Israeli eye doctor, mask company bring hope to Ethiopia

What do an American-Israeli eye surgeon and a Ramat Gan-based biomedical company have in common?

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

What do an American-Israeli eye surgeon and a Ramat Gan-based biomedical company have in common? The answer: A commitment to doing good during the coronavirus pandemic.

In late November, Dr. Morris Hartstein traveled to Gondar, Ethiopia as part of an Israeli government delegation led by Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, providing medical aid to Ethiopian Jews preparing to make Aliyah.

He brought hundreds of reusable, antibacterial face masks with him, many of which were donated by Israeli medical company Sonovia.

Sonovia was founded to eradicate hospital-acquired infections, the company’s sales and marketing manager Ben Hajaj told WIN.

“People can go into a hospital with a broken arm and end up with a nasty, antibiotic resistant infection,” said Hajaj. “Our technology is antiviral and antibacterial fabric designed to stop that.”

While Sonovia originally focused on manufacturing textiles used in hospitals – everything from bed linens, to curtains, to protective gowns for doctors and patients – the company now produces reusable masks using their antiviral fabric.

“When the pandemic first started, one of our employees suggested that we donate some fabrics to the Chinese people. After that suggestion, we realized that we can actually make face masks with this fabric,” Hajaj said.

From the start, donating face masks to help medical providers was a priority for Sonovia.

“The state of mind was, of course, selling the mask to make a profit and build the company, but giving back and helping people was always on our mind. We donated masks to almost all of the hospitals in Israel. It’s in our company values.”

Hartstein first visited Gondar in 2014 with his family, as part of a volunteering project for his son’s Bar Mitzvah. When word got out that Hartstein was an ophthalmologist, “hundreds” of locals lined up for his help, he told WIN.

The experience inspired Hartstein to return to Ethiopia to provide ophthalmologic care to the local community. Before the coronavirus pandemic, he made several trips each year to the region, operating a mobile eye clinic, performing cataract surgeries in local hospitals, and bringing with him much-needed medical supplies.

Emanuel Weisgras, whose wife manages Hartstein’s practice in Tel Aviv, is a fan of Sonovia’s masks, regularly ordering large quantities of them.

“After I found out Dr. Hartstein was heading back to Gondar, he asked me about buying some Sonovia masks for the trip,” Weisgras told WIN.

“I told him that I’d ask my contact [at Sonovia] Ben Hajaj, about getting masks to him and ask them as well whether they’d be willing to help us out with a special rate for more masks for the trip. Ben arranged for us to buy some of their older style masks at an incredibly discounted rate.”

“Both Dr. Hartstein and I decided to purchase a significant number. I bought about 100 and Dr. Hartstein purchased several dozen as well.”

“After everything was packaged and had been picked up, Ben told me that they were so moved by the story that they then matched us 1 for 1 on each mask we ordered.”

“This is a village that is in constant distress and extremely poor. I was honored to have had some small part in facilitating and contributing to the donation,” said Weisgras.

Dr. Hartstein

Dr. Hartstein examines a patient in Ethiopia. (Courtesy)

But unlike his previous trips to Ethiopia, this one ended with Hartstein returning to the Jewish state with the people that he’d helped. Some 300 Jewish Ethiopians made Aliyah, with Tamano Shata and other Israeli officials onboard the flight.

After the plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, the new immigrants were greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on the tarmac.

“It was a real honor for me to be part of this delegation,” Hartstein told WIN.

He said that Tamato Shata was “deeply touched” by the situation on the ground, and impressed by Harstein’s efforts to provide aid.

“It was great to be on her radar,” he said.

Hartstein distributed masks to adults and children while he was in Gondar, and left the remainder with his contact on the ground.

“It was a thrill to be able to help people so directly,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling inside.”