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Everyone’s Medicine Man

With the storm behind him, Rabbi Elimelech Firer is back to what he does best


Photos: Mishpacha archives

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ast week in the offices of Ezra LeMarpeh, Rabbi Elimelech Firer was busy as usual with the urgent business of saving lives, turning his back on an aggressive media spotlight that threatened to unhinge this one-man encyclopedia of medical information and referrals. For those readers who might have missed the Israeli hullabaloo, the latest target of the “exclusion of women” protest movement was the man who’s devoted the last 40 years of his life to helping people in medical crisis, regardless of gender or religious affiliation.

In recent years, the Friends of Ezra LeMarpeh group has organized benefit fundraising events geared to the general public. Rabbi Firer, a Belzer chassid, is never directly involved in these events, but he does have one stipulation: that there not be any female singers, in accordance with halachah. It’s not the organization’s first public fundraiser — these events have been going on for years without any hysterics. This year though, as the “exclusion of women” battle cry has reached a fever pitch, some of the entertainers scheduled to appear decided to boycott the event — even though some of those singers have participated in such events in the past. Some of those cancellations generated opposite responses from other artists announcing that they were ready to perform instead of the ones who had canceled, while the ping-ponging was discussed ad nauseum in the media.

And Rabbi Firer, the self-effacing chesed machine who spends 20 hours a day helping people get the best medical treatment possible, who has the most advanced medical techniques at his fingertips and shares them with anyone in need, became a target of hate and derision as being “backward,” “medieval,” “primitive,” and a host of other expletives deriding those who stick to halachic principles.

Of course, Rabbi Firer felt encouraged with the myriad letters of chizuk from such people as former High Court president Aharon Barak, who wrote him a warm missive about his egalitarian work on behalf of Klal Yisrael; Nobel Prize laureate Yisrael Aumann; Professor Mordechai Shani, formerly the director general of the Health Ministry and of Sheba Medical Center, and many others. But Rabbi Firer decided that despite the discomfort he felt with regard to the selfless, dedicated individuals who had organized the event, he had to make a decision:

“I am asking you not to hold the benefit evening,” he wrote to Effy Hershkowitz, chairman of Friends of Ezra LeMarpeh. “From the time the organization was established, I have never gotten involved in organizing benefit evenings, and throughout the years, I merited to have partners along the way who dedicated themselves to the cause. But we will not agree to be drawn into this hateful dialogue. Our worldview, our goals, and our very existence draw their strength from Jewish law. Our organization has served more than one million people to date; I draw my strength from halachah, and I continue to adhere to the mission of my life: saving lives and loving others, even if they are different.”

When I visited Rabbi Firer in his office, he looked as vibrant and energetic as always, dressed in his trademark chassidish attire — black vest over wool tzitzis, tightly curled peyos in the Belz style, pants tucked into black knee-high socks. There was no sign of the storm revolving around him, nor of his decision to cancel the benefit concert, despite the significant financial ramifications for his organization.

Aside from the donations that would have flowed in from the evening, it meant returning money to people who purchased tickets and compensating a host of individuals and entities who were involved with the now-canceled event.

Firer, however, firmly refused to allow those working with him to even entertain the possibility of asking ticket holders to donate the money they would be refunded. “If anyone offers to donate the money of their own accord — we will graciously accept it. But we will not suggest it,” he instructed unequivocally.

 

Every Person Counts

What was especially surprising, and painful, about the ruckus is that it’s practically impossible to find anyone who’s had contact with Rabbi Firer to say a negative word about him. He has a rare combination of brilliance and motivation to help others — a self-educated genius in the field of medicine who can quote medical journal articles verbatim, is up on the latest developments and techniques, and has the connections to pass all that to patients across the board who call him for help. Senior physicians immediately answer his phone calls, respect him, and even try to court him.

While Avraham Elimelech Firer, 65, has the knowledge of a top professor, he’s totally self-educated: The only official institution he learned in was the Belzer yeshivah. Yet his free medical referral service is the crown of Ezra LeMarpeh, the organization he founded in 1979, which also lends millions of dollars in medical equipment, holds videoconferences with medical experts, provides home care for children with cancer, and runs two rehab centers. And Rabbi Firer himself doesn’t even take a salary.

Firer has received honorary doctorates from the Weizmann Institute of Science and Bar-Ilan University, and was the recipient of the Israel Prize in 1997 for his life’s work. At the time he received the prize, Firer and his wife Feige lived with their ten children in a fourth-floor Bnei Brak walk-up, yet he happily donated the NIS 50,000 check that accompanied the prize straight to Ezra LeMarpeh.

Rabbi Firer’s first exposure to the world of hospitals began when he was just a 17-year-old bochur, and a relative of his contracted a disease resulting in serious complications. He had absolutely no background in medicine or science and couldn’t read a word of English, but as the family was overwhelmed, he decided to step in: Young Elimelech asked the doctor if he objected to his coming over and hearing a detailed explanation of the illness.

The doctor spent an hour and a half with him, patiently explaining the situation and possible treatments, while Firer took detailed notes. He then went to a public library to study the situation further, gave his research over to the family, and the patient eventually recovered.

That would have been the end to Firer’s little foray into the orbit of medicine. But then he encountered a patient who needed a particular piece of medical equipment from the United States, and he took it upon himself: He made calls, collected money, and purchased the equipment, which became the forerunner of the organization’s medical-device loan program.

