In the world of hi-tech start-ups, especially biotech, “proof of concept” is crucial. It means showing that an idea (device, or drug) does what it claims to do.
My new friend Yehuda Sabiner is a Gur Hasid, in the final year of medical studies at the Technion. In a few months, he will be Yehuda Sabiner, MD. Gur (or Ger) Hasidim are the largest Hasidic group in Israel, and originated in Góra Kalwaria, Poland.
Sabiner is proof of concept that Haredim can become doctors, or for that matter, economists, scientists, engineers, or anything. With the ultra-Orthodox now comprising 11% of Israel’s population, and are ultimately projected to rise to one-third within two generations, it is vital we integrate them into productive employment.
Despite his crammed schedule – in addition to his studies, he works as a physician’s assistant in the emergency medicine department of Ichilov (formally known as the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center) – Sabiner took time to answer a series of questions. Here, in his own words, is the tale of his journey:
“I am beginning my final year of medical studies at Technion. I am certainly proud of the divine gift given to me, to reach the end of this long, difficult journey, with many challenges, lots of ups and downs and high uncertainty.
“As a child, young yeshiva student and as a Gur Hasid, I’ve evolved into a successful medical student about to become a medical doctor, one who has retained his Hasidic identity as a family man, father of three, with strong involvement in my Haredi community in health matters and matters related to higher education.
“I recently facilitated a conference on Haredim in Medicine, sponsored in part by Yedidut Toronto (Jerusalem). Prof. Karl Skorecki, head of Technion’s Rapaport Institute, Faculty of Medicine, and head of R&D at Rambam Medical Center, spoke at the conference. Prof. Skorecki was recently appointed Dean of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Medicine. His fascinating presentation focused on Jewish aspects of medical breakthroughs in genetics.
“Following his talk, I gave a detailed lecture about medical studies in Israel and about the role and journey of the doctor and the value added of medical doctors from the Haredi sector.
“When I was growing up, from about the age of three, every boy dreamed about what he wanted to be when he grows up. Some imagined becoming soldiers and policemen, some wanted to be firemen and contractors. It does not matter that these dreams of small boys are of little consequence, because their concept of the world is still not well formed and they do not yet have the right perspective about the importance of various aspects of life.
“I grew up in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem and when ill, I visited the very special children’s clinic run by Dr. Jacob Schapiro, a graduate of Yeshiva University, and Dr. David Matar (a Harvard graduate). These two distinguished pediatricians, with extraordinary compassion and rare professional abilities, had an excellent research lab, as well as their clinic. For me, from a very young age, they were an inspiration as role models to emulate.
“Except for them, I had no connection with any doctors; in fact, I was the first in my family to gain higher education for generations and perhaps for all time. Only lately did I hear about a distant cousin who recounted that my great-great-grandmother in Poland wanted to study medicine in Vienna, but family matters did not make it possible.
“In the first meeting with my future wife, Rachel (first of two “dates” in the shidduch or matchmaking process), I said I cannot promise to remain in yeshiva all my life, and if not, I will look into other options. I assume that all the information my future wife gathered about me during the early phase of the shidduch ”investigations” – that I was a serious Torah student in a well known yeshiva, known for producing future rabbinical leaders – dulled the warning lights that should have been lit when I made this statement. To make a long story short, nine months after our wedding, I brought up the subject of becoming a doctor. In any event, for many couples in the Haredi society to which I belong, this revelation could have been a sufficient trigger for breaking up the marriage, especially at such an early stage. And to judge by the intensity of the tears and distress I caused, I think we were not far from it.
“To my good fortune, after the ‘Big Bang’ my dear wife approached me and said that she was impressed by my sincerity and purity of intentions and that she knew I would not relent, unless I achieved them. So, she gave her consent to my medical studies, subject to the approval of an important adviser respected by both of us.
