By Rabbi Levi Welton, Special to NYJL
“Why would a prominent Jewish philanthropist give one million dollars to a Christian missionary organization?”
A reasonable question that crossed my mind as a I waited for business titan Mark Gerson to arrive for our meeting. Mark, and his wife, Erica, have partnered with the Christian Broadcasting Network on a $2,000,000 fundraising drive to raise money for eight teaching hospitals in Africa. Ben Stroup, Director of Strategic Development for the Christian Broadcasting Network, has praised Mark and Erica as “visionary prophets of life,” and Dr. Jon Fielder, Executive Director of the African Mission Hospital Foundation, has assessed the Gerson’s as people who “dive head-first into the seriousness of saving lives.”
But what motivated this young, dynamic Jewish couple to donate $1,000,000 to a charity of a different faith? I spoke with Mark in a wide-ranging Q&A to find out more.
First, some background on Mr. Gerson.
Since graduating from Yale Law School in 1998, Mark Gerson has been a successful entrepreneur and investor. He has started several companies, including the Gerson Lehrman Group, Thuzio with New York Giant Tiki Barber and United Hatzalah. Mr. Gerson has written several books and articles on subjects ranging from Jonah of the Bible to Frank Sinatra. He and his wife, Rabbi Erica Gerson, live in Manhattan with their four children.
Mark arrived for our meeting and we settled in to a quiet corner of his favorite Manhattan establishment. After catching up, I shifted the conversation to his track record of success in business. As Mark spoke, I couldn’t help but think of two qualities that had impressed me over the years of our friendship: his insatiable intellectual curiosity, and his dogged persistence to always find a way.
RLW: What’s the top advice you would give people for how to succeed in business?
MG: Actually, I don’t like it when business people give generic advice for success. Most of the business advice sounds the same — actually, it is the same — be passionate about what you do, work with great people, listen to customers. It’s all true, but not very useful for your readers.
Perhaps the best advice is to de-emphasize generalized bromides and instead focus on the unique specifics of the problem and you are trying to solve or the opportunity you are trying to create, and how to marshal scarce resources to do so.
RLW: You’re currently the Chairman of United Hatzalah in Israel. How’d you get involved with that?
MG: Years ago, a client of mine introduced me to United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer, an Orthodox Jew who has been involved with EMS volunteering since he was 15 years old. He asked me if I ever heard or saw ambulances stuck in traffic. “All the time, I live in New York,” I remembered saying. Eli then said that there was often a victim waiting for that ambulance, which could easily take 10-15 minutes to get to the victim. But the victim — whether bleeding, choking, suffering a heart attack or stroke — might only have a matter of minutes to live. That is the problem. The solution is medically equipped motorcycles ridden by volunteers who could get to the victims immediately, weaving in and out of traffic safely. I bought an ambucycle on the spot, and thus began a lifetime partnership and friendship with Eli around United Hatzalah and now, United Rescue.
RLW: What is United Rescue?
MG: In Israel, United Hatzalah now has 3,500 volunteers and is growing as fast as we can raise the money to onboard new volunteers. We answer nearly a thousand calls a day, meaning that United Hatzalah saves hundreds of live a week. It is, and has been for a while, our dream to make this system Israel’s gift to the world — so that people everywhere have the same chance at life following their most vulnerable moment as they do in Israel. United Rescue is the sister organization in the United States for United Hatzalah. We launched in Jersey City two years ago, thanks to the great leadership of Mayor Steve Fulop — and now have dozens of volunteers from every segment of the community. It is our goal to extend what was done in Israel, and now Jersey City, across the United States and the world.
RLW: I noticed that a Charedie (ultra-orthodox Jew) Hatzalah volunteer was recently honored in Israel for saving over 2,500 lives. Do you have a lot of Charedie volunteers?
