Rachel Bamberger Chalkovsky, affectionately known as Bambi, is a walking Jerusalem legend. The chief midwife at Shaare Zedek Hospital, she has brought over 35,000 babies into the world over the past 40 years, and is now delivering the grandchildren of her first small charges. But numbers alone are not what have made Bambi's name so familiar in Jerusalem homes.
Born in France at the beginning of World War II, Bambi and her parents were soon on the run from the Nazis. When her father was sent to his death in Auschwitz, Bambi and her pregnant mother hid in the forest. When Bambi's brother was born, her mother somehow found a hospital whose staff - at great risk to their lives - cleared a room and arranged for a secret circumcision. Bambi seems to have inherited that determination.
After the war, the family, who had lost everything, was "adopted" by an anonymous Jewish couple in America who sent them clothes, books, toys, and money. Other relief organizations provided food and shelter to the refugees, but these special gifts represented a more personal connection.
"There was an emotional aspect here that was extremely important," says Bambi. "It meant that individuals cared for us. It made us, who had lost so much, feel part of a family."
When she emigrated to Israel, Bambi came to emulate her benefactors, to always be on the lookout for quiet, personal ways to assist people in need. In her second year of nursing school, she formed a close relationship with Rebbetzin Rachel Sarne, wife of the head of the Hebron Yeshiva. A Holocaust survivor herself and afflicted with tuberculosis, the Rebbetzin, who passed away only last year, was constantly collecting and distributing food for the poor.
"She had a tremendous love of the Jewish people. Despite her illness and advanced age, she opened a shelter for all kinds of people - children, the elderly, families. She had a very special way. I regard her as one of the greatest women of our generation."
Bambi worked closely with Rebbetzin Sarne, absorbing her special approach to helping others. And when the Yom Kippur War broke out and scores of wives and mothers tragically and suddenly became widows, Bambi did what she knew she had to do.
"When there are wars, the people who are poor or orphaned are put on hold. The direct victims of the war have to take priority, and others fall through the cracks."
Her childhood wartime experiences gave Bambi the idea of matching benefactors with Israeli families in need, and she started a charitable foundation known as Matan B'Seter ("giving in a hidden way,") though it is often referred to simply as "Bambi".
The charity is staffed entirely by volunteers - rabbis, social workers, teachers - who personally track each case. A small committee oversees the effort's approximately $1,000,000 annual budget, meeting regularly in Bambi's modest kitchen. All the money raised goes directly to help the needy. Mailing and transportation costs are paid out of the volunteers' pockets.
And the funds come from both likely and unlikely places.
"People will sponsor a parlor meeting in a fancy neighborhood," Bambi explains, "and then children will come too, bringing small amounts from their savings."
One innovative girl in Manchester spent a summer creating an exhibition of butterflies and insects, and then invited the neighborhood children to come to her house and view it. She charged a small admission, and before long had raised 100 pounds sterling for the cause. And she continues to do the same each year.
The foundation's assistance is allocated to single-parent families, families in which one parent is chronically ill or unemployed, and families with special medical needs.
Now that her organization has become known, there is no shortage of referrals. But in the beginning Bambi had to rely on her experienced eye to spot families in crisis. Once she noted that a woman's postnatal hemoglobin was very low and, after investigating, discovered that the woman had been subsisting essentially on bread and margarine.
Another time, she became aware of a premature baby with a defective heart whose life was hanging in the balance in Shaare Zedek's neonatal unit. The parents, newly arrived Russian immigrants, knew virtually no one in Israel. Bambi secured a donation from a woman in Switzerland to fly the baby to America for treatment.
For Bambi, who well remembers her own immigrant days, going that extra mile is part and parcel of being a Jew, as is her observance of all the Torah's laws. She feels at home working in a hospital like Shaare Zedek, where neither staff nor patients have to compromise their dedication to Shabbat and kashrut.
"The whole atmosphere of a religious hospital is something special." She stresses. "Particularly in the maternity ward, you become keenly aware of the tremendous blessing of children. Each new cry is another link in the chain.
"Once I had a patient who had her first twelve children here and then the thirteenth happened to be born at a Tel Aviv hospital. The head of the department was not religious, and when he learned that this was the woman's 13th child, scolded her. 'What do you need with so many kids? Are you crazy?'
"The mother phoned her husband and told him to dress all the kids in their Sabbath clothes, and bring them to the hospital. When they arrived, she lined them up, all clean and smiling. Then she knocked on the department head's door, and introduced him to her children. 'Which one would you say is expendable?' she asked him."
Bambi's characteristic Jewish warmth extends to Arab babies as well, who account for about 10% of Shaare Zedek's births. "Jewish tradition views all people as having been created in the image of G-d, and every baby is entitled to the best I can give", she explains.
"These are very hard times for the Jewish people," she says, "not just here but also in many parts of the world. People aren't sure what they can do, what's the right approach. Spiritually, though, one of the things we can do is 'chesed', acts of kindness. This definitely makes a difference."