“The hardest part of my studies was the mechina [preparatory course], and especially, language studies and math. While for physics, every law was explained in depth, in math, because time was so short, we were bombarded with a multitude of rules without real explanations, and as a former yeshiva student who was accustomed to spending hours debating the logic of laws, this was very hard for me to digest…but in the end, I succeeded in this, too. Half of the mechina participants dropped out.
“I was in the first such mechina class at the Technion for Haredim, so there was very little past experience for the Technion to draw on about how to realize their students’ full potential. Many dropped out, after seeing their grades in the first trimester’s exam, the first of three such exams – and they panicked. I don’t know what has become of those who dropped out but I am certain some of them could have completed the mechina successfully if they had continued and invested their full effort in it.
“The toughest part of my studies was, as I mentioned, the mechina and catching up on math. At the end of a long day of studies, stretching into the wee hours of the morning, my wife would sit with me and help me to understand my homework.
Parenthetically, Haredi women finish high school with the equivalent of at least three credits of math, English, history and other subjects.
“At this stage of my studies, while my wife was in the middle of her own intense studies as a practical architectural engineer and interior designer, we became parents of a baby girl. Nonetheless, she was extremely dedicated to actively helping me as I caught up on very basic studies, which were very challenging for me.
“So far, in all my medical studies, in various departments and specialties, I was most fascinated by internal medicine; it ideally combines the anamneses [intake] and diagnosis, a holistic view of the patient and synergy among the various organs of the body. (Note: Every internal medicine department in Israel is severely understaffed.)
“I think one needs to know how to continually learn, and not to try to escape to some super-specific sub-specialty where you lose the unfathomable beauty and major challenge of sleuthing until you find the right diagnosis and help with a cure or relieve the patient’s symptoms.
“I hope internal medicine will be reorganized and that specialties in Integrative Medicine will be created to train ‘case managers’ for multidisciplinary ailments throughout the hospital. In other words, create a different discipline instead of one that at present is unattractive.
“We indeed live in a time of major change in the Haredi community. It’s hard to predict, but we see more and more mainstreamed Haredi men and women, slowly but surely integrating in many quality occupations, as a result of some individual initiatives. It is noteworthy to mention the contribution from two organizations that catapulted the Haredi academics several light years ahead: Keren Kemach (Kemach Foundation) and Yedidut Toronto.
“A few years ago, I myself established an organization called Haredim in Medicine, which aims at increasing awareness and assistance in integrating Haredi men and women in medical studies in Israel. Today, we can safely say that the numbers are growing and the trend is upward. Slowly, I am broadening the organization’s horizons to foster research excellence among future Haredi doctors, to create interfaces and to help solve medical, cultural, and halachic problems of Haredim, through research and awareness.
“There is much more work to be done in this area, but I am certain that with G-d’s help, we will see a better world, where the best of our Haredi boys and girls will join the vanguard of science, economics and medicine, in Israel.
“Eight years of intense study poses extraordinary economic challenges to a family of five. Our immediate family helps with preparing food and looking after the children.
“The State of Israel as a nation cannot forego the professional cooperation of 11% of its population (Haredim). It is natural that in such a large population, splendid medical clinicians, great inventors and developers of medicines, successful managers, etc. can emerge.
“The Haredi community, with its halachic and cultural complexity, has developed over time unique medical challenges that demand treatment and solutions. Sometimes increased awareness is needed, and other times, solutions and compromises. But it is clear, all of this will be done far better and more efficiently when there are those closely connected with the two interfaces, medicine and Haredim, through community medicine.”
FOR EXAMPLE, Sabiner provided me with data showing that only half of Haredi women over 40 receive regular mammograms for early detection of breast cancer, compared with 80% of non-Haredi women.
According to Nitza Kasir and Dimitry Romanov, of the Haredi Institute for Leadership Research, Haredim will comprise almost a third of Israel’s population by the year 2065. And unlike other forecasts, demographic projections tend to be accurate. The inexorable conclusion is that Israel cannot afford to neglect Haredi minds – those who do not find their calling in yeshiva, but seek secular education.
