05/27/2011 02:39 pm ET | Updated Jul 27, 2011

What Does a Bar Mitzvah Have to do With the Fate of Orphans Around the World?

Journal from the field #1, May 26, 2011
Dr. Aronson in Ethiopia, May 23-27, 2011

This trip has been hard on me. Traveling to Addis Ababa took 25 hours and then another hour just to get through customs and bag checks. But I was happy to be in Addis Ababa with my dear friend and colleague Dr. Sophie Mengistu, WWO's In-Country Director for Ethiopia.

Dr. Mengistu implements the programs for WWO Ethiopia with vision and dedication; she loves the children as her own. She is a brilliant pediatrician and an expert in pediatric AIDS. Even more, she has taught herself finance (not a doctor's strong suit), administration, and the art of politics in a very challenging environment. I thank the powers that be for Sophie's steady smile, optimism and exuberance about her work.

I have not blogged for the last two nights because I am struggling with great challenges to my vision. I have needed to find a space to absorb the pain I feel about the orphans in the world. And now, at 2:00 am, I am in touch with some very deep disappointments, with my own vulnerability, and oddly enough, with the inspiration I need to lift myself up once again to do the work I must do.

That inspiration is my son's Bar Mitzvah, which has brought me to the vulnerable and loving place I am right now. What does a Bar Mitzvah have to do with the fate of orphans around the world? My son, Des, adopted from Ethiopia, arrived in the US seven years ago on June 5, 2004. He was a month shy of six years old when he arrived at Newark Airport. He was small -- fragile even -- and frightened, but very sweet and loving and eager to have a family. My partner and my other son, Ben, were meeting him for the first time that day, and they hugged him and took him in right away. I will save the details of that moment for another story because it needs to be savored. Writing is about savoring certain moments of the story and really giving people a chance to love the details. So I will "return to the sheep" (revenons a nos moutons and Guy de Maupassant).

For the past six months our family helped Des prepare for his Bar Mitzvah. We each had a job: I helped Des with Hebrew, attended the tutoring sessions, and tried to stay out of his way as he found the discipline and perseverance to learn a very difficult language so that he could read Torah (Hebrew without vowels) and become a "Bar Mitzvah." Ben, Des's younger brother, helped by practicing the prayers and blessings with him. My partner Diana dedicated herself to the event. She was involved with the details of the invitation design, the guest list, the luncheon, the catering, the party and the seating arrangements -- and it was perfect.

Diana and I both helped Des as he thought about the Torah portion "Bechuchotai" that he would be required to read and on which he would base his speech. This is a miserable portion, in my opinion. It is all about how if you do what God tells you to do, you will have a good life and if you don't, you will suffer "misery and pain." That said, Des wrote a beautiful and inspiring speech, explaining his interpretation of Bechuchotai and how it applies to his life. He also talked about the service project where he built a home in a slum of Tijuana, Mexico for an impoverished family. He finished up with thank you's to family and friends.

Des wrote a speech that was honest, vulnerable and inspiring. Everyone who was in the sanctuary that morning, cried. This is a boy who had already become a man. This is a boy who was an Ethiopian orphan who was loved by his birth family who all died. This is a boy who had to fend for himself when he was four years old. He told us this story in his speech. He lived in an orphanage for about a year in Addis. Then he came into our lives with great hope and strength and an inheritance of love. With us, he once again became a son and brother, and together, we all became a family. The Bar Mitzvah was a celebration of who Des has become and continues to become.

Yesterday in Addis, as part of my work as the CEO of Worldwide Orphans Foundation, I went to see a public orphanage with about 300 children. It was established in the mid-1940's and had recently been renovated to accommodate homeless, abandoned, and relinquished girls, as well as very young pre-school age children. The compound is fabulous, with very tall pines, firs and expanses of land so children (conceivably) could play and run and thrive. There was a building we were not invited into where the children live -- if you can call it that.

As we pulled up to the building, I saw the girls milling about. They were filthy, their hair cropped or their heads shaved, their clothes ripped, their shoes torn, and their eyes -- their eyes vacant and staring. They were wandering about aimlessly; why, I thought, aren't they in school?

And suddenly, there I was, back in Romania in the 1990s, right after the Communist government fell. I had traveled on medical missions to orphanage after orphanage, and it was all the same: a tragic slow wasting away for babies and young children, the death of spirit for thousands of children who were left to rot when a moment of caring could have saved them. Children who started out hopeful and innocent, turned careless, callous, and finally, cruel. Children with the same vacant eyes staring at me. It was a holocaust of life, spirit and human potential.

Now, nearly 20 years later, it was the same. I was in the midst of this horrible place, surrounded by hopelessness. I was drowning and angry. We stepped outside of a dark meeting room after an orientation to the orphanage, given by a well-meaning bureaucrat, and the light was jarring and hurtful to my eyes. A throng of preschool orphans were all over us in a moment and I was unprepared and taken aback. They were all dirty and mucous was dripping from their nostrils into their mouths. As I focused on their faces and bodies, I could see that many of them were growth stunted and some were microcephalic (small heads due to brain damage, malnutrition, infection); their faces were covered with molluscum contagiosum (virally mediated warts) and impetigo. Strep and staph bacteria were infecting their nostrils and lips, and honey-combed crusts stuck in place. Their scalps were like maps of alopecia (loss of hair and baldness) and tufts of fragile hair and they were devastated by ringworm (fungus).

They came toward us fast, with hands outstretched. I patted their heads and tickled their bellies and armpits -- in fact, I made some laugh -- but in truth, I was angry and didn't want to engage with them. I was torn between wanting to hug them all and keep myself at a distance. So I turned on my iphone and showed them what they looked like in the camera. They came close together like a flock and shrieked with delight, but the Director quickly made me stop because the government doesn't allow pictures.

I left the orphanage in pain. I cried tonight and tried desperately to solve the equation. The day before I had visited the children in the school, clinic and small home of my foundation, Worldwide Orphans, I had been so proud and happy. They nurtured my vision and filled me with hope because I felt that we had deeply affected thousands of lives. We serve healthy children and adults with AIDS at the clinic, and poor but healthy children from the community who attend the WWO Academy with orphans with AIDS. We have camp and soccer and art and music. I watched the kids at the WWO Academy reading in a marvelous library with books in Amharic and English translation right across from a computer lab where children were giddy as they played games and learned math.

Des is from this world. He was an orphan who lost his family and found another family, and went on to become a Bar Mitzvah. He inspired us all at the synagogue with his words about loss, gratitude and resiliency. His name, Desalegn, means in Amharic, "I am rejoicing." He is a powerful example of the strength and will of a child who, because of love and care, has become a beautiful and gentle young man.

How is it that we still have a world filled with children (18 million double orphans and 413 million in extreme poverty) living in degradation, without dignity and the rights we promise to them daily?

How is it that I can see the destructive forces of institutionalization side-by-side the beauty of innovative and creative care? Certainly I see the latter at WWO, but I also visited a program in Addis run by the elders, a true example of the power of the kebele (community) brought back from a bygone time. I witnessed foster care programs with children whose faces are clean and whose hair is neat being cared for by unrelated adults. We are all over the place and nowhere, still struggling to figure out how to save millions of valuable lives.

I am so troubled by the extremes of how children live in this world. Today I want to be more hopeful, so I will think about my Bar Mitzvah boy, and I'll keep working to make his life the standard for every child in the world.