When Israeli ophthalmologist Morris Hartstein visited Gondar in 2014 for a family volunteering trip, he did not know he would start an initiative that would help more than 8,000 Ethiopians receive eye care.
Today, he is the founding director of Operation Ethiopia, a non-profit incorporated in 2022 and dedicated to providing Ethiopians in Gondar with high-quality eye care clinics, cataract diagnosis and treatment campaigns and eye surgeries, and training programs for local physicians.
In addition, the non-profit delivers humanitarian aid to Jewish communities in the country. Humanitarian aid organized by Operation Ethiopia includes a feeding program for malnourished children and nursing moms in Gondar, established in partnership with the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry to prevent the stunting of children for lack of proper food.
The idea for Operation Ethiopia was born when the Hartsteins were helping the Mother Teresa orphanage in Addis Ababa and the Jewish community in Gondar as part of their 2014 volunteering trip, which exposed them to the country’s high levels of poverty.
On their last day in Gondar, the family’s tour guide asked Hartstein if he could examine a child’s eye. Soon, several people flocked to the doctor to have their eyes examined. Despite lacking the necessary equipment, Hartstein obliged.
The unexpected experience left a lasting impression on him, he said. On the one hand, he “felt accomplished” helping so many people, but on the other hand, he felt disappointed that he “did not have much to offer them,” Hartstein told JNS.
“Many of the people lived in mud huts with corrugated tin roofs, having no water, no toilets, and many people suffering from malnutrition,” he added. “When you see such conditions up close on a large scale, it sticks with you.”
He found returning to his routine in Israel difficult; he kept thinking about his experiences in Ethiopia.
What was a one-week visit became regular annual trips. In the summer of 2015, Hartstein and his family returned to Gondar with 12 duffel bags full of medical equipment, eye medication and eyeglasses. With these resources, they established their first mobile eye clinic in Gondar city’s Jewish compound and treated hundreds of people.
The volunteers’ project soon drew the attention and appreciation of the Gondar Municipality, which asked that Hartstein also help non-Jews in areas near the Jewish compound. His team began sending their mobile eye clinics to nearby villages. The initiative grew to include cataract treatment campaigns and surgeries for those with severe vision problems.
Dr. Morris Hartstein performs cataract surgery, observed by local physicians. Photo by Ovi Aviram.
“Blindness from cataracts is one of the leading causes of blindness in Ethiopia,” Hartstein said, adding that there “are fewer than 300 ophthalmologists for a population of 120 million people, most of whom live in urban areas.”
And where there are doctors, many people cannot afford treatment, he said. As a result, “not only there are cataracts but there are advanced cataracts—we don’t see much of this in the West.”
Operation Ethiopia aims to make treatment for cataracts and other eye problems accessible to people far from urban areas. Hartstein also launched an exchange program for local medical students and physicians in partnership with the University of Gondar.
As part of the program, select students and physicians from Ethiopia travel to Israel to work with Hartstein and gain hands-on experience.
“The training was very important because we were able to observe and do different surgeries that we never used to do in Ethiopia,” said Alemnew Demissie Kassahun, one of the 18 doctors trained through the exchange program. “We had a life-changing experience in Israel.”
Kassahun first met Hartstein while he was an ophthalmology resident at the University of Gondar in 2014. He now helps with Operation Ethiopia as a volunteer ophthalmologist and oculoplastic surgeon.
“Operation Ethiopia brings many medical professionals during each visit who provide lifesaving basic life support training for doctors and other health care professionals. This training is very important in improving the quality of medical care that we provide for our patients,” Kassahun told JNS.
The first few trips to Gondar that Hartstein organized were mainly a “family affair” with some volunteers tagging along, he explained. He added that his children would invite some friends to help. Hartstein formalized the initiative as an Israeli non-profit only eight months ago.
Since being incorporated as a non-profit, Operation Ethiopia has started to attract volunteers from all walks of life, both medical and non-medical professionals, according to Hartstein.
Smiles on their faces
“We often take our eyesight for granted,” said Debby Ziering, one of the volunteers who worked with Hartstein during Operation Ethiopia’s 2022 mission in Ethiopia. She helped Hartstein and his team test patients for near- and far-sightedness, handle food and water distribution and manage inventory.
Ziering told JNS that seeing the smiles on people’s faces after they could see following cataract surgery made her thankful for the “gifts we have in our lives.
“Seeing a mother, who could see clearly after being given glasses, say she was happy to be able to do so not for herself but so she could help her children with homework was the most touching experience of all my time with the program,” said Yitzy Weiss, an EMT who volunteered in 2022.
“Working for Operation Ethiopia helped with my professional development. The specialized type of medicine Dr. Hartstein practices is complex. I had only learned about it in theory,” Weiss told JNS, adding that working for the initiative gave him a close-up view of ophthalmology.
Hartstein plans to expand Operation Ethiopia to include four trips to the country each year.
“We would like to do more cataract surgeries. Our goal this year is to do 2,000 surgeries,” he said. Additionally, Hartstein plans to bring more doctors in his specialty to Ethiopia. He also hopes to train more local doctors in the near future, he told JNS.
Hartstein has spoken at three Knesset committee meetings about the humanitarian situation in Ethiopia. In 2020, he accompanied then-Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Pnina Tamano-Shata to Ethiopia on a diplomatic mission to the country. He flew back home with several olim on Operation Tzur Yisrael’s first aliyah flight.
Hartstein was invited to join the delegation accompanying then-Israeli President Reuven Rivlin during his 2018 visit to Ethiopia.
In August, the American Academy of Ophthalmology awarded Hartstein its 2022 Outstanding Humanitarian Service Award for his role in establishing Operation Ethiopia and its successful eye care outreach model. Hartstein also received the 2022 Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize for Global Impact.