Filling the Void

Chagai Goldschmidt, Efrat’s CEO, shares his experience as the son-in-law and right-hand man of Dr. Eli Schussheim zt”l, and his plans for taking the organization to the next level

Yosef Ehrenfeld ,

Chagai Goldschmidt
Chagai Goldschmidt
צילום: באדיבות אגודת אפרת

When Chagai Goldschmidt was still studying for semichah at Yeshivas Kerem B’Yavneh, he married Ziva, the daughter of Dr. Eli Schussheim, head of the Efrat organization.

In advance of a large-scale Efrat event, to be held in Bnei Brak with the participation of the organization’s president, Harav Yitzchak Kadouri, Dr. Schussheim solicited the assistance of his newlywed son-in-law. The event was a huge success, thanks in no small part to Goldschmidt, who steadily found himself drawn deeper into the organization's work, until eventually he was appointed CEO.

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For 23 years, Goldschmidt worked hand in hand with Dr. Schussheim until the doctor's tragic, untimely passing on 29 Sivan. It happened during the Shabbos sheva brachos for Goldschmidt's son Amichai. Dr. Schussheim, the proud grandfather, had been davening for the amud, after serving as baal korei. And then, right after his beautiful rendition of Birkas Hachodesh, without warning, he collapsed.

At the levayah, Harav Shmuel Eliyahu shlita delivered a moving hesped, noting among other stellar traits, the doctor’s orderliness. "79,280 – that is the official number of children saved through Efrat’s comprehensive operations," said Rav Eliyahu. "However, that number, calculated according to Dr. Schussheim's own meticulous records, is imprecise. How many thousands of women were exposed to Efrat's activities and didn’t apply for assistance?! How many thousands more were saved in his merit? The real number is far greater!"

Efrat = Miriam

The Efrat organization was originally founded in the 1950’s by Mr. Herschel Feigenbaum, a Holocaust survivor, who lost almost all his children in the death camps. His goal was to commemorate the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished at the hands of the Nazis, by promoting Jewish birth. Efrat refers to Miriam Haneviah, who in Divrei Hayamim is called by this name for her role in delivering Jewish babies in Egypt.

Dr. Schussheim came to Efrat through seemingly random events. A woman who had brought her young son to Dr. Schussheim's clinic for treatment, remarked, “You know, this child isn’t mine – he’s yours!” She went on to explain that she had taken an X-ray without realizing that she had been expecting. As a result, her doctor had warned her that the child would be born with serious defects. “I came to you for a consultation and you assured me that my doctor’s warning was based on outdated facts. Because of you, I disregarded my doctor's advice and gave birth to my son, who, as you can see, is perfectly healthy, thank G-d.”

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Dr. Schussheim was profoundly affected by the encounter. “I had studied medicine to save lives and protect life. Here I saw how a simple consultation could save a child. And when you save one child, you are saving all his future generations,” he would later proclaim at lectures across the globe.

Dr. Schussheim joined Efrat in 1977, propelling it forward, involved directly in the rescue of close to 80,000 Jewish children.

Not Just Babies – Entire Families

When Goldschmidt first began working for Efrat, it was more about helping his father-in-law than any personal calling. "I was motivated by his strong connection with Gedolei Yisrael and their tremendous appreciation for his work. Additionally, I found the thank-you letters from thousands of women who expressed their joy and elation with their new baby to be very moving,” Goldschmidt recalled. “There came a point when I realized that work done by Efrat literally saves lives. We provide assistance, and that assistance is ‘transformed’ into living children!”

Dr. Schussheim and the Efrat team often organized brissim for newborn babies of mothers who were helped by the organization. “Those special events left a huge impact on me,” Goldschmidt shared.

But it was the poverty that affected him the most. “I remember entering the homes of women who had applied to Efrat, and being shocked to the core! I’d never known that in our times there were people living in such conditions.”

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When he saw the genuine, life-changing impact that Efrat made, he decided to join his father-in-law, on a full-time basis. "People assume that Efrat is just about saving babies,” he said. “The truth is that it encompasses so much more. Efrat is also about tzedakah; our assistance rehabilitates and saves entire families.”

One of Dr. Schussheim’s special characteristics was that he never wasted time and never stopped. "He was constantly busy, from morning to night, thinking ahead and devising more plans for the organization," Goldschmidt said.

In his work, Dr. Schussheim displayed great insight and creativity, and he merited unmistakable hashgachah, perhaps due to the non-judgmental concern and care he displayed toward his fellow Yidden.

"I myself can testify to complicated situations in which my father-in-law took responsibility, with incredible results,” said Goldschmidt.

In one case, a woman in very dire economic straits who was expecting came to Efrat with an added burden: Her mother was so distraught, she had threatened to take her own life. The woman was terrified that her mother would carry out her threat since it had happened in the family before. Dr. Schussheim fearlessly came up with a plan. The woman would write a letter to her mother, stating her desire to keep the baby together with her concern for her mother. After the letter would be delivered to the mother, the woman would disappear (Dr. Schussheim found her somewhere to stay). Now the family would be worried – not about the mother anymore but the pregnant daughter. After the plan was put into action, a relative revealed to the mother that he knew that the daughter was safe. After the woman gave birth, the family was reunited; and the mother, now happily welcomed both her daughter together with her newborn granddaughter.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Schussheim’s sudden, recent passing necessitated taking a step back to reassess and reorganize. "There wasn't an aspect of the organization that he wasn’t involved in," said Goldschmidt. “He was the chief medical consultant, he maintained a very close connection with Gedolei Yisrael to whom he brought his she’eilos, he was responsible for fund-raising; and yet, he was also directly involved with the individual cases.”

