Dr. Ari Johnson and Dr. Jessica Beckerman are this year's recipients of the Charles Bronfman Prize for their work bringing medical care to Mali.
Dr. Ari Johnson and Dr. Jessica Beckerman are this year's recipients of the Charles Bronfman Prize for their work bringing medical care to Mali.

‘We have the obligation to help’: Married doctors recognized for life-saving work in Mali

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Jessica Beckerman’s voice still shakes all these years later when she remembers the malaria-stricken newborn, sweating profusely and breathing rapidly, who died right before her eyes.

Then a Fulbright Scholar, Beckerman, along with medical student Ari Johnson, had been living in Mali, studying the health care system of that impoverished West African nation. While chatting with a neighbor one day, she noticed a woman standing nearby, clutching a baby.

“She had opened capsules of antibiotics bought on the street, mixed it with breast milk and fed it [to the baby] out of desperation, as any mother anywhere would have,” Beckerman said. “We rushed them to the local health center, and shortly after, the child was diagnosed with malaria. He died right in front of us. We were too late. I felt like an accomplice to a murder scene.”

It was a traumatic moment, and a galvanizing one. Johnson and Beckerman would become physicians, they would marry, and they would dedicate their lives to ameliorating the medical injustices they witnessed every day in Africa.

In January, the Berkeley-based doctors were named the 2021 recipients of the annual Charles Bronfman Prize, which awards $100,000 to Jewish humanitarians who, according to the mission statement, engage in “innovative work, fueled by Jewish values, [that] has significantly improved the world.”

The couple announced they will give the prize money to Muso, the nongovernmental organization they co-founded with Malians in 2005. (“Muso” means “woman” in the Malian language of Bamanankan.) From humble, on-a-shoestring beginnings, Muso raised more than $13 million in 2020 alone, and has to date renovated and expanded eight government-run rural clinics and one in the capital of Bamako. The nongovernmental organization is also expanding operations into the Ivory Coast. Johnson serves as Muso’s CEO, while Beckerman is chief medical officer.

Dr. Ari Johnson in Yirimadio, Mali, July 16, 2007.
Dr. Ari Johnson with friend Aminata in Yirimadio, Mali, July 16, 2007.

Through those free clinics, and working with a network of government community health workers making house calls, Muso facilitates home care, referrals and emergency ambulance service. In doing so, it has saved countless lives, helping to reduce infant mortality and treat malnutrition, malaria and other preventable conditions. To date, Muso has logged more than 7 million home visits and nearly 800,000 clinic visits.

“Muso was founded by a group of Malians and Americans,” Johnson said. “The group included Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and Jews. We shared a common commitment: that no one should die waiting for health care. It is wrong for people to get care too late, whether because of where they’re born or how much money they have in their pocket.”

Bronfman Prize executive director Paulette Light noted that while Muso is not a Jewish organization, the Jewish value of saving a life “runs deep as a driving force” for its co-founders. “Ari and Jess begin with the essential question: What would it actually mean to take seriously the concept that we are all created in the image of God? If we really did, what would health care actually look like? For Jessica and Ari, that translates to not standing idly by as millions of children die every year from curable diseases because they don’t get care in time.”

The couple and their 5-month-old son currently live in Berkeley and belong to Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul. Muso’s U.S. office is not far away, in San Francisco. Before the pandemic, Johnson and Beckerman divided their time between their East Bay and Mali homes. Some years, they spent more time in Africa than in California.

They do not separate their devotion to Judaism from the work they do in Africa, even though, as Johnson notes, when they go to Mali (which they had done every year until the pandemic) they are likely the only practicing Jews in the country.

“For both of us,” Johnson said, “our own Jewish practice brought us into this work. Addressing inequities and injustices in health care is as core to our Jewish practice as our observance of Shabbat, our time in prayer or keeping kosher. And it is a spiritual wellspring that nourishes us on this path.”

For Johnson, the path began in Maryland where he grew up; Beckerman is a native of Southern California. The two met as undergrads at a Shabbat dinner hosted by the Brown University Hillel. Johnson later studied medicine at Harvard, while Beckerman earned a degree in medicine at UCSF. She is a board-certified OB/GYN, and he is an internist.

Addressing inequities and injustices in health care is as core to our Jewish practice as our observance of Shabbat.

Both determined they would do all they could to fix inequities in the health care system. That pursuit led them to Mali, one of the poorest countries on Earth.

