Coming home to heal

Nefesh B'Nefesh is helping many Anglo physicians make aliya.

levin 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
levin 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Is a grant of up to $60,000 over two years enough to lure Jewish physicians from North America and the UK to Israel? Almost 90 doctors have come in less than six years through Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN), the voluntary organization that promotes aliya from these countries - even without such a grant. Now NBN hopes to help even more settle in Israel with their families and alleviate any future shortage of physicians. But they aren't coming for the money; they are interested in being Israelis, and the money will help them come earlier than planned and make it easier to settle down before finding permanent employment. After over 10,000 physicians from the former Soviet Union moved here in the 1980s and 90s, Israel had one of the world's highest rates of physicians per capita. But many are now retiring, along with immigrants from other countries and native-born Israeli physicians. As the country's four medical schools produce only about 400 graduates a year - it takes seven years to get a medical license, and almost twice as long to become a specialist - there is no time to lose. Either more Israelis must be trained, or existing physicians with high-level training and experience must be brought here - or, preferably, both. DANIELLA SLASKY, NBN's director of employment and head of the organization's new Physician Aliya Fellowship, says the Legacy Heritage Fund approached NBN about the idea of encouraging doctors to make aliya. The Manhattan-based Jewish foundation, which hopes to promote young Jewish leadership here and abroad by encouraging scientific careers among teenagers and supporting Jewish educational change through innovative synagogue programs, has committed itself to funding the project for at least two years. Previously, NBN encouraged aliya of American physicians who wanted to memorialize Dr. David Applebaum, the emergency medicine specialist who was murdered with his daughter Naava on the eve of her wedding in a suicide bombing in a Jerusalem café over four years ago. "Starting now, when doctors under 45 arrive in Israel as immigrants from North America and Canada, they are entitled to a grant of up to $25,000 if they can prove need. They must fill out a financial affidavit that is signed by an accountant and notarized," says Slasky. "When they start working, those in a hospital position will receive an income supplement of $1,500 a month for two years, while those working in the community will receive $1,000." The grant recipients must commit themselves to working as doctors in Israel for at least nine months a year (as some commute between Israel and their former home). "We are hoping to increase the number of physicians we bring this first year by 10. The program may be renewed by the Legacy Heritage Fund if it is successful. It might also be expanded to nurses, dentists, psychologists, physiotherapists and other medical professionals. Slasky notes that young Jewish physicians are the target audience, as many of them have student loans of tens of thousands of dollars, or as much as $200,000, to pay off. This is more difficult to do in Israel, where doctors earn significantly lower salaries than in the US. Computer programmers, notes Slasky, can start immediately, but doctors cannot. "It takes more than eight weeks to get an Israeli medical license, and then those who are not board-certified or experienced enough must work 'under observation' in a hospital here for months. Those who don't know Hebrew well enough usually go to a medical ulpan provided by the Absorption Ministry." NBN, which says that of the 88 doctors it has brought here only two have gone back, has tried to reach potential candidates through e-mail and Jewish newspapers. "For the most part, while some of the arrivals are struggling, the immigrant doctors are happy," says Slasky, who came on aliya from New Jersey after working in hi-tech. The Health Ministry welcomed the initiative, says its associate director-general Dr. Boaz Lev. He went to the US for an NBN seminar last November - before the Legacy Heritage Fund announced its offer - to speak to would-be immigrant doctors about the technical demands for licensing. "The grantees are not coming to get the $60,000," explains Lev. "It will help in their absorption." Although the doctor drought is due to hit Israel around 2016, there are already shortages in specialties such as anesthesiology, pathology, internal medicine, family medicine and pediatrics. There is also a need for good doctors in the periphery. ASKED FOR his view of the NBN program, Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Yoram Blachar was doubtful. "I don't know how many doctors will come from these countries because of $60,000. There are Israelis in top fields in the US whose salaries start at $250,000! We should really be thinking about how to keep Israeli doctors and researchers from leaving." Blachar also thought it was unfair to "discriminate" against middle-aged doctors and those from countries other than North America and UK. He also maintained that the Treasury has limited the number of jobs in public hospitals, "so there aren't many positions available." But Lev said this is "nonsense," as "we've absorbed 10,000 doctors. Can we not absorb another 200? There are jobs available. And NBN has a perfect right to bring doctors from only a few countries, where it operates, and to set age limits. A 60-year-old Israeli physician also has no chance of getting certain research