MG: United Hatzalah volunteers come from throughout Israel, meaning that every segment of Israeli society is represented in the volunteer corps. As for Charedie Jews — they take the commandment to save a life with the same reverence and seriousness as they take any other religious commandment. I’ll always remember when an Israeli Charedie political leader told me that the proudest moments of his life were at Shabbat dinner when his son, a United Hatzalah volunteer, answers an emergency call on his phone, immediately leaves the table and rushes on his ambucycle to treat someone in need. That is the United Hatzalah experience with the Charedie community: they will drop whatever they are doing, including praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur, to answer a phone and take the fastest transportation to treat anyone in need. I have talked with founder Eli Beer almost daily for 15 years. But I have only done so on the phone on Shabbat twice. The first, we were in Israel, and Erica was pregnant with our second child. We thought that she was having some serious complications and we called Eli to arrange for help if, as then expected, we needed it. (Thank G-d we didn’t). The second time, I was shocked to look at my phone on Shabbat and see it was a call from Eli. I picked it up. He told me that there had been an earthquake in Nepal. The UH volunteers were all busy getting ready to deploy, hopefully within hours. That’s the Orthodox Judaism I have learned from United Hatzalah: there are people in life-saving need thousands of miles away, and the volunteers drop whatever plans they might have had for the coming days or weeks to help. By doing so on Shabbat, they didn’t “violate” Shabbat — they honored it in the most profound way, both by preparing to save lives and in so doing manifesting a love of the stranger.
RLW: How about the secular volunteers?
MG: We have volunteers from every segment of society. Orthodox (of all kinds), secular, Muslim, Christian, Druze, everyone. Our volunteers work seamlessly together, developing great friendships based on their shared commitment to saving lives.
RLW: So how did you go from Hatzalah to working with Christian missionaries in Africa?
MG: Actually, I knew Dr. Jon Fielder back in college long before I was introduced to Hatzalah, as Jon has been a close friend since we were in college. He has always been an inspiration to me. Jon took a year off from medical school to serve with Mother Teresa in Kolkata. So I was not surprised when he told me upon completing his residency program in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins that he, as a devout Christian, had come to the conclusion that his medical services were vastly more needed in Africa than in the United States. He left for Kenya to serve as an infectious disease physician at a time when AIDS was ravaging the country unchecked, and mostly untreated. I supported his work as best I could back then, and was always humbled by how many lives could be saved and how much pain could be ameliorated for so little money.
RLW: How did your support of Dr. Fielder’s efforts lead to your work with other Christian medical missionaries?
MG: Jon is a moral superhero. The sacrifices that he made to serve in Africa was always an inspiration. We learned that there were others like him. Christian medical missionaries who were serving in Africa. These were men and women who moved to Africa when they could otherwise be making good salaries in Europe or America, to serve the poor — often in environments without reliable electricity, running water, or anything resembling modern medical supplies. They were indispensable — a medical missionary might be the only physician for a population of 40 or 50,000. And because even taking a couple of weeks away means that vast numbers of people don’t get any medical care, they simply don’t take time away. Consequently, they are not able to develop relationships with the individuals and foundations who could support their work. Jon and I started the African Mission Healthcare Foundation to do just that. I am proud to say today we provide funding for trainees, medical equipment and supplies of all kinds and the infrastructure necessary to enable their work. Everything from accounting to engineering to housing for trainees.
RLW: Is there something Jewish about supporting Christian medical missionaries?
MG: The Torah tells us more than anything else to, “love the stranger” — something that appears, in different variations, 36 times. It is through these Christian medical missionaries that I have learned just what it means to love the stranger. My friend Rabbi David Wolpe calls love an “enacted emotion” — love doesn’t exist abstractly, but only in how it is manifested. And these missionaries, who give everything and sacrifice completely in order to provide care to the stranger, this is what it means to love.
RLW: What are some examples of how these missionaries epitomize the Biblical command to love the stranger?
MG: There is Dr. Tom Catena in the Nuba Mountains, who is the only surgeon for 500,000 people, serves in an environment without consistent running water or electricity. The area is often bombed by the Sudanese government, and impassable during the long rainy season.