Meanwhile, Firer began to amass a huge store of medical knowledge, collecting facts by reading technical material and consulting with sometimes-helpful and sometimes-dismissive doctors. In his free time, he’d read science magazines and medical journals. His grasp of medical terminology and even the rarest of medical conditions is unmatched — and his English improved to the point where it was no longer an impediment to understanding the most complex cases. In his office he reads patients’ X-rays and CT and MRI scans as accurately as top doctors.

Firer’s associates tell me that he often astounds medical specialists when they themselves are confounded by rare symptoms; he often knows about new developments in their fields before they do.

But for all his renown, one thing he has an aversion to is personal publicity, which made last week’s media affair all the more uncomfortable. He rarely gives interviews, he told me a bit conspiratorially in a previous conversation, “because it takes me days to recover from the exposure. I’m just not built for it — for some people, it just washes over them, but I get a physical reaction to it.”

But no matter what else is going on, Elimelech Firer is first and foremost a chassid. He serves as the rosh hakahal of Belz in Bnei Brak, a position that requires him to be involved in many matters relating to the massive chassidic court, including distribution of tzedakah funds and discreet involvement with families in crisis. By 4 a.m. he’s already in the Belzer beis medrash, to get some learning in before davening and phone calls and meetings. After davening, he sees people for a short time, concentrating on each person’s dilemma.

“I try to listen to every person,” Rabbi Firer told me. “If they came to find me at five in the morning, the least I can do is listen carefully and try to advise them.”

 

He Never Forgets

To accomplish what he does in a day, his schedule must be very structured without much wiggle room. Everyone who works for him knows his schedule, and promptness is a critical component of his daily routine. Some things are not negotiable, and one of those is the times when he answers calls. During those designated hours, there’s no escape — a computer system locates him and begins transferring calls to him. It doesn’t know how to wait.

His day includes visits to various hospitals, where doctors consult him on a range of matters. I once observed such a visit from the side, and it taught me a lot about both the tremendous respect the doctors have for him, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the world of medicine. He never went to med school, but his knowledge from the tens of thousands of cases that he has seen and heard about, as well as his amazing proficiency in all the innovations in the medical world and his ability to analyze complex situations have made him one of the key go-to people in the field — for doctors as well as patients.

One time, a father came up to the organization’s office wanting to thank Rabbi Firer for the assistance he had given him in a surgery for one of his children. “I’d also like to thank him for helping my parents when I was a child and needed surgery,” he told Rabbi Firer’s assistant. When the man was ushered into Rabbi Firer’s office and thanked him personally for the past and present, Rabbi Firer noted, “As a child you had two surgeries.” The man claimed he’d had only one. When he walked out of the room he called his parents who confirmed that indeed, he had had two operations. “That was 30 years ago! How did he remember?” the man marveled as he walked out.

I asked Rabbi Firer if that steel-trap memory of his ever gets in the way of regular life. “Well, if you use it for good things it’s wonderful,” he said. “And that’s what I try to do, to use it for good.”

Anyone can pick up the phone and call Rabbi Firer for any medical question — and it can be a life-and-death issue or a question about a very minor procedure. “Many of the questions I get — in the middle of the night or at the crack of dawn — aren’t about acute situations, and they can wait until an ordinary time,” Rabbi Firer admits. But that said, “On the other hand, I know that people can feel tremendous pressure when facing medical issues. Often the questions aren’t as urgent as they think, and putting the situation into perspective, they might realize that they can rely on their own judgment. But I know they’re under pressure, they’re nervous and anxious, so I make myself available to answer and guide them.”

While a decade or two ago, Rabbi Firer would often advise patients to travel abroad for various complex operations and procedures, he says that today, almost all his referrals are inside Israel. He says the level of Israeli medicine today is comparable to the best in the world and is often better than in other advanced Western countries.

But that doesn’t mean he isn’t acutely aware of what’s happening in every corner of the globe. If a patient is in need of experimental medications not available in Israel, for example, he uses his network of personal connections to get them. He once even had Ben-Gurion Airport opened on Yom Kippur in order to have a drug delivered.

He recently flew to a country that does not have diplomatic relations with Israel in order to observe a cardiac surgeon in action. Rabbi Firer spent a full day watching the doctor’s performance in the operating room, where he was impressed by the surgeon’s creativity and technique. He offered to arrange for the doctor to perform operations in Israel, but the doctor, fearing reprisals from his own country, refused. Nevertheless, in certain situations, Rabbi Firer will advise patients to travel abroad in order to use this doctor for surgery in a neutral country.

On another occasion, he flew to South Korea to observe a surgeon who is a world expert in liver transplants. Rabbi Firer spent a day watching the surgeon at work, and afterward sent him three Israeli patients, who are alive and well despite their doctors’ dire predictions.

Elimelech Firer is much too busy to let a week of media hype derail him. Even as the doomed concert and his decision to cancel the fundraiser is still a hot topic of conversation, it’s business as usual. It’s just a shame that this man, who has dedicated his life to every Jew in need, regardless of persuasion or affiliation, was dragged into the center of a campaign of divisiveness. Tomorrow though, he’ll help them all, no questions asked.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 785)

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