Jewish Journal

Healing Hearts in Tel Aviv: How One California Woman Spent Her Post-Grad Months

by Ashley Berns, alumna of Masa Israel's Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience

November 16, 2011 | 2:32 pm

“Ashley, if you weren’t here with me today I would have spent the day in the shower, crying.” These words, uttered through tears of relief, have remained with me during the last two years.

Four weeks after graduating from the University of Southern California, I was on an El Al flight to Tel Aviv, unaware of the impact the next five months would have on my life. While living in the heart of Tel Aviv as a participant in Masa Israel’s Oranim Tel Aviv Internship Experience, I spent my days volunteering with the Israeli charitable organization Save A Child’s Heart (SACH). SACH brings children, at no cost to the children’s family, from developing countries to Israel for life-saving heart surgery. Once they are brought to Israel—sometimes with a relative, other times alone—they live in the SACH house before and after surgery. This house is no ordinary house. It is filled with children and relatives of diverse cultures who speak various languages. During my first visit to the house, I watched as women who spoke all different languages stood side by side, cooking their children’s favorite meals. For the children, language was not a barrier. A little boy from Angola, who spoke Portuguese, played the board game ‘concentration’ with a boy his own age from Kenya, who spoke English. They talked to each other in their native tongue, without concern for the fact that the other one did not understand him.

In addition to helping out at the SACH house, I also visited Wolfson Medical Center to entertain the children who were both preparing for surgery and recovering. At the Wolfson Medical Center, doctors volunteer their time to save children who would not have a chance at living a full life without their help. But even more amazing is the fact that 49% of the children come from the West Bank and Gaza, Jordan and Iraq.

My life changed the day I met 11-year-old Ian and 8-month-old Brian, both from Kenya. Ian’s mother was pregnant and unable to travel so his Aunt Rose accompanied him to Israel. From the moment I entered this house, Ian and I instantly connected. We both missed our families and began sharing stories of our homes. In the weeks leading up to his surgery, Ian and I played games, ran around the playground and colored. He even taught me how to whistle. I spent days in the waiting room as he had two surgeries to correct his heart defect. I walked the colorful hallways of the hospital with him as he gained his strength back. And I was with him when he was given the news that he was healthy and strong enough to return home to Kenya. But I dreaded the day we would have to say goodbye. What do you say to someone who has come to mean so much to you, and who you may never see again? As my final visit came to an end, just days before his departure, I told him to take care of himself and that I was going to miss him. We hugged and I walked away, tears streaming down my face.

Another adorable little boy I got to know was Brian. Full of life, he was always smiling and laughing. I quickly became close with Brian’s mother, Meredith, who like me, was 22 years old. Meredith is a courageous woman who felt guilty that her son was born with a heart deformity. I spent 8 hours with her in the hospital the day of Brian’s surgery. We paced the waiting room, took short naps on each other’s shoulders and prayed for the best. We talked about the wonderful things that Brian would be able to do as a healthy little boy. Minutes after the surgery, we held each other as we visited Brian in the neonatal ICU. Practically speechless, Meredith thanked me the only way she could—by telling me that she would have spent the day crying in the shower had I not been there.

Over the next weeks, I was with Brian and Meredith through the ups and the downs as Brian’s body adjusted to the improvement. Meredith showed me an inner strength that I have never seen before. It was an unlikely friendship that taught me that one can get through any obstacle as long as there is someone by your side. To this day, Meredith and I still correspond by email.

Even though two years have passed since my time at Save A Child’s Heart, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Ian, Brian and Meredith. I imagine how much they have grown and matured. I wonder what their futures hold; maybe one day they will become doctors who save the lives of others.

I am currently in my second year of rabbinical school at The Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The lessons I learned at the SACH house and my experiences in Tel Aviv prior to rabbinical school will undoubtedly have a positive impact on my rabbinate and the way in which I interact with others. My time at SACH taught me the power of one person—I have the ability to change the lives of others, just as my life has been changed by my interaction with these incredible children. 

When I first walked into the SACH house, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After my first visit, I realized that the SACH house was exactly where I was supposed to be. I went to Save A Child’s Heart with the intention of having an impact on others and in the end they impacted me.

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