My S. Neaman Institute colleague Dr. Reuven Gal, formerly an IDF chief psychologist, heads a successful program, “Shiluv Haredim,” which integrates Haredim into society and the work force. In his recent study, Gal observed that some 30% of Haredim said they would be “happy to see, to a greater extent, Haredim studying in higher education” and a quarter of Haredim are not opposed to “core studies” (math and English) in Haredi schools.
For those who say this is still a minority of Haredim, Gal responds that “only 15 years ago those responding positively to similar questions were one in ten, or even less.” Change indeed is underway among the ultra-Orthodox.
Dr. Gal told me, “I met Yehuda in the summer of 2012, toward the end of his first year of studies. He was at that time the first Haredi student aiming at graduating from medical school in Israel. I must admit – I was not 100% sure he would succeed in reaching this goal. But he was. The list of the obstacles and difficulties he had to overcome, just to reach that point, and those he had yet to face was endless. But he was, in his shy and quiet way, so confident!”
“At that meeting – with several other Haredi students at the Technion – Yehuda made a statement. ‘We shall become a model for many Haredi youth. We are going to speak about the Technion in our synagogues, we’ll tell the others at the Kollel (yeshiva for adults) that by earning an academic degree they will gain a reputable entry-ticket to quality jobs and thus will be able to make a living to support their families – and at the same time, not to forsake their faith and way of life.’
“I salute Yehuda,” Dr. Gal said, “for his persistence, his devotion, his faith. He is a Nachshon, a spearhead in front of a huge camp of Haredim who yearn to walk the same road but are frightened. Men like Yehuda give them the courage and the example that they can do it as well.”
In an article about Sabiner in the British daily The Guardian, Technion Vice President Boaz Golany noted how Haredim in the Technion mechina studied long hours, from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. “It was like a boot camp,” he said, “but they brought from the yeshivas an ability to study hard, to focus, to apply logic; so we built on these skills.”
It all began with a program called Halamish, in 2007, and gradually grew, with financial support. Backed by Iscar CEO and philanthropist Eitan Wertheimer, Halamish supported pioneering Haredi students seeking to learn a profession.
Today, after 18 months of mechina studies, Haredim who never studied science and English and have only learned rudimentary mathematics are brought up to speed and the majority are accepted to the Technion. Graduates now work as engineers in hi-tech companies and some are pursuing advanced degrees.
I have spent the past 40 years at the Technion and have admired, studied and recounted the amazing hi-tech contributions of its graduates and faculty members, to Israel and the world. But there is a special place in my heart for those bold Technion leaders and instructors who undertook the impossible – taking in ultra-Orthodox men who know no math, English, physics or chemistry, and in 18 months bringing them up to speed sufficiently to enter the Technion. And, of course, it is these bold, pioneering Haredim themselves who aspire to college degrees, who deserve the warmest embrace.
Impossible? For example, I once wrote about A., who graduated from Technion as a civil engineer. In his first mechina class, he raised his hand and asked the instructor, what is that cross you wrote on the board? It was an “x” and the teacher was explaining algebra. A. had no idea. Many years ago, the historically black (African-American) colleges in the US raised funds with a powerful slogan: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” This applies to the growing ultra-Orthodox community. These sharp minds honed on Talmud studies are a priceless resource.
Lately, Yehuda told me about his second day at a family medicine clinic in Bnei Brak, a mostly Haredi city, the start of a month-long assignment. He was hesitant to be assigned to Bnei Brak, not knowing how the people would react. After all, patients tell doctors their most intimate secrets and issues – and he, Yehuda, is a member of their community – perhaps even someone they meet on the street. But, he said, after their initial surprise at seeing a Haredi physician, patients’ reactions were highly positive and fully cooperative.
Yehuda Sabiner, Gur Hasid, soon-to-be MD, is a precious proof of concept. And many others will follow in his path.
The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com
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