grants. It is not discrimination; younger doctors are the ones who need the financial help." The ministry, Lev adds, will "welcome them and do all we can to help." DR. GUY MAYER, who came on aliya four-and-a-half years ago from New York at the height of the second intifada, is not only a happy doctor - he and his wife and six children are so ecstatic that they pry themselves away from Israel only to attend family bar mitzvas and other events. He even speaks excellent Hebrew with a native-born Israeli accent. "I worked on it for years," says Mayer, who dreamed of making aliya since he was a teenager. Mayer, whose wife is a physical therapist and who had two sabra children after their aliya, works half time for Maccabi Health Services in Modi'in where they live. The rest of the time he is a civilian doctor working for the Israel Defense Forces, treating soldiers in elite units. A graduate of Yeshiva University and its Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Mayer worked in private group practice in Brooklyn for six years, specializing in internal medicine. With their oldest child already eight years old, Mayer and his wife decided it was time to make aliya before the move became too difficult for the kids. They came on the first NBN flight. "I got my Israeli medical license in a month, and it took six months for the IMA's Scientific Council to decide if I had to go under observation in a hospital." Although he was board certified, he had to work in a hospital for a year; his wife passed her difficult physical therapist's licensing exam - in Hebrew - and quickly found work. Yeshiva University has a loan repayment program in which it repays $2,000 a year instead of the student if they make aliya; this gift helped him pay back some of the $90,000 debt he had accumulated. "The new NBN fellowships provide a big incentive for those doctors who have to hold back on their aliya plans when they have major student loans and need financial help during the initial period when they can't work. When American doctors decide to be Israelis, they know their salaries will be significantly lower, but money is not the main motivation. Coming on aliya is. It was hard to tell friends we were going at the time of the terror attacks, but since we arrived, we have had not one moment of regret." After finishing his hospital obligations, he quickly found his two half-time jobs. "It was like a dream come true to be in the army," Mayer says with delight. "These are high-quality soldiers. I enjoy the opportunity to serve my country, as I wasn't young enough to serve in the IDF and came with four kids." As an internal medicine specialist, he treats soldiers with anything from pneumonia to back pain. "I earn much less than I would in the US, but we still make ends meet. Jewish education is much cheaper here. We own a triplex in Modi'in, and have relatives all over the country. It was hard in the beginning when I didn't work for a salary, but I received an NBN grant." He strongly encourages other idealistic doctors to follow in his footsteps, especially with the NBN fellowship program if they need financial aid. The Israeli and US medical systems are quite different, "but the human body is the same. It took me three months in the hospital to feel comfortable and get to know the system and the different names for medications. It was great to see the whole system computerized. I love treating fellow Israelis," enthuses Mayer. Unlike some other immigrant doctors, he prefers not to shuttle to the US part time to make money: "I'm having too much fun here!" Dr. Moshe (Mark) Levin, chief of the hematology department at Hadassah University Medical Center on Jerusalem's Mount Scopus, also is very pleased with his decision to come in 2002 with his wife (a nurse; their children are grown). Raised in New Jersey and a graduate of Yeshiva University and New York University Medical School, Levin was chief of hematology and oncology at New York's Metropolitan Hospital-New York Medical College. "We had wanted to make aliya for a long time, and even came in 1986 with four kids, but making a living and the bureaucracy were too difficult so we went back." But then a tragedy occurred that changed their plans. In the winter of 2001, two senior Israeli hematologists - Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School dean Prof. Ya'acov Matzner and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center's Prof. Amiram Eldor - were killed (along with a Tel Aviv municipal official) in a light-plane crash in a snowy Swiss forest. Prof. Dina Ben-Yehuda, chairman of hematology at Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, suggested that he apply for a job at Mt. Scopus. He did and was hired. Soon after the Levins' aliya, he went to Ulpan Etzion to improve his Hebrew. It took him a while to learn the ropes - the bureaucracy, where to refer patients and how to deal with the health funds. "I haven't had any problems with the staff, who were impressed that we came during the intifada. They welcomed us warmly and management was very helpful. We haven't had any disappointments; we laugh at any problems, but I still don't feel that I'm 100 percent Israeli. We weren't running away from anything." Medical services and hematology here, he notes, are at a very high level. "In the US, doctors are always looking over their shoulders for who will sue them next. That hasn't happened here yet." Levin finds that, as a hematologist treating many blood-cancer patients, "it's harder than in the US, where you generally keep a distance. Here, I have developed a closer connection to patients, and when I lose one, it's very hard." Welcome to little Israel.