A Perfect Fit: Prosthetics, Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam

When he travels to Zacapa, Guatemala to provide prosthetic limbs and orthotic braces to amputees, Michael Smerka of Marblehead takes his responsibility to heal, repair and transform the world (“tikkun olam”) literally. 

A clinical prosthetist who makes and fits artificial limbs for patients who have suffered limb loss, Smerka recently returned from his third trip to Guatemala, as a member of the Range Of Motion Project (ROMP).

“The work is transformative,” the native New Yorker said. “If you do it once, you get addicted.”

ROMP’s mission is to provide used prostheses to those without access to care. While studying for a post-graduate degree in prosthetics at Northwestern University in 2004, Smerka met ROMP’s co-founder Eric Neufeld when they were assigned as lab partners. He remembers Neufeld talking about wanting to do charitable prosthetic work in the developing world.

The two became aware that in the U.S., federal regulations do not allow used prostheses to be resold, and so they would go to waste if the original owner needed refitting or passed away. They began asking families to donate the components and Neufeld decided to send them outside the U.S. to places where there is not access to the care (people trained to fit a prosthesis correctly) or to the artificial limbs.

Neufeld and Dave Krupa cofounded ROMP in 2005, and started a clinic as part of a regional hospital in Zacapa. Over the years, they spent time training local residents to be clinical experts so they can continue to care for people even when the Western clinicians have left.


Pictured from left: Dave Rotter, Marco, Eric Neufeld and Michael Smerka

“That long-term goal is part of the beauty of ROMP,” Smerka said. “We are able to bring them up to speed on current practices, biomechanics and fabrication. We are bringing 21st century technology to a developing country.”

This year, after securing a grant from Grand Challenges Canada, ROMP and University of Victoria engineers collaborated to bring cutting edge 3D printing and scanning capabilities to the Zacapa rehabilitation clinic. Smerka brought the first printer with him on his most recent trip in October, when seven ROMP volunteer clinicians worked on site to fit between 35 and 40 patients with prosthetic feet, legs, hands and arms. The recipients ranged from 8 to 82 years old.

Smerka thinks it is difficult for people in the U.S. to grasp the impact that these limbs have.

“It’s not just a device; it’s life changing for both the amputees and their families,” he said. “What happens is that when somebody becomes an amputee, they become a drain on an impoverished family already in difficult conditions. This helps a child. It helps a father return as a breadwinner to support his family.”

For example, Hilda, a 27-yearold woman Smerka worked with this year, lost her limb in a work-related accident about 18 months ago. She was fit with a first prosthesis, but needed a new one because of anatomical changes to her residual limb. Louisa, a volunteer firefighter, was fitted with an athletic runner’s device donated by the manufacturer Fillauer, enabling her to resume one of her passions.

Hilda and Louisa 

Candidates for treatment go through a six-month process between the times they first contact the clinic and the time the ROMP team arrives. For follow- up care, or if they missed the opportunity to be treated by ROMP clinicians, they still can be fitted by one of the ROMPtrained local clinicians.

Smerka was one of three Jewish ROMP volunteers on this recent trip. “We didn’t do Shabbos, but we acknowledged it by saying, ‘Shabbat Shalom,’” he said, smiling.

Smerka’s path to his current profession was full of twists, turns and serendipity. After earning a BFA from SUNY Purchase, he followed his artistic passion and tried to make a living creating contemporary fine furniture. Realizing he had to supplement his income, he did commercial custom work, eventually working at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “That was a really fun job,” he said.

A knee injury and four months of rehabilitation brought him to a crossroad. In addition to his physical limitations, the climate of the furniture making industry was changing, making it harder to earn a living in that field. He wanted a profession that would fit his interests and art background. He had enjoyed the process of physical therapy, but he also wanted to make use of his artistic skills. When he looked into prosthetics, he discovered a good fit.

“It looked like a perfect combination of working with people, being in a rehabilitation medical setting and building things,” he said. Not long after, he began as an unpaid apprentice to see if he wanted to pursue becoming a clinical Prosthetist; he did.

He started in the field in 2001. In 2011, he and his wife, Heather Glick, moved to her native Marblehead, where they live with their four-year-old son and 16-month-old daughter. He now works at A Step Ahead Prosthetics in Burlington. Its founder, Erik Schaffer, organized a prosthetic limb drive for ROMP and regularly fits wounded Israeli soldiers through FIDF (Friends of the Israel Defense Forces).

Smerka plans to develop a ROMP in Boston where people can access services through A Step Ahead. He points to the many under-insured and undocumented people who need this help. Again and again, Smerka circles back to his Jewish roots and to his gratification of fulfilling the mitzvah of tikkun olam. “Having that Jewish lens wherever you are and whatever you do is important to me,” he said.

For more information or to make a donation, go to rompglobal. org.

Pictured at top: Michael Smerka with Hilda in Zacapa, Guatemala

A Living Chain of Tikkun Olam in Chelsea

CHELSEA — Aweis Hussein tends his family’s vegetables in a community garden located at Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel. He grows okra, tomatoes and corn, staples in his native Somalia.

Eleven years ago, Hussein and many from his current Chelsea Somali Bantu community lived in a Kenyan refugee camp. He arrived at the camp in 1991 at the age of 14, in need of protection and sanctuary from the relentless persecution and discrimination the minority Bantus suffered in their homeland.

