The sudden passing of Dr. Eliyahu Schussheim was a shock not only to his family but to the untold numbers of lives he touched in his many capacities.
It’s difficult to fathom how one man could accomplish so much. The only explanation, explains his son-in-law, Chagai Goldschmidt, is that “he was a man of passion, drive, and principle – and he never wasted his time.”
Dr. Schussheim served as a physician at Shaare Zedek Medical Center and Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital and later opened his own private clinic; he was an expert mohel and chaired the government supervisory committee for circumcision; he founded the Neve Simcha Retirement Home; he served as treasurer for the Jewish Institute for the Blind; and he served as the medical advisor for many non-profits. However, for the last 40 years, he literally dedicated his life to leading EfratC.R.I.B. (Committee for Rescuing Israeli Babies), the organization devoted to preventing unnecessary abortion.
Dr. Schussheim consistently kept himself and his organization above politics and societal trends. “Rather than telling women what he thought they should do, he sought to empower them so that they could make the best decision for themselves.”
“I am pro-choice!” was Dr. Schussheim’s motto. Experience had shown him that the vast majority of women seeking abortion not only felt that they had no other recourse, but they were also pitifully unaware of the ramifications – medical, physical, and emotional.”
Accordingly, Dr. Schussheim devoted his life to providing information and medical guidance as well as emotional and financial support, so that women would have the tools to exercise their choice.
Incredibly, Dr. Schussheim saved close to 80,000 babies during his tenure at Efrat, although Goldschmidt says that number is much higher.
Dr. Eliyahu Schussheim was born in Argentina in 1941. His parents had fled prewar Europe and subsequently lost all their extended family in the Holocaust. Already at 9 years old, Eli was enterprising and tried to help his parents through odd jobs, selling newspapers and ice. He loved to sing, and was able to make some money as a choir boy in the local synagogue.
When, several years later, Eli told his parents that he wanted to study medicine, they were vehemently opposed, fearful that it would lead him astray. Eli proved them wrong.
The University of Buenos Aires medical school runs a rigorous course,. When Eli Schussheim was in his second year, it was decided that for technical reasons, all exams that semester would be held on Saturday mornings. All his explanations, that he was Jewish and therefore forbidden from writing on the Sabbath, fell on deaf ears; there was no other time that the exam could be held. Besides, his professor quipped, “Half the students are Jewish, and no one ever made a similar request before!” Still, the professor agreed to think about it. For Eli Schussheim there was no doubt; he would have to discontinue his studies.
That afternoon, the professor decided to make an exception and allow Eli to write the exam in his presence on the preceding Friday. The professor admired Eli Schussheim for his willingness to give up his dream for the sake of his principles, and that was also the reason he trusted him not to reveal the test questions to his fellow students.
During his fourth year, Eli Schussheim was faced with a similar challenge to his Shabbat observance. At the last minute, he was granted an exemption and he was ultimately able to complete his studies while strictly observing Shabbat. By 1964, he’d earned his medical degree with a specialty in general surgery. That year, he married Shoshana, his wife of 57 years, and opened his own clinic in Buenos Aires.
The future in Buenos Aires looked bright, yet he felt a yearning to live in Eretz Yisrael. This was no simple undertaking; he and his wife had no one in Israel and their entire families were all in Argentina. Nevertheless, they packed up their belongings and boarded the Jerusalem liner for an arduous 21-day voyage to Israel.
The couple moved into an apartment in Jerusalem and Dr. Schussheim began working at Shaare Zedek. Two years later, during a visit to Argentina, Dr. Schussheim was summoned immediately back to Israel. It was the eve of the Six-Day War and the hospital needed all hands on deck. Dr. Schussheim subsequently served in the IDF medical corps, and during the Yom Kippur War was sent to Sinai, where he treated thousands of wounded soldiers. “On more than one occasion, he miraculously evaded death.”
Dr. Schussheim wrote impassioned letters to his family, relayed his love for the land and its people. Sure enough, all the relatives from both sides of the family eventually left Argentina and settled in Israel. “Our father never took it for granted that he made it to Israel, and at every family occasion, he would tearfully give thanks to the Creator for this special merit,” his son, Dror, said.
Dr. Schussheim had a special relationship with many of Israel’s greatest rabbinic leaders. He was the personal physician of Chassidic Rebbes, rabbis of the Lithuanian community, as well as Sephardic chief rabbis Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, having earned their trust as a competent physician who was “yereiv’shaleim, truly God-fearing.”
Dr. Schussheim came out against smoking long before anti-smoking legislation was enacted. “After speaking with our father, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg , renowned posek wrote a whole treatise against smoking,” Ariel said. “Our father asserted that the only way to eradicate the scourge of smoking was through a halachic decision, along with encouraging seminary girls to refuse to date a boy who smokes.
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A seemingly random event changed Dr. Schussheim’s life and the course of his career. A woman once brought her 8-year-old son to the clinic for stitches. While Dr. Schussheim examined the child, the mother stated, “You know, this child isn’t mine – he’s yours!” Apparently, she had undergone X-rays before realizing that she was pregnant. The doctor told her to terminate the pregnancy, saying that the child would likely be born with defects. “I came to you for a consultation, and you told me that my doctor’s warning was based on outdated facts. Because of you, I decided to continue my pregnancy and gave birth to my son, who, as you can see, is healthy, thank G-d.”
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 state.
It was around the same time, in 1977, that the Knesset passed a law legalizing abortion. “Each year, 60,000 abortions were being performed in Israel. That was the biggest loss of life in the country – more than wars and car accidents — yet the state wasn’t doing anything to stop it,” said Dr. Schussheim. “It was then that I committed myself to this as my life’s work.
Efrat was originally founded in the 1950’s. Dr. Schussheim joined Efrat in 1977, propelling it forward to where it is today. Over the course of four decades, Dr. Schussheim has been instrumental in saving close to 80,000 Jewish babies!
“In addition to providing women with the most updated information about abortion, Efrat offers mothers substantial assistance for all the baby’s needs – a crib, stroller, baby bath, playpen, as well as formula, diapers and wipes for two years. In certain cases, Efrat will provide a food basket for the whole family.”
Throughout the years, Dr. Schussheim has worked on a completely voluntary basis, traveling to every corner of the globe to raise awareness about this cause of saving Jewish lives. On his most recent fundraising trip, when he was approaching 80, Dr. Schussheim refrained from traveling business class, claiming that it was forbidden to waste charity funds.
Dr. Schussheim’s son Ariel related that his father’s work often caused him to miss out on family simchas.
On the other hand, his daughter in law, Sarit, stresses that he was a very involved, loving father and grandfather. “He’d quiz the children on the parshah, and ask about their lives.”
The life of this visionary came to a sudden, tragic end when in the middle of a family simchah, after leading the morning prayers on Shabbat, Dr. Schussheim collapsed. He was rushed to Hadassah hospital but not long afterward, he returned his soul to his Maker.
“We weren’t prepared for this moment. He was so full of life; he had so many plans,” said Goldschmidt. “But we are determined to carry on his legacy, to empower Jewish women and to save more and more Jewish lives.”