Periodontist Finds Meaning in Volunteering in Israel

Robert Weber in Emek Hashalom with sheep

By Bea Carter


When periodontist Robert Weber of New Rochelle, was visiting his son who was studying in Israel, he wanted to give back to the community. Already serving on Jewish National Fund-USA’s Westchester and Southern Connecticut board and a member of the President’s Society and Healthcare Professionals for Israel, the avid volunteer thought he’d be able to offer free dental services for low-income Jerusalem residents.


Timing thwarted those plans.


“It just happened that Purim was during my trip, so they didn’t really need a specialist like me!” 


Robert said with a laugh. Though he did get to spend a day volunteering doing oral surgery in a Jerusalem clinic, his story took a different journey than he originally expected.


Eventually, he was partnered with an organization that had little to do with his professional life, Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate, LOTEM: Making Israel Accessible. LOTEM is the largest Israeli organization working to improve accessibility for individuals with disabilities.


The nonprofit has projects in Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva, as well as an accessible park in Emek HaShalom (“Valley of Peace”) where Robert was sent. An avid hiker, Robert is no stranger to rural places, but even he was surprised to discover such an accessible space in a purely natural setting.


“I had to use two pins on the driving app Waze: one to a spot in the road to turn off onto a dirt road, and then another one to the farm, which was 25 minutes up a dirt road!” said Robert.


But Robert wasn’t dissuaded — especially when he got to watch Israel’s largest herd of sheep trot by his lodging every morning. Outfitted for people with disabilities, the farm also inspired him. Highlights include a multisensory garden, a wheelchair-friendly hiking path, and even an accessible olive press.


Since no groups were visiting during the holiday, LOTEM team members assigned Robert to sand and paint park benches on his first day. “The two guys who worked there didn’t speak any English and they were so shocked someone would just show up and come help,” he recalled.


Robert managed to prove himself quite handy, completing the work preparing the benches and making friends with the two despite the language barrier. 


The next day, a group of 40 Druze children visited the farm. This ethnoreligious Arab group comprises less than two percent of Israel’s population. Ever willing to help, Rob took over grilling pita — something he’d never done before. Emek HaShalom grows its own wheat, which it then turns into flour to make the flatbread as part of its experiential offerings. 


“I became the official pita maker. The kids were very perplexed about how some guy from New York ended up here cooking pita for kids who obviously know more about pita than I do!” Robert laughed.


Word spread about Robert and his pita-making prowess. The next day, a Druze group twice as  big visited the farm and insisted he move to Israel!

The periodontist couldn’t believe how easy it was to make a positive cross-cultural impression.


“These kids were just amazed an American was there and wanted to help. I felt like that was the biggest difference I made. Now, all these kids think differently of Americans because I made them pita bread,” he said.


Robert’s volunteer experiences in Israel have made him encourage others to go one step further in their philanthropic ventures. If they lend their time and sweat as he has done, he said, they’ll be able to understand the country and its people much more deeply.


“Taking time out of your schedule to go and do makes a huge difference,” he said. “ It impacts how the people there see us and our commitment to Israel. It’s not the same as being a tourist, you’re there with a purpose.”