelled from around the world – were treating injured Haitians with several tons of medical supplies that they brought with them in a field hospital that they constructed with triage, registration, imaging, orthopedics, OB and surgical departments among others, not to mention a sophisticated electronic medical record system. They were there before other nations and humanitarian groups and were substantially more organized and better equipped. The media – some of which is not friendly to Israel –called the IDF’s field hospital “the Rolls Royce of emergency medicine”. Shaare Zedek is only 1 of a couple dozen hospitals in Israel, but its leadership in disaster and emergency response was illustrated by the fact that two of the four professionals it sent directed all surgical efforts and nursing functions, respectively, while the other two professionals it sent played important roles on the orthopedics and OB teams. In fact, the physician who ran the IDF’s triage and surgical efforts in Haiti is Dr. Ofer Merin – a cardiothoracic surgeon by training who currently directs Shaare Zedek’s trauma efforts and has been named the Director of the new Matloff Disaster and Emergency Response Center. Dr. Merin also recently was named Professor Halevy's Deputy Director General for the entire hospital, which I believe at least in some small measure indicates the importance of this project. With a pre-defined academic purpose, the new Matloff Disaster and Emergency Response Center will formalize the export of innovation in this important area of disaster and emergency response. More than just mobilizing hundreds of Israeli professionals and tons of supplies within hours of devastating events anywhere in the world, the Center will be a place where professionals from around the world come to learn how to respond themselves – potentially in isolation or until additional help arrives. The first hours after a disaster are so critical, and the impressive standard that Israel set of 80 hours from around the globe just isn’t good enough. From this perspective, giving to this important Center is far more than charity. It is an investment – not only for the people of Israelbut for all people worldwide who may be afflicted by disaster. In fact, I hate to say it, but as inhabitants of a major American city susceptible to earthquakes and other natural disasters and containing sites that could be targets of future terror attacks, it is not out of the realm of possibility that we could be very significant beneficiaries of this investment ourselves. Dad has always been concerned about the care of Israelis, but it is the potential to improve the lots of all humans precisely when they are most vulnerable and fragile that excites Dad and our family about this important new Center. While Dad was an outstanding surgeon and his thousands of patients benefitted from his expertise and wisdom, he perhaps was most proud of the hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and books that he wrote and edited and the cardiac centers around the world that he helped create – including Shaare Zedek’s. These activities to advance the field of cardiothoracic surgery represented his sharing of his experience and knowledge – his personal exporting of innovation – and it resulted in improved health and better and longer lives for millions of people worldwide. We believe that in addition to improving the lives of Israelis, the Matloff Disaster and Emergency Response Center can have a similarly grandiose impact on the lives of humans around the world. Again, our family thanks all of you and the rest of the Shaare Zedek family for your recognition on this evening. And we all hope that you will share our excitement about this important and unique investment opportunity in humanity.