Chelsea 2
Aweis Hussein

Today, ten years after arriving in Chelsea, he is the community organizer and leader of the SCA (Shanbaro Community Association). The SCA operates under the umbrella of the Chelsea Collaborative, an organization founded in 1988 to enhance the social, economic and environmental health of the Chelsea community and its people. The SCA’s mission is to support the 400+ Somali Bantu refugees living in the greater Boston area as they forge community relationships and adjust to their new surroundings.

“I was lucky to go to refugee school in Kenya,” Hussein told the Journal by phone. He learned to read and speak English. He learned what to expect in America. Most of his Chelsea community members weren’t as fortunate. “They have never been to school. They have never been to a big village. They were mainly farmers in Somalia. They did not know about flushing toilets and lights and grocery stores.” His leadership role is his way of giving back to his people and using his special knowledge to ease their transition.

Ellen Rovner, of Brookline, is a member of the boards of directors of Chelsea’s Temple Emmanuel and the Chelsea Collaborative. She has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and an academic passion for food. She also has a keen interest in Chelsea’s immigrant community and in bettering the world through tikkun olam.

The idea for the community garden at Temple Emmanuel came to Rovner five years ago, when she was doing field work for her doctoral thesis, “It’s Just Like Coming Home: Food, Gender and Memory in a Jewish Community,” at Temple Emmanuel. She reached out to Roseann Bongiovanni, associate executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative and director of Chelsea Green Space.

“Ellen and I started to talk several years back about making deeper connections between the established Jewish community and the newer immigrant population in Chelsea,” said Bongiovanni, who has worked at the Collaborative for 19 years. “At the same time, Aweis’ group was looking for a place in Chelsea.”

“Roseann contacted me and said, ‘Listen, we have a community of people who are coming out of refugee camps in Kenya, many of whom have spent almost a generation there. They are farmers and they need a place to gather,’” Rovner told the Journal. Hussein pulled together some interested families and Rovner contacted Sara Lee Callahan, Temple Emmanuel president. The temple board members decided to loan the families space in its side yard to grow a community garden.

According to Rovner, Marlene Demko is the person who really made the garden happen. Demko, a lifelong Chelsea resident and a member of Temple Emmanuel since she was a child, sits on its board and acted as liaison between the temple and the Collaborative.

Bongiovanni explained that the first three garden plots were built with donated labor from the NE Carpenters Union. The Union members worked with teens from the Collaborative’s Chelsea Summer Youth Employment Initiative. Teens from YouthBuild, a Cambridge organization, came in recently to expand the garden with three additional beds. They cleared overgrown brush and provided significant landscaping work as well.

Demko worked with them to create a vibrant vegetable garden in the temple’s side yard.

“It has been great to see kids from many different backgrounds in Chelsea get excited about bettering their community at the same time a group of Somali Bantu families is becoming more integrated into the community and growing some of their own food on a property owned by a synagogue,” Rovner shared. “Given what’s going on in the world today, that a group of Somali Bantu refugees can find some solace growing food on the temple’s property is fabulous.”

Demko was thrilled to offer the Journal a personal tour of Temple Emmanuel and its community garden. She proudly pointed out the many yahrzeit (remembrance) boards lining the temple’s sanctuary walls, explaining that as the number of Chelsea’s active synagogues dwindled from almost twenty to one, Temple Emmanuel wanted to be sure the Jewish community would always have a place to say kaddish. “We do tikkun olam in so many ways because we’re so grateful that we can do these things and give back,” she explained. The temple has been holding full Passover seders for over ten years for over 130 people, enabling many who might find it otherwise difficult to gather their extended families to celebrate this important holiday.

The Somali Bantu community vegetable garden has inspired Demko to plan several enhancements for congregants, including a temple peace garden and biblical herb garden on some of the rest of the yard. She also envisions a “walk of honor” with stones engraved with donors’ names. With the help of other temple volunteers, she hopes to start this project next spring.

“This will be my mitzvah,” she beams, eyes filling with tears.” I want there to be a peaceful place for the rabbi and congregants to come outside and reflect, even during a service.” The garden will have benches and five gorgeous new trees, donated by the Department of Conservation and Recreation through a grant with the city of Chelsea, the Chelsea Collaborative and the Department of Energy.

Sara Lee Callahan, of Swampscott, has served as president of Temple Emmanuel for ten years. She is proud of the part her temple plays in helping to better the world. “Temple Emmanuel was founded in 1929 and in recent years has experienced a miraculous rejuvenation. Many temple members living all over the United States maintain a connection to this area through the immigrant generations who brought them here. As Temple Emmanuel looks forward to its bright future, and in the spirit of gratitude, we want to create a living chain of tikkun olam. The Somali Bantu’s community garden reflects this concept.”

Aweis Hussein is grateful that Temple Emmanuel has given his community the space to gather and farm together, growing healthy fresh food that is not easily accessible or affordable. More than that, however, he is grateful to meet people who understand what it means to be a persecuted minority and to live in a diaspora. “Many of the temple members are older. We try to talk about our history, to share our histories. It is helping us, this new relationship. I hope it continues,” he said.

Pictured at top: Fatuma plants her garden. (Melissa Shook)