Doctor spearheads launch of free Jewish medical clinic

After moving to Sonoma County, Dr. Robin Lowitz began volunteering several years ago for a free clinic in Sebastopol, housed in an Episcopal church, and another in Santa Rosa, sponsored by Catholic Charities.

Suddenly it struck her that while many Jewish health professionals were volunteering at these clinics, which served migrant farm workers as well as day laborers, there wasn't "an organized effort by the Jewish community in Sonoma County to address the lack of access to health care," she said.

"You often find these clinics in the basements of churches," said Lowitz, a Berkeley native and family practice physician who had volunteered at the Berkeley Free Clinic while she was an undergraduate. That clinic was housed in Trinity Methodist Church. "I'd never heard of one sponsored by a synagogue or by the Jewish community per se, although there is a very long, productive history of Jewish hospitals that have provided charity work and reached out."

Determined to start a Jewish free clinic in Sonoma, Lowitz not only recruited health-care practitioners, but also got the rabbis of all five synagogues in the area involved. Joining the effort as well was the religious school at Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, where she teaches Hebrew school, and Jewish Family and Children's Services.

Reaching out to the wider community, the organizers of the Jewish Community Free Clinic got the Lions Club to donate the use of its building in Cotati, across the street from Ner Shalom, and to pay for utilities.

The clinic is holding a Mitzvah Day on Sunday to clean up its future home, located in the fire station parking lot on La Plaza in Cotati. Volunteers from Ner Shalom and its religious school will be participating, and Lowitz, who is also a member of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa, is expecting helpers from the county's Jewish and general communities. Rancho Cotati High School's Rotary group and the Boy Scouts, for instance, have already signed on for the clean-up.

Rabbi Elisheva Sachs, spiritual leader of the Reconstructionist Ner Shalom and a member of the clinic's steering committee, said the creation of the free clinic "has a lot to do with Robin's energy. It just needed a catalyst…She got us all hooked."

Some Ner Shalom students will be doing volunteer work to set up the clinic as part of their b'nai mitzvah tikkun olam (repairing the world) projects.

"It's wonderful to be part of something that is so, so important," Sachs said.

The clinic is expected to open in April, providing free medical care to those in need. It will be run entirely by volunteers and funded by donations.

"We're trying to serve a working-class population," said Lowitz, who dealt with the AIDS epidemic while completing her residency at San Francisco General Hospital, and volunteered in the San Francisco Free Clinic. In addition to serving farm workers and laborers, she expects "a surprising number of clients" from the Jewish community.

With the growth of the high-tech industry in the Petaluma area — known as Telecom Valley — pushing up the cost of housing, she said, many people in the area are strapped for cash and not putting their money into health insurance.

"Plenty of people in the Jewish community are working hard but don't have access to health care," she said.

Rabbi Jonathan Slater, spiritual leader of the Conservative Beth Ami in Santa Rosa and an advisory board member, agreed.

"I think there is a collective obligation to provide health care. The overall health of the community has an impact on everybody else, particularly to the extent that there are people providing for their own families and can't afford health care.

"There are members of my congregation who fall into that category," he added. "They may be able to afford care for their children but aren't able to afford it for themselves."

The goal is to begin as a general family-practice clinic, opening several evenings a week, providing acute-care drop-in service. If the clinic is able to raise funds and get grants, the hope is to provide primary care, adding day shifts. Lowitz's dream is for the clinic to become a training center, with students participating from Touro University's osteopathic medical school on Mare Island.

Lowitz, 40, moved to Sebastopol five years ago to take a position at the Russian River Health Center in Guerneville, a program of the National Health Service Corps that serves a large number of people with the HIV virus. The mother of a 22-month-old son, she now works part time at the health center, but said she has been working nearly full time to bring the Jewish Community Free Clinic to fruition.

"It's actually a group project," she said. In addition to the rabbis, the advisers include four of five physicians, as well as medical practitioners, an attorney, a social worker and others. When the clinic opens, Lowitz expects at least 15 physicians to volunteer. Nurses and social workers will augment the effort as the clinic gets under way.

Historically speaking, the concept of a Jewish free community clinic is not a new one. At the turn of the century, Lowitz said, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco had a free clinic that was eventually absorbed by Mount Zion Hospital, which was in turn absorbed by UCSF.

Diana Altschuler, director of the Sonoma County branch of JFCS, said, "We feel having this resource in the community is a wonderful asset…and in keeping with promoting Jewish values in the community.

"Our mission is to help people who cannot get other help and who are most in need, with particular focus on the Jewish community. And we clearly see in our caseload, people who fall through the cracks and cannot afford to seek the medical attention that they might need."

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].