with Dr. Sydney Ohana
Singer. Model. First Lady of France.Hadassah Woman.
“I’m so happy to have kept my promise,” she said.
Bruni-Sarkozy was referring to a visit she paid to the children’s ward of the hemato-oncology department at the Hadassah hospital last June, when she was in Jerusalem as part of her husband’s state visit.
During a tour of the facilities, she told the hospital’s general director, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, that she wanted to help.
Eight months later Bruni-Sarkozy, whose chiseled features and modern elegance continue to fascinate, delivered by becoming the first French first lady to work with Hadassah, the nongovernmental organization founded by American Zionist women nearly a century ago.
Bruni-Sarkozy’s appearance came at a trying period: Israel is wrestling with the fallout from Gaza, French Jews are worried about another spike in anti-Semitism and Hadassah has eliminated dozens of jobs.
In short, it was a good time for any sort of image boost that the 41-year-old first lady could provide.
“The image she conveys can help get rid of this vilifying view of Israel,” the president of Hadassah France, Sydney Ohana, told JTA in an interview. “She weighed the importance of a small country like this and understood that the world needs them, too.”
In December, after a year of sidelining as her husband’s glamorous companion, Bruni-Sarkozy signed on as the good-will ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
It was under the new job title that Bruni-Sarkozy lent her image to Hadassah’s French branch for its 25th anniversary gala to fund the renowned medical research facility and its successful treatment of orphaned Ethiopian children with AIDS. The child mortality rate under the Ethiopian program has dropped from an annual 25 percent to 1 percent.
But her attachment to the Hadassah flagship hospital began before her Global Fund work, when Mor-Yosef said she dazzled patients and employees who “stood crowded in windows” to see her last summer.
Bruni-Sarkozy, he added, was “very touched” by the child cancer patients she met and “impressed” with the facility, which treats both Palestinians and Jewish Israeli patients.
“That’s just how we do things,” he said. “People come see what we do and they want to help.”
Hadassah’s hospital, which was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, already doubles as an ambassador for some of Israel’s humanitarian efforts, but Bruni-Sarkozy’s support was especially timely.
As the global financial crisis and the Madoff scandal gnaw at the organization’s private finances, forcing staffers to take pay cuts that won’t be restored for several years, some overseas groups also have accused Israel of committing war crimes during its winter Gaza offensive.
“In today’s press, Israel has one dimension,” Mor-Yosef said. “But this is another dimension of activities we are doing either in Israel” — to build “some sort of bridges to peace.”
The hospital hires Palestinian and Jewish Israelis, and treats anyone seeking care, though the Palestinian Authority recently barred their citizens from using Israeli hospitals — a “political” decision, according to Mor-Yosef, that he hopes will be reversed soon.
Ohana adds that in addition to Bruni-Sarkozy’s fresh face alongside Hadassah’s pro-Israel brand, when it comes to activism, the towering Italian-born beauty “does not just show up at gala dinners.” Her husband did just that, making a surprise appearance before heading off to Mexico after a quick bite.
“She knows the subject [of AIDS] really well,” Ohana said of the first lady, who lost a brother to the disease.
He cited her lengthy, technical discussions with researchers and doctors.
Through her contact with scientists and her Global Fund network, Ohana said Bruni-Sarkozy “can help make sure that Israelis and their researchers are not marginalized and that science has no borders.”
“Other first ladies have come” to the hospital, Mor-Yosef said. “But she’s different because she’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s not the typical first lady and that’s clear to everybody.”
Mor-Yosef stressed that Bruni-Sarkozy’s Hadassah participation was discussed before the financial crisis and the news that the $90 million that it had invested with Bernard Madoff was a mirage. Nevertheless, it was an especially good time for her to help raise more than $380,000 for the organization.
“The mood is very difficult from a financial point of view, but otherwise the hospital continues to be at the cutting edge of technology,” he added.
Most donations to the hospital come from the United States, but since Americans are feeling the pinch of a recession, Mor-Yosef said it is now “more important” to also seek funds elsewhere, in countries such as France and Germany. The medical organization currently raises 10 percent to 20 percent of its money from countries outside the United States and Israel.
Ohana told the JTA he is “persuaded” that Bruni-Sarkozy “will continue to closely follow Hadassah’s work, and will continue to help” in the future.
“That is what she promised me,” he said.