Free dental care for Holocaust survivors expands nationwide

Allen Finkelstein and Marc RothmanPhotos courtesy of Alpha Omega
Allen Finkelstein and Marc Rothman
Photos courtesy of Alpha Omega

In the first year of its three-year program, an international fraternity of Jewish dentists has provided $500,000 of free dental care to nearly 500 Holocaust survivors.

Alpha Omega International Dental Fraternity has joined with Henry Schein Inc., an international distributor of health care products and services, to provide pro-bono dental care to needy Holocaust survivors who lack dental benefits or whose benefits don’t cover all the work they need.

“We do everything” except cosmetic dentistry, said Dr. Allen Finkelstein of New York, vice chair of the United States Foundation of the Alpha Omega Fraternity. The procedures enable aging patients to improve their dental and overall health, and to chew their food, he added.

While Finkelstein said it’s difficult to blame all of the Holocaust survivors’ dental problems on the poverty and lack of nutrition they endured during World War II, “logically speaking, they would be more prone to dental diseases.” He said that as people age, their dental problems tend to worsen.

Alpha Omega was founded in 1907 at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry by a group of dental students who wanted to fight discrimination against Jews who were trying to get into dental school and set up practices around the country, said Dr. Marc Rothman, the Philadelphia-based chairman of the foundation.

“It was very difficult for a Jew to break out” in those days, said Rothman.

Since then, the fraternity, which held its convention in Washington in December, has built two dental schools in Israel, one in Jerusalem and the other in Tel Aviv.

The fraternity, which has 5,500 members throughout the world, is planning a trip to Poland in May. Participants will visit concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto, “basically to follow the footsteps” of the survivors they now treat, said Rothman.

Free dental care for Holocaust survivors has been offered in the Maryland-D.C. area for three years through the local Alpha Omega chapter, Rothman said. More than 300 survivors locally have been helped and $1.5 million worth of free dental care provided through this program.

Survivors are referred to the program by the many Jewish agencies that provide them with other services.

After learning of the program Vice President Joe Biden sought to expand it nationwide. Aviva Sufian was appointed in January 2014 as the first special envoy for Holocaust survivor services, and her role includes collaborating with nonprofits and the private sector to create ways to help survivors.

Alpha Omega-Henry Schein Cares Oral Health Program grew out of those discussions. A three-year pilot program to provide free dental care began last January. Already active in Washington, the program spread to Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area and Seattle, plus Montreal and Toronto, Canada.

This year, it will expand to include dental care to survivors at the Temple University School of Dentistry in Philadelphia and the Arizona School of Dentistry and Oral Health in Mesa.

About 600 dentists are expected to donate their time and services during 2016, Finklestein said.

“It involves one generation to another,” he said, calling it the highest form of tzedakah because it is done without recognition.

“Some of the finest dentists in this country” are involved, he said. “They do not hesitate” when asked if they could assist a survivor in their area, Finkelstein said. Some dentists help one patient, others as many as six, during the year, he said, noting that many of the procedures require several visits.

“It’s a good feeling. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling, and our dentists are proud.”

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