When they first arrived in 2004, the couple saw a nation struggling with cascading health and social problems. The eighth-largest country in Africa, Mali (formerly known as French Sudan) has a population of nearly 20 million, the vast majority Muslim. Curable diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and cholera, were rampant, and infant and child mortality rates were among the worst in the world.  In just one example, according to Mali government statistics, the death rate for children under 5 was 174 per 1,000 live births in 2004; that number was reduced to 104 per 1,000 in 2015. And in targeted areas where Muso and the Mali health ministry arranged care and intervention, the changes have been even more dramatic. In Yirimadio, the rates dropped to an astonishing 7 per 1,000 live births.

It was the needlessness of the suffering that most fired up Johnson.

“Muso exists to cure the delay in health care,” he said. “This great injustice is eminently solvable. It doesn’t cost that much to pull off. We have everything we need to ensure every person on the planet gets care when they need it.”

Beckerman remembers a typical Malian maternity ward consisting of “a rusty metal bed, a bucket in a room with mold, [and women] who would walk six miles to get to a facility with no lighting or water, no nurse or midwife.

Today, “Mali’s government cites the work we have done together at these clinics as a model for the rest of the country, as women give birth in dignity, as they should everywhere. There is a beautiful maternity suite, with midwives, solar lighting and potable water.”

In the early days of Muso, the couple’s fundraising efforts meant “begging pharmacies and getting in-kind donations,” Beckerman remembers. “We had no experience fundraising, and we didn’t have a network of ultra-wealthy people. There were years when we were weeks away from running out of cash.”

Dr. Jessica Beckerman in Yirimadio, Mali, June 16, 2007.
Dr. Jessica Beckerman with Muso co-founder Fousseni Traoréin in Yirimadio, Mali, June 16, 2007.

Admirers back in America tried to help. One of them, Alan Rothenberg of San Francisco, met the couple more than a decade ago through his role as a board member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which supports humanitarian work around the world.

“I was beguiled by them,” Rothenberg said. “I thought they were such interesting role models for serious Jews who were figuring out a way to combine their professional interests with a strong sense of religious imperative.”

It was Rothenberg who, along with others, nominated the couple for the Bronfman Prize. Judges immediately saw how Jewish values animated the couple in every aspect of their lives, especially in their decision to spend so much time halfway around the world helping people in a developing country.

“The Torah and our sages have a lot to say about this,” Johnson said. “When someone’s life is in danger, and we have the power to do something about it, we have the obligation to help. Silence is the accomplice of every atrocity. Pikuach nefesh, the value of saving a life, isn’t a good deed, it is a commandment, a moral imperative at the same level of urgency as thou shalt not kill.”

Jews may be rare in Mali, but the couple have found a boundless sense of community, tolerance and friendship. They even discovered a surprising similarity between traditional Judaism and Malian culture: blessings.

“When we’re there we give and receive 50 blessings every day,” Beckerman said. “It’s part of greetings and goodbyes. if you stop at a gas station or buy food on the street, complete strangers have to bless you.”

Added Johnson, “You might buy tomatoes and the person selling them will say to you, ‘May God bless your children and sustain them, may God bless your day with peace overflowing, may you be blessed to achieve your aspiration.’ The spirit of openness and devotion has made a big impact on us. My own Jewish practice is more vibrant in some ways in Mali.”

Jessica Beckerman (right) making a sukkah in Mali with Nana Niare.
Jessica Beckerman (right) making a sukkah in Mali with Muso co-founder and community leader Nana Niare.

The two, who speak French and Bamanankan, have by now celebrated every Jewish holiday on the calendar while in Mali. They’ve built a sukkah in their backyard in Bamako, and neighbors now know to wish them “Shabbat shalom” every Friday afternoon.

Beckerman and Johnson have had to drastically rearrange their lives during the pandemic. Though Muso went on to respond to Covid-19 in Mali, the couple has not been able to return. They do have medical posts in the Bay Area. She serves as an obstetrician at Highland Hospital in Oakland, while he is an associate professor at UCSF’s Department of Medicine and its Institute for Global Health Sciences.

They know that someday when the pandemic recedes, they will return once again to their second home in West Africa. For them, it’s a day that cannot come soon enough.

Said Johnson, “You get to be part of bringing a child back from the brink of death with a few dollars, and you get hooked.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.