East Bay couple spearheads drive to raise funds for Arab hospital

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Local Jews are spearheading an effort to raise money for a hospital in the Holy Land.

But it's not Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. Nor is it Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

It's Al-Ahli Hospital, which certainly does not appear on the American Jewish fund-raising circuit. The hospital is an Arab one, in Hebron.

As of last week, more than $17,000 had been collected by the Firedoll Foundation, the family fund of Faye and Sandor Straus of Walnut Creek, who are members of that city's Conservative Congregation B'nai Shalom.

Rabbi Gordon Freeman, B'nai Shalom's spiritual leader, said that while the synagogue was not involved in the Strauses' fund-raising effort, "we had a service a few weeks ago, in which the thrust of it was to hope for peace from the realization that Arabs and Jews come from the same source. We've been neutral. We see that all this violence is a tragedy for everybody."

Sandor Straus is an investment consultant who used to manage a futures fund.

The Strauses also are members of the East Bay Jewish-Palestinian Dialogue Group, founded in 1997 as a spinoff of the East Bay Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue Group.

Before the latest spate of violence broke out this fall, the group was discussing a campaign to raise awareness about breast cancer, which Hanan Rasheed, a Palestinian-American activist in Danville, said is the number-one killer of Palestinian women.

Two women from the group — one Jewish, one Palestinian-American — had been planning to go to the West Bank, armed with literature to raise awareness about the importance of mammograms and self-examination.

Then came the violence. And while it might seem that such an explosive situation could adversely effect a dialogue group such as this, that wasn't the case.

"It could be divisive, but it hasn't turned out that way," Straus said. "Our relationships in the process of dialogue have really held."

According to Rasheed, the dialogue works because "we're not just having dinner and agreeing with what everybody says. We do have different opinions, but the main feeling is that peace needs to be done between Palestine and Israel."

However, she added, "We all do agree that there is injustice that is happening to the Palestinians, and we take it from there."

Almost every group member has friends and family in the region, yet feels helpless at the turn of recent events. "It's very hard to feel you have any impact from here," said Straus.

Since a relationship with this particular institution had already been established, embarking on a fund-raising campaign for it "seemed like a natural thing to do," she said.

Rasheed put it this way: "We need to keep working together as Palestinian-Americans and as Jews, but we're not thinking on that level now. We're acting as parents and humanitarians. We don't want to see these people getting killed without doing anything."

The group contacted other like-minded organizations for help, going to The Alliance of Middle Eastern Scientists and Physicians, and A Jewish Voice for Peace, which alerted their members. Then the checks started coming in.

"It seemed like an act of reconciliation in the midst of all this violence and frenzy and accusation and blame," Straus said. "It was something motivated by simple humanity, to help the people who had been wounded."

Named after Fireworks and Dolly, the Straus family's cats, the Firedoll Foundation aims to "fill in the gaps and services where major funders are not involved," said Faye Straus.

The foundation gives grants in five areas: community development, immigrant issues and human rights, the environment, the Middle East peace process and services for survivors of traumatic brain injury.

The fifth category comes from Faye Straus serving on a jury for a case in which a man suffered a brain injury on the job. She learned there is a severe lack of services for such people.

Beneficiaries of the Firedoll Foundation range from the local to the global, and have included everything from the International Committee of Lawyers for Tibet's Women's Rights Project to immigrant programs of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay.

Rasheed, who recently became Al-Ahli's U.S. spokeswoman, said she is in touch with its doctors on an almost daily basis. She said the hospital is simply incapable of treating the scores of injured Palestinians coming through its doors, wounded in confrontations with Israeli troops.

"A doctor said to me, 'I have three oxygen ventilators and 300 children. How am I going to choose who lives and who dies?'" she said.

Because of Israeli-imposed closures and curfews, "the hospital has no food, no water, no blankets, no medical supplies, and the doctors can't treat the victims," Rasheed said. "They are lying in the hallways; they don't have enough beds."

And people have responded. "We've gotten a great response so far, much more than we've raised in any of our efforts," said Straus. "Everyone wants to do something positive in the midst of all this."

As for the breast cancer awareness campaign, "Now it's on the back shelf," said Rasheed, who lost her sister to cancer last year. "But right now, breast cancer is not the number-one killer there."

The funds are being directed through American Near East Refugee Aid. All of the money is going directly to the hospital with no administrative costs taken out. To support the Al-Ahli Hospital, send a check made out to the Firedoll Foundation to 1460 Maria Lane, No. 420, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."