Doctor makes aliyah ends up in Israel's 'medical wilderness'

As the only Western-trained family doctor in town, Alan Levine – though he had previously sought a challenge – found his environment akin to “a medical wilderness.”

 Alan and Micaela Levine (photo credit: Courtesy Levine family)
Alan and Micaela Levine
(photo credit: Courtesy Levine family)

Though Dr. Alan Levine had already become a senior partner in the best medical practice in London at age 26, he felt dissatisfied. A native of Leeds, he had qualified at age 24 as a family doctor and internist, married his girlfriend and fathered two children in suburban Muswell Hill. He then worked in the practice for four years. So why the frustration?

“The senior partners all retired shortly after I was hired. I felt I had done nothing to earn this title, and needed a challenge in life,” he explains. Perhaps he had climbed the ladder too fast.

Because he and his wife, Micaela, had visited Israel after high school and were committed Zionists, Levine chose to set out for Israel on his own, driving part of the way. He stayed with a friend in Tel Aviv, then contacted the health funds to seek employment.

“They weren’t particularly helpful,” he comments. “However, I was offered a job in the emergency room at Kaplan Hospital, Rehovot, and then had to decide where to live.” 

“I was offered a job in the emergency room at Kaplan Hospital, Rehovot, and then had to decide where to live.”

Dr. Alan Levine

When he visited Ashkelon as someone suggested, it seemed like just an ordinary town to him. Despondent, Levine began to return northward, picking up a hitchhiking soldier en route. The soldier was headed for Ashdod.

 THE LEVINE family. (credit: Courtesy Levine family) THE LEVINE family. (credit: Courtesy Levine family)

“Have you ever been there?” he asked Levine. “It’s worth a visit.”

The driver perked up his ears and gave it a try.

After dropping off his passenger, Levine looked around.

“It was a beautiful May day with a sea breeze,” he relates. “It was green. There was a big park going down to the sea – Elisheva Park. I was near the main commercial center, so I went into Peltours travel agency and asked who spoke English.”

A South African woman and her husband responded. It so happened that the latter not only spoke excellent English but worked part-time as the director of Meuhedet (then Amamit) health fund. The minute he heard that Levine was a family doctor, he grabbed his shoulder and announced, “You are going to be the children’s doctor!” The concept of family doctor had not yet arrived in Israel, explain the Levines.

“But where am I going to live?” Levine asked, after the shock of this spontaneous proposal wore off.

The man promptly took him to a nearby real estate agent, who showed him a newly built cottage in Shikun Rassco next door to his own.

“Within half an hour I had gotten a job and bought a house,” Levine comments.

His next task was to call home to announce this news. He told Micaela, “Pack up, sell up and come! We’re going to live in Ashdod.”

She did just that, without delay, shepherding along their two- and three-year-old sons. After all, she was raised in London’s Grodzinski family, where discipline meant assisting in the family bakery (established in 1888 in London’s East End), whether slicing its popular rye bread every Sunday, or sorting and packaging cinnamon balls, cookies and cakes at the main branch before Passover.

Continuing to work

DR. LEVINE continued at the Kaplan ER for another nine months, where he rapidly picked up the requisite Hebrew terminology. After 5 p.m. he saw patients at Meuhedet’s clinic.

Micaela describes the dramatic impact of their arrival. “A rumor went round like wildfire about a new doctor from England who actually examines you and doesn’t give you antibiotics immediately.”

Nine months later, when her mother arrived for a visit, she looked through their window at the vista of sand dunes and exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, it looks just as if Lawrence of Arabia is about to come round the corner on his camel!”

As the only Western-trained family doctor in town, Levine – though he had previously sought a challenge – found his environment akin to “a medical wilderness.”

“I had no colleagues to talk to and exchange ideas with,” he says. “I did have to rely on my own initiative. Later, expert help was available by phone, although we only got a phone after two years!”

The nearest hospitals were Kaplan in Rehovot and Barzilai in Ashkelon – “‘just’ a 25-minute ambulance ride to either hospital for anything really urgent. The hospital problem was solved only in 2017 when Assuta Ashdod opened. I delivered two babies at home, one at 24 weeks that didn’t survive, but the other was fine and subsequently became the goalie of Ashdod football club.” 

After four years, in 1979, he was conscripted for 18 months of medical service in the navy at Ashdod Port.

Though he was concerned about supporting his family during this period, a patient connected him with his brother, foreign minister Yigal Alon.

“I went to the airport to meet him,” Levine says. “After Alon’s intervention, I could work at the clinic after hours.”

He then did a few weeks of reserve duty each year until age 55.

“Most people were immigrants,” Micaela remarks of 1960s and 1970s in Ashdod. “We had friendly neighbors, a lovely synagogue called Beit Tzur, and a variety of friends.”

Their children, four boys and a girl, went to kindergarten nearby. The older two commuted to Kibbutz Yavne until a suitable school later opened in Ashdod. All attended residential high schools. 

When Micaela’s youngest was nine, the school had no English teacher, so the principal told her: “You’d better come teach here, if you want him to learn English!” Having taught kindergarten and first grade in London, she graciously complied.

After eight years of teaching, she assisted her husband in his large practice.

In 1975 during a long doctors’ strike, Levine moved his clinic to one adjoining his home. He worked for Meuhedet until age 79, when he received a courteous letter thanking him for his service and explaining that they did not employ doctors after age 72.

In 2007 the Levines moved to Jerusalem, where Dr. Levine works with Jerusalem social services once or twice weekly, assessing disability cases.

Reviewing more than four decades in Ashdod, he comments on the close relationships he formed with patients. “I have no regrets about my life there. Jerusalem for me was a place to retire. Today’s family doctors have different challenges and much more bureaucracy but are less involved in the actual dynamics of the family.”

He concludes by saying that, along with their community involvement, “it was our own burgeoning family that was our real occupation and our pride and joy. They received a wonderful all-round education and all have succeeded in their various careers as family doctors (two), one hi-tech engineer, one accountant and one headmistress of a prestigious boarding school for girls.”■

Alan, 85, and Micaela Levine, 84 From London to Ashdod, 1965