There is Dr. Rick Sacra, who, when all medical facilities in Liberia were closed in 2014 due to the Ebola crisis that had people dying in the streets, rushed to Monrovia to open one — and contracted Ebola himself. He was rushed to a CDC center in Nebraska and went back to Liberia as soon as he was healed. There is Dr. Andrew Browning, who travels throughout Africa performing surgeries for fistulas — a horrible condition suffered by women who need C sections but can’t get them. Only around a fifth of women in Africa who need C sections get them.
There is the Catholic center I visited in Kenya where the nuns seek out and identify disabled children in the vicinity and bring them to their clinic to treat and love them — and so many others, each an extraordinary but small institution run by a moral superhero who is showing just how much good one person inspired by his or her faith can accomplish.
RLW: What does it mean to be a missionary?
MG: I think Dr. Bill Rhodes explained it in a very interesting way. Bill received his calling to be a missionary physician when he was studying in Israel at age 26. He and his wife Laura have now served for decades in rural Kenya (raising their four boys there), where Bill is a surgeon with truly superhuman versatility and skills. Bill says that his missionary calling is living in imitation of Jesus Christ. And if few even appreciate let alone convert as a result of his work — well, Bill said, Jesus cured 10 lepers in the Bible and only one came back to acknowledge it. By the way, if anyone wants to make an action-packed and completely inspiring movie that encompasses all of the virtues and tells a great story, the Bill & Laura Rhodes story is it.
RLW: You created a $500,000 annual grant for outstanding Christian medical missionaries and called it the Rabbi Erica and Mark Gerson L’Chaim Prize?
MG: Right. In 2015, Nick Kristof did a wonderful New York Times column and video on Dr. Tom Catena. Erica and I said that we would match up to $100,000 given in support of Dr. Catena. Kristof mentioned it in the New York Times and the match was filled immediately. We raised it a couple of more times, and it kept getting filled. So in 2016, inspired by that initial reaction, we launched the L’Chaim Prize. The judges are some of the most well-respected people in the Christian medical mission field, and the process is long and rigorous.
The first winner was Dr. Jason Fader, who serves over 2 million people in rural Burundi, and has recruited a half dozen other missionary physicians to join him in training dozens of African providers — while providing care to tens of thousands on a budget that wouldn’t seem possible anywhere else. The second winner was Dr. Russ White, who is doing for heart disease in Africa what his predecessors did for polio. Heart disease is very prevalent among children in Africa. Dr. White has a comprehensive program, from community testing to surgery, to deal with it. Our goal for the Prize is to bring awareness and ultimately support to the completely extraordinary people who are the winners.
RLW: And what is your relationship with the Christian Broadcasting Network?
MG: Several months ago, Erica and I met one of the most extraordinary people we now know — Gordon Robertson. Gordon is the CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network. We met Gordon following CBN’s outstanding coverage of the 2016 L’Chaim Prize. CBN also went to Burundi, and did magnificent original coverage of Dr. Fader and his work there.
Gordon is, among other things, a deeply devoted and learned philo-Semite — who loves Israel, the Jewish people and Judaism with depth, passion and consequence. Having served for a decade as a missionary in the Philippines, Gordon also understands the value of Christian medical missionaries — which is probably why he went to such expense to do such comprehensive coverage of the L’Chaim Prize in its first year. We discussed the L’Chaim Prize and our work with medical missionaries, and he asked what we could do together. We came up with the idea for the match — where Erica and I contributed an additional $1m in support of Christian medical missionaries to be matched by the CBN community. The funds will go to support eight Christian mission teaching hospitals, providing care now and expanding capacity long into the future.
RLW: How is the partnership going so far?
MG: Our relationship with CBN is one of the most important in our lives. CBN, and their audience, are the best friends the Jews have ever had, and the personal relationships that we have developed with the people at CBN are just as meaningful and abiding. It is a deep and genuinely loving partnership. I recall the verse in Numbers 23:9 where Bilaam, an adversary of the Israelites, curses that the people will be “a nation that will dwell alone”. But we are most certainly not alone. We have a beloved friend and deeply devoted partner in CBN and the tens of millions who compose their audience. And, more practically, the joint campaign is going very well!
RLW: Where can people learn about it, and hopefully contribute?
MG: You can visit Impact.cbn.com. Thank you!