Before Dr. Leonard Bers had finished his recent two-week stint providing dental care to Israel’s neediest children, he had already signed up to volunteer again next year.
The dentist, whose practice is in Upper Marlboro, spent July 10 through July 24 filling cavities, pulling teeth and curing abscesses with Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI), which provides free dental care to thousands of Jews and Arabs who range in age from 4 to 26. This was the fifth year Dr. Bers participated.
“They treat children and young adults, Arabs, Palestinians and the Ethiopian population,” said Dr. Bers, who has been a dentist for almost 40 years. He also teaches at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.
During last month’s visit, Dr. Bers treated only Jewish children, he said. In the past, he has treated Palestinians, but he didn’t see any at the clinic this time.
While not sure of the reason, Dr. Bers attributed the drop in non-Jewish patients in part to last summer’s war in Gaza. “It’s a reality,” he said.
Still, he said he relishes the times when the dentists treat a Palestinian child in one chair and a chasidic child in the next with “their parents standing right next to each other.”
Dr. Bers said, “In an area where there is so much hatred, where people don’t tolerate each other, I think this is a wonderful thing.”
Dr. Bers began volunteering with DVI five years ago. The 65-year-old native Washingtonian who grew up in on Maryland’s Eastern Shore “was feeling sort of empty. I wanted to do something to make things better,” he said.
He looked into programs and found that he could volunteer his dental services in almost any Third World country. But the programs he read about involved an intense week or so of solving emergencies with no follow-up care.
The DVI program was different. Reading about it, Dr. Bers saw that it involved a bigger picture, teaching children about proper dental health care and offering regular follow-up visits. The fact that DVI operates in Jerusalem sealed the deal.
He estimated that he helped about 65 children during his two-week visit at The Trudi Birger Dental Clinic, which has been offering free dental services since 1980.
“There is a lot of decay,” he said, blaming it on “the cheap, chewy candy” that can be purchased for a small price at the shuk. “I get all these kids who are eating a lot of cheap candy.”
In addition, Dr. Bers said, the water the children drink “may or may not be fluoridated.”
The Jerusalem clinic where he volunteered sports seven chairs, five for the dentists, one for X-rays and another for a hygienist. About 1,000 treatments are performed each month.
Last year, 116 dentists from around the world volunteered at the clinic near the German Colony. More than 4,500 dentists have volunteered their time since the program began. While in Israel, DVI dentists with a place to stay; but the rest is at the volunteers’ expense.
Dr. Bers said he typically worked in the clinic from 8 a.m. until about 2 p.m. After that, he became a tourist.
He attributed his Jewish upbringing, in part, to his inclination to always say “yes” when asked to help. He has served on the board of his synagogue, Oseh Shalom in Laurel, and also is involved in Mission of Mercy, which provides health and dental care to Maryland’s neediest residents.
“It’s nice to have a skill where you can help people,” Dr. Bers said. “I enjoy it.”