Houston Chronicle: Muslims and Jews join to provide health care to those in need

Muslims and Jews join to provide health care to those in need

By Jill Carroll

August 1, 2014

In other parts of the world, Jews and Muslims coming together to plant seeds of peace and good health might seem unrealistic right now.

In Houston, a longtime Muslim group – the Ibn Sina Foundation, which provides low-cost health care to the uninsured and indigent through its seven clinics – will be joined by members of the Jewish Congregation Brith Shalom to provide more medical resources throughout the city.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Ranon Teller, described the effort as part of what it means to be Jewish.

“We must serve the community to live the complete Jewish life,” Teller said. “That means serving the Jewish community, and it also means serving the larger community. Doing this kind of work together can help build bonds, build relationships and till the soil of people’s hearts. In this way, diversity is the soil of peace.”

The Ibn Sina Foundation was named after an 11th-century Persian Muslim named Ibn Sina – often known by Westerners as “Avicenna” – who was a prominent figure in the early “golden age” from the ninth to the 12th centuries.

During that time – in Spain, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere – Jews and Muslims collaborated to advance knowledge in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, science and medicine, making possible the Western Renaissance that would come later in Europe.

Ibn Sina wrote hundreds of works on a wide range of subjects and is considered by many to be the father of modern medicine. For years he applied his methods to the patients he treated, often without charging them for his services. His Book of Healing and Canon on Medicine are considered some of the most influential medical texts ever written, and some of the treatments he prescribed are still used today.

So when a local group of Muslim doctors and businesspeople joined together in 2001 to create a community health foundation to serve poor, uninsured or underinsured people, they chose Ibn Sina as the namesake of their organization.

Brith Shalom became involved in recruiting Jewish physicians to serve in the clinics after a few became aware of the work being done to serve some 85,000 patients a year.

Ibn Sina’s CEO, Dr. Aijaz Ali Khowaja, told of the first Jewish doctor to help: He was a pediatrician who donated the funds to start the first pediatric clinic and who volunteered his own services there.

At one point, the pediatrician asked Khowaja what Muslims would think about a Jewish doctor treating their children? Khowaja replied: “The issue is not Muslim, Jewish or Christian suffering – the issue is human suffering.”

Medical director Dr. Dilawar Ajani added that health care is universal. “We all need the same treatments for illness regardless of our faith,” he said. “There is no special Muslim treatment or Jewish treatment for heart disease. It’s the same human treatment, and it requires compassionate care.”

Ibn Sina’s medical, dental and pediatric clinics are now in several areas: Wilcrest, Clear Lake, South Post Oak and Beaumont/Port Arthur. A new clinic that will open on North Shepherd in January will offer diagnostic imaging services and basic medical care and is expected to add another 15,000 patients to the foundation’s workload.

The foundation has been recognized by local and state officials for outstanding service to the community and for its effective model of low-cost, high-quality preventive health care focusing on five major ailments: diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary disease (COPD), high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Patients pay low fees, are prescribed inexpensive medications and are seen quarterly by a primary physician. The foundation employs 76 primary care doctors who carry the bulk of the workload. Services like surgery, gynecology, cardiology and urology are provided by volunteer specialists.

Dr. Harvey Rosenstock, a psychiatrist and Congregation Brith Shalom member, has begun working with Ibn Sina and will soon join its advisory board. He sees this new partnership as bridge-building work.

“Two groups of people come from different sides and meet,” Rosenstock said. “They meet, they shake hands, and through their work they multiply blessings in the world.”

He paused for a moment then continued. “I mean, it’s very simple: We are healers. We heal everyone. You have a chance to help another human being. How can you say no?”

Avicenna himself would no doubt agree.

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