In order to pick up where his father-in-law left off, and to take the organization even further, Goldschmidt has many plans.

“The first thing we aim to do is to restore contributions to their pre-Covid level,” he said.

Since Covid, donations have dropped by 30%, indicating a corresponding drop in the number of women receiving assistance. In 2019, before the pandemic, Efrat saved some 3,800 babies while in 2020, that number dropped to 2,334. "When you think that each baby is a whole world, the number is amazing, but compared to the previous year, you understand how many we had to turn away,” said Goldschmidt.

Goldschmidt explained that Covid has been doubly detrimental. Not only has it negatively impacted donors worldwide, resulting in a severe drop in funds, but the economic hardship in Israel means more pressure on families who were poor to begin with. "The unemployment and accompanying poverty caused by the pandemic has harmed mainly the weaker sectors, the same people who need our help the most," said Goldschmidt.

Efrat is planning a novel project, to be launched in six months, designed to solve poverty at its root.

"Many women are currently unemployed, but even prior to Covid, most of the women who turned to us were driven to their predicament by economic distress,” Goldschmidt observed.

The goal is to create employment opportunities and enable these women to gain a profession, while helping them with daycare, so that they will be empowered to earn a decent livelihood, together with raising their child. This plan comes in addition to the economic support Efrat provides during the first two years after the baby is born.

“It's a scheme that's built for the long term, to help them exit the cycle of poverty and raise their children without having to depend on others," he said.

Medical and Halachic Consultation

Goldschmidt has recently opened two new departments at Efrat to meet the need for medical and halachic consultation that had previously been filled by Dr. Schussheim.

"A day doesn't go by without requests for a second opinion relating to medical recommendations for various procedures and tests associated with the health of the woman or her fetus. Currently, those questions are being addressed by a team of professionals, under the expert guidance of senior ob/gyn, Dr. Yonatan Schussheim, the son of Dr. Eli Schussheim. A second department deals with halachic queries, in cases that are not clear-cut. The two departments will be connected enable the rabbonim to receive full medical guidance relating to the issue at hand.

Goldschmidt is optimistic that the reorganization will prove to be extremely beneficial for all who seek the services of Efrat. "In past conversations held with Rav Shmuel Eliyahu shlita, and shared at the time with his father Harav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt"l, they enthusiastically encouraged me to establish a department that would provide halachic teshuvos, saying that this would save many lives,” said Goldschmidt.

Efrat House

In addition to the individual projects, Goldschmidt is promoting a capital campaign for a large spacious building that will concentrate all activities under one roof. To date, activities are divided between two locations. Offices are housed in two tiny, adjoining apartments with a total of five rooms. Two rooms are dedicated to fundraising; two rooms are used for women to meet with Efrat volunteers and staff; and the fifth room in the middle was for Dr. Schussheim and Goldschmidt. The second location is the storeroom where all equipment is packaged and prepared for delivery.

"The problem is that the storeroom is rented, meaning that we could be turned out at any time,” explained Goldschmidt. “That's essentially what clarified the need for one central location. It would also have the added value of being accessible to the women who come to apply for assistance, enabling them to immediately be shown the package of baby essentials that they will receive.

“Needless to say, the capital campaign will have no bearing on regular donations, and will be handled with a separate fund-raiser. Donors' contributions are used exclusively for saving lives – our first priority,” he added.

Making Efrat Even Better

Efrat's modus vivendi is eminently simple. A woman in distress who turns to Efrat receives counseling from the organizations professional social workers as well as volunteers. As soon as she informs Efrat that she has given birth, they will send a delivery to her home, anywhere in Israel, with a full baby package, including a crib, stroller, bathtub and an assortment of baby products, from a layette bottles and pacifiers. For the next 24 months, she will receive a monthly delivery with diapers, baby formula and where necessary, even food for the rest of the family. An Efrat volunteer will provide continuing support to help the woman receive assistance from the municipal welfare authorities.

There are currently some 2,300 volunteers at Efrat, among them 300 who actively interact with the women. The majority of these volunteers are women who in the past had faced a similar predicament and who were helped by Efrat.

"They want to give back, by helping other women who are experiencing what they did,” said Goldschmidt. As soon as a woman leaves her contact information with Efrat, they send a volunteer to visit her. “Naturally, these women are uniquely positioned to offer genuine, practical advice, and they can also vouch for the fact that Efrat will deliver on its promise to provide assistance,” explained Goldschmidt.

Goldschmidt notes that the government social workers are his most dedicated “volunteers.” He explains: “They know that Efrat will do its utmost to provide the assistance and support that the government authorities should be providing.”

Goldschmidt's next goal for the short term is to provide Efrat’s volunteers with professional training. "In order to save more babies, we need to give our volunteers more tools. The idea is to provide them with enrichment courses, to teach them how to work with the local authorities, government agencies, social workers and the women themselves. We want to upgrade, not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of quality. We have a huge, wonderful team and I have no doubt that the results will be even better if we equip them with the appropriate tools."

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