Rachel Bamberger Chalkovsky, affectionately known as Bambi, is a walking
Jerusalem legend. The chief midwife at Shaare Zedek Hospital, she has
brought over 35,000 babies into the world over the past 40 years, and is
now delivering the grandchildren of her first small charges. But numbers
alone are not what have made Bambi's name so familiar in Jerusalem homes.
Born in France at the beginning of World War II, Bambi and her parents were
soon on the run from the Nazis. When her father was sent to his death in
Auschwitz, Bambi and her pregnant mother hid in the forest. When Bambi's
brother was born, her mother somehow found a hospital whose staff - at
great risk to their lives - cleared a room and arranged for a secret
circumcision. Bambi seems to have inherited that determination.
After the war, the family, who had lost everything, was "adopted" by an
anonymous Jewish couple in America who sent them clothes, books, toys, and
money. Other relief organizations provided food and shelter to the
refugees, but these special gifts represented a more personal connection.
"There was an emotional aspect here that was extremely important," says
Bambi. "It meant that individuals cared for us. It made us, who had lost so
much, feel part of a family."
When she emigrated to Israel, Bambi came to emulate her benefactors, to
always be on the lookout for quiet, personal ways to assist people in need.
In her second year of nursing school, she formed a close relationship with
Rebbetzin Rachel Sarne, wife of the head of the Hebron Yeshiva. A Holocaust
survivor herself and afflicted with tuberculosis, the Rebbetzin, who passed
away only last year, was constantly collecting and distributing food for
"She had a tremendous love of the Jewish people. Despite her illness and
advanced age, she opened a shelter for all kinds of people - children, the
elderly, families. She had a very special way. I regard her as one of the
greatest women of our generation."
Bambi worked closely with Rebbetzin Sarne, absorbing her special approach
to helping others. And when the Yom Kippur War broke out and scores of
wives and mothers tragically and suddenly became widows, Bambi did what she
knew she had to do.
"When there are wars, the people who are poor or orphaned are put on hold.
The direct victims of the war have to take priority, and others fall
through the cracks."
Her childhood wartime experiences gave Bambi the idea of matching
benefactors with Israeli families in need, and she started a charitable
foundation known as Matan B'Seter ("giving in a hidden way,") though it is
often referred to simply as "Bambi".
The charity is staffed entirely by volunteers - rabbis, social workers,
teachers - who personally track each case. A small committee oversees the
effort's approximately $1,000,000 annual budget, meeting regularly in
Bambi's modest kitchen. All the money raised goes directly to help the
needy. Mailing and transportation costs are paid out of the volunteers'
And the funds come from both likely and unlikely places.
"People will sponsor a parlor meeting in a fancy neighborhood," Bambi
explains, "and then children will come too, bringing small amounts from
One innovative girl in Manchester spent a summer creating an exhibition of
butterflies and insects, and then invited the neighborhood children to come
to her house and view it. She charged a small admission, and before long
had raised 100 pounds sterling for the cause. And she continues to do the
same each year.
The foundation's assistance is allocated to single-parent families,
families in which one parent is chronically ill or unemployed, and families
with special medical needs.
Now that her organization has become known, there is no shortage of
referrals. But in the beginning Bambi had to rely on her experienced eye to
spot families in crisis. Once she noted that a woman's postnatal hemoglobin
was very low and, after investigating, discovered that the woman had been
subsisting essentially on bread and margarine.
Another time, she became aware of a premature baby with a defective heart
whose life was hanging in the balance in Shaare Zedek's neonatal unit. The
parents, newly arrived Russian immigrants, knew virtually no one in Israel.
Bambi secured a donation from a woman in Switzerland to fly the baby to
America for treatment.
For Bambi, who well remembers her own immigrant days, going that extra mile
is part and parcel of being a Jew, as is her observance of all the Torah's
laws. She feels at home working in a hospital like Shaare Zedek, where
neither staff nor patients have to compromise their dedication to Shabbat
"The whole atmosphere of a religious hospital is something special." She
stresses. "Particularly in the maternity ward, you become keenly aware of
the tremendous blessing of children. Each new cry is another link in the
"Once I had a patient who had her first twelve children here and then the
thirteenth happened to be born at a Tel Aviv hospital. The head of the
department was not religious, and when he learned that this was the woman's
13th child, scolded her. 'What do you need with so many kids? Are you crazy?'
"The mother phoned her husband and told him to dress all the kids in their
Sabbath clothes, and bring them to the hospital. When they arrived, she
lined them up, all clean and smiling. Then she knocked on the department
head's door, and introduced him to her children. 'Which one would you say
is expendable?' she asked him."
Bambi's characteristic Jewish warmth extends to Arab babies as well, who
account for about 10% of Shaare Zedek's births. "Jewish tradition views all
people as having been created in the image of G-d, and every baby is
entitled to the best I can give", she explains.
"These are very hard times for the Jewish people," she says, "not just here
but also in many parts of the world. People aren't sure what they can do,
what's the right approach. Spiritually, though, one of the things we can do
is 'chesed', acts of kindness. This definitely makes a difference."
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
Adam Jessel is a former staff member at Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem. Bambi can be
contacted through him (Jessel@softhome.net) or by writing to Devora Prag,
1667 54th St., Brooklyn NY 11204.