The Talker family faced a medical crisis and a moral dilemma last month. Kinneret Talker, 30, required surgery to remove a thyroid tumor. The operation would cost at least $6,000.
"I don’t have $6,000," says Chaim Talker, Kinneret’s husband, a native of Israel who works in a Brooklyn electronics store. The couple, who came from Israel in 1991 and have no health insurance here, live in Midwood.Kinneret would have the surgery, Chaim decided. Maybe they would arrange to pay the bill over time. Maybe they couldn’t pay at all.
Then, on a friend’s recommendation, Chaim contacted United Lifeline, the Brooklyn-based arm of an Israeli organization that arranges medical treatment for seriously ill children.
Chaim met with Isaac Rosenbaum, president of United Lifeline, in the organization’s modest offices above a Jewish bookstore on Avenue J in Flatbush.
Rosenbaum looked at Kinneret’s medical reports. "He told me, ‘Don’t worry about the money. We have to do it. You have to have a good doctor,’ " Chaim says.
Rosenbaum, an Israeli-born, former businessman who has served United Lifeline’s chapter here fulltime for two years, and did similar work part time for the previous eight years, arranged for Kinneret to be examined by a physician at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. The exam cost $200. "He even left a check for that," Chaim says.
Kinneret had the operation three weeks ago. The tumor was benign. She’s back home, feeling fine.
The operation cost about $10,000. "United Lifeline paid basically everything," Chaim says. "God bless them."
United Lifeline paid for Kinneret’s medical procedure from its general funds. Kinneret is among some 100 sabras for whom the organization has helped to arrange medical treatment in the United States since 1997.
With mounting expenses, United Lifeline, a non-profit organization that has operated here virtually unknown to the general Jewish community, is going public. It recently started its first fund-raising campaign (its goal is $1.5 million) offering contributors a symbolic piece of land in Israel.
A few years ago, Ron Aboutbol, an Ashdod business executive whose daughter was helped by the organization’s Israeli branch, bought a quarter-acre empty lot of land near the Old City of Jerusalem, outside the Dung Gate, with United Lifeline in mind.
"It’s a gift," he says.
The site is divided into six-centimeter-square sections (about 22 by 22 inches), 117,000 of them, to be sold at $180 each. Each purchaser receives a legal deed and a fancy certificate.
With rising expenses, United Lifeline has to turn to a small circle of wealthy supporters to pay Israelis’ bills, Rosenbaum says.
Most of the Israelis who come here are "workers," he says. "They are not wealthy." Without health insurance, they, like the Talkers, often can not afford needed medical treatments.
While United Lifeline usually deals with people who are brought to this country by the parent organization in Israel, it also aids Israelis who are already here and develop a medical problem.
United Lifeline does for Israelis in the United States what several Jewish organizations do for the general Jewish community. It arranges medical treatment, finds housing for accompanying relatives, provides interpreters, enrolls children in schools, coordinates transportation: and pays the bills.
"We take care of everything," Rosenbaum says.
The organization’s phone number is (718) 758-1336.
The organization sometimes serves as a guarantor for payment of large medical bills. United Lifeline recently did that for Vered Ben-Shimon, a 34-year-old resident of Huntington, L.I., who needs a heart transplant (it will cost at least $250,000) at Columbia-Presbyterian. Ben-Shimon could not be placed on the hospital’s waiting list for the transplant until the money was guaranteed.
"I’ve got a source to get money for cases like that," Rosenbaum says.
Rosenbaum is the uncle of Tuvia Lowenstein, a one-time yeshiva treasurer who formed United Lifeline (Kav l’Chaim in Hebrew) in Israel 10 years ago after Lowenstein’s daughter received life-saving treatment for a brain tumor at NYU Medical Center in New York.
Lowenstein, Rosenbaum says, is determined to help other families facing similar problems. Kav l’Chaim has established branches at "literally every hospital," in addition to summer camps, to help patients and their families. Its $5 million annual budget comes mostly from private donations, often from co-workers of affected families.
"We’re dealing mainly with children," Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, Rosenbaum says. "We’re not asking who you are, where you are from, frum [or] not frum."
Rosenbaum and his nephew are Orthodox, but most people served by the organization are secular, as are most Israelis.
Kav l’Chaim sends 150 Israelis a year abroad for medical treatment, half to the U.S., half to Europe. Although Israel’s comprehensive health insurance program pays most medical bills, its hospitals sometimes lack the specific expertise or facilities available overseas that a patient requires. Often, Rosenbaum says, transplant organs are not available in Israel.
He has established contacts over the last decade with most hospitals in greater New York, though the organization’s closest relationship is with Columbia-Presbyterian.
"First, they want to help you," Chaim Talker says. "They don’t know who’s next going to walk in the door. They don’t say no."
Talker says he feels "a lot better." His wife is healthy, her medical bill is paid. "Everything is legit."