The Good Doctor: New Immigrant to Israel Sinks Her Teeth Into ATZUM Project for Survivors of Terror

Last year, Dr. Virigina Melmed, a new immigrant from Alabama, was looking for a way to use her skills as a dentist to give back to the community at large. Dr. Melmed originally came to Israel in 2010 to volunteer and provide free dental treatment to Israeli and Palestinian children whose families could not otherwise afford it.  Though she only intended to stay for a few months, she found herself feeling at home Israel and wanting to stay.

Dr. Melmed was able to gain citizenship because her deceased first husband was Jewish.  After making Aliyah she chose to go one step further and underwent the lengthy Orthodox conversion process.

“I might not practice in the way that they would have liked me to, but I do feel as though the conversion gave me a deep understanding of Judaism, and I feel comfortable navigating in a Jewish country and society,” said Dr. Melmed.

The Jewish value that Dr. Melmed holds most dear is giving of one’s self to the community and supporting others in their time of need.

“I had always volunteered in the States, and my life here didn’t feel quite right without a project that would allow me to contribute.”  

As Dr. Melmed was settling into her new Israeli life, she began searching for a project that would enable her to give back.  Soon she stumbled upon ATZUM’s Jewish Tooth Fairy Fund, a project that aims to provide dental care to survivors of terror attacks.  In Survivor of Terror families, young children who were wounded often require dental intervention as a result of their injuries; in other cases, death or injury of a parent leaves the family unable to afford even the most routine pediatric dental care.  The more Dr. Melmed learned about the project, the more she felt compelled to be a part of it.

“I knew almost right from the beginning that this was what I had been looking for.”

She immediately contacted ATZUM and set up an appointment to meet with Nachum, a 47 year-old father of three who was seriously injured in a 2003 bus bombing.  Prior to the bombing, Nachum owned and operated a vegetable shop and was able to provide for his family.  However, due to severe post-traumatic stress, Nachum is now unable to work, and his family is struggling financially.  His recovery has been a long and difficult process, and it has been significantly complicated by the fact that he is need of extensive dental care.

“He was in so much pain when I first met him,” explained Dr. Melmed. “We know from research that victims of terror are at much higher risk for dental problems. Of course, there is the traumatic injury to the mouth that could occur directly because of the attack.  But what most people don’t know is that medications for post-traumatic stress disorder and pain make people more prone to cavities and dental disease.  Moreover, stress hormones accelerate bone loss in the mouth, so people who go through extremely stressful periods are at higher risk for loosing their teeth. And survivors have many other problems to concern themselves with – their general health, work, and taking care of their family. It’s no surprise that survivors of terror are in need of some dental assistance.”

Though Dr. Melmed connected with and believed in the value of the Jewish Tooth Fairy Fund from the beginning, she met with some skepticism from others.

“People said to me, ‘Everyone goes through hard times, why should he get free care and not the next person?’ But I feel that everyone deserves a shot at a normal life, and that’s what this treatment gives to people – a shot at confidence and independence, despite all they’ve been through.”

She decided to offer her services to the Jewish Tooth Fairy Fund, and in the end even won over some of her critics.

With Nachum’s treatment almost complete, Dr. Melmed continues to look for additional ways to give back to her new community.

“I would be thrilled to continue to work the Jewish Tooth Fairy Fund and make sure that other survivors of terror have access to the care that they need and deserve.”