For this Jewish couple, saving children’s lives has become a life commitment


When Ari Johnson and Jessica Beckerman moved to Mali in 2007 – he as a Harvard medical student taking a year off from his studies, she as a Fulbright scholar studying health care — 15% of all babies born in the West African nation were dying before age 5.

As the two American Jews learned more about the situation, they decided to try and help. Together with a group of Malian health professionals, they started a nonprofit to deliver door-to-door, rapid healthcare at no cost to the residents of Yirimadio, a neighborhood of Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

The organization, called Muso, which later expanded to other parts of Mali and neighboring Ivory Coast, was so successful that within a decade Yirimadio’s child mortality rate had dropped to 0.7% – the lowest anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa and on par with the U.S. mortality rate.

Even as parts of Mali were taken over by violent insurgents and war broke out in the country, the rate of child death remained low compared to the rest of the region.

“Today, one in six children globally live in or near an active conflict zone, and children are bearing the brunt of war,” Johnson said. “Yet what we have been learning with our partners in Mali is that the lethal consequences of war on children are not inevitable. We have the power to build systems of care that can reverse some of war’s most devastating impacts.”

Johnson, 41, and Beckerman, 39, are now married and live in Berkeley, California, with their 3-year-old son. Both are doctors, and they’ve turned Muso into a dynamic nonprofit organization that partners with governments in Mali and the Ivory Coast to increase access to healthcare in communities that face extreme poverty.

Beckerman is Muso’s chief medical officer, and Johnson is its CEO as well as an associate professor at the University of California-San Francisco’s Institute for Global Health Services.

The key to Muso’s success, however, isn’t this extraordinary couple. It’s the 1,100 or so people – some 80% of them women – who lead Muso’s work across 35 sites in Mali and the Ivory Coast.

The organization’s model is based on three pillars: providing care at patients’ homes, rapid-access clinics and zero fees. Community health workers actively search for patients through door-to-door home visits, rapidly diagnosing and treating malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and other common illnesses on the spot. They also provide Covid-19 screening, pregnancy testing and family planning services.

Patients who need more complex care are evacuated by off-road ambulances to receive care from nurses, physicians and midwives at rapid-access primary care clinics. Everyone receives care free of charge.

Beckerman and Johnson met at a Hillel Shabbat dinner while at Brown University, and when they decided to go to Mali the idea was to learn about the structural barriers preventing healthcare access.

“We knew that nearly all the deaths we see in places like Mali are preventable with simple tools that we’ve had for decades, like antibiotics,” Beckerman said. “For example, we can diagnose and treat malaria if it’s caught early, within three days, at home.”

The problem was that many healthcare systems typically exclude those who can’t afford treatment. Patients, particularly children, often receive care too late or not at all.

When the couple teamed up in 2008 with Malian colleagues, including a retired nurse living in Yirimadio, Nana Niaré, their help had an immediate impact.

“People would come to her house out of desperation because they didn’t have other options, but we had cellphones and cash to get people in a taxi to an emergency room in Bamako,” Beckerman said. “Our role was to accompany neighbors to help them get care.”

In one case, a 4-year-old girl who had just been bitten by a rabid dog was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night and survived. But other patients with treatable maladies were less fortunate. One mother in her 20s died from an infected abscess in her mouth because she didn’t receive antibiotics, which would have cost just $5, in time.

“Again and again, we were going to funerals of neighbors for diseases that in the U.S. you’d never see a death from,” Beckerman recalled.

Muso receives funding from an array of philanthropies, government organizations and corporations, including pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Since its formal establishment in 2008, the charity has provided 16.4 million home visits and 1.6 million clinic visits, even in the midst of Mali’s war.

Last November, Muso announced the conclusion of a three-year study that followed more than 135,000 people across 137 rural sites in Mali’s Bankass region, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Despite the destruction of entire villages and the displacement of communities due to war, the study found that the rate of child mortality declined over the period to 55 deaths per 1,000 from 148 a drop of 63%.

“Things should have gotten much worse for children but the opposite happened,” Johnson said. “No other community has ever achieved this in an active conflict zone.”

He credited Muso’s training and deployment of health workers in villages to provide free diagnostics and medical care, and evacuation of the sickest patients to better-equipped clinics.

“Muso was founded by Malians and Americans. We are a secular organization with no religious affiliation, including people from many backgrounds. Muso’s group of co-founders – religious Muslims, Jews and Christians – share a common commitment to the immeasurable value of every human life and a common concern for inequities in healthcare,” Johnson said. “That’s what brought us together.”

In 2021, Johnson and Beckerman jointly won The Charles Bronfman Prize for their work. The $100,000 annual award, which is marking its 20th year, recognizes a Jewish humanitarian under age 50 whose work is grounded in Jewish values and is of universal benefit to all people.

Johnson said the prize “elevates global service as a holy Jewish act” that spurs further action.

“For Jessica and me, this work is at the core of our own Jewish practice,” he said. “We understand that pikuach nefesh – the imperative of saving a life – is required of each of us. Every year, 5 million children are dying globally, mainly of diseases we’ve known how to cure for decades. We have the tools. What we don’t have is the option to wait.”

This story was sponsored by and produced in partnership with The Charles Bronfman Prize, an annual prize presented to a humanitarian whose innovative work fueled by their Jewish values has significantly improved the world. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.