Midwife Bambi a dear friend to Israeli babies for half a century

The Jerusalem that Rachel Chalkovsky immigrated to more than 50 years ago bears little resemblance to the international city of 2007.

Chalkovsky, the chief midwife at Shaare Zedek Hospital, who is widely known by her nickname of “Bambi,” said that the Israeli capital was little more than a large village when she first encountered it.

“When I started working in Jerusalem, you really felt like you knew everyone,” said Chalkovsky. “It was a very small place. There wasn’t even a single traffic light.”

Having delivered more than 40,000 babies during four decades, “Bambi” has achieved an iconic status reserved for people whose surname is unnecessary. (Jerusalem’s late mayor “Teddy” Kollek being another salient example.)

Chalkovsky, who will be the guest of honor at a women-only fundraiser in Palo Alto on Monday, January 29, has been lending her prestige and name recognition to a problem that she has seen grow exponentially in her hometown — poverty. In a country perpetually engaged in conflict, and where funding for security precautions is a paramount concern, other services suffer.

“A good part of Jerusalem’s population lives in dire poverty,” said Chalkovsky during a recent phone interview while staying in New York. “The amount of people below the poverty line is something like 35 or 40 percent. We’re talking about people whose children are fighting over pieces of bread, or who can’t pay their electricity bills.”

As a midwife, Chalkovsky — whose charitable organization Matan B’Seter (“giving in a hidden way”) has assisted Jerusalem’s poor for over three decades — has been privy to some of the manifestations of that poverty.

“When I train midwives, I tell them to look at women holistically,” said Chalkovsky. “Often times, women come in to deliver children and they’re having problems unrelated to the pregnancy. Maybe they’re not fed properly, or given adequate health care. These are all things that could affect the pregnancy, so I tell beginning midwives that they have to look a little deeper to see where some of the problems may be.”

Being so heavily vested in the cycles of life comes naturally for Chalkovsky, who escaped the Holocaust through the largesse of strangers. Born in France in 1939, Chalkovsky and her parents fled from their hometown to elude capture by the Nazis. Her father perished in Auschwitz, and her pregnant mother hid in the forest with her infant daughter. When Chalkovsky’s brother was born, a nearby hospital arranged for a circumcision under incredibly perilous circumstances.

In the years following the war, Chalkovsky and her family were the beneficiaries of financial assistance from a then-anonymous American Jewish couple. The couple sent the Chalkovsky family clothing, food, and money.

“There is a tradition within Judaism that says anonymous giving is the highest form of charity,” said Chalkovsky. “This couple really demonstrated that. What I’m doing with Matan B’Seter is in the same spirit. It’s honoring Jewish traditions and honoring them at the same time.”

Chalkovsky, who later met the couple when they came to Israel, has left her mark on her adopted country in equally profound ways.

“There are many times that I will be invited to a wedding, and both the bride and groom will come up to me and say that I delivered both of them.

“And sometimes, their parents will tell me the same thing,” she added with laugh.

Dessert reception to meet Rachel “Bambi’ Chalovsky. For women only. Monday, Jan. 29. 7:30 p.m. At the home of Nancy Gofman, 4050 Amaranta Ave., Palo Alto. Donations accepted. RSVP to Sara Felsen (650) 739-0816.