Healing the South: A road less traveled for new immigrants to Israel

NegevWorks attracts health professionals and other highly skilled olim to Beersheba.

Medical staff walk on the campus of Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Medical staff walk on the campus of Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Michael Star, a stroke neurologist from Cincinnati, is looking forward to moving to Beersheba with his family in September – and the Negev is thirsty for health professionals just like him.
Star will make aliya with his wife, Ariel, and two sons, Yossi, four, and Amichai, 16 months, to Beersheba on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, in cooperation with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, KKL and JNF-USA, in September within the framework of the NegevWorks program.
NegevWorks, a pilot program supported by JNF-UK, was developed by Nefesh B’Nefesh in partnership with Gvahim, an NGO that helps highly-skilled immigrants find employment. The program offers pre-aliya job placements to 15 new immigrants from North America and France in the fields of medicine, hitech, R&D, education and academia.
“We were drawn towards a certain Zionist ‘manifest destiny’ to make aliya on roads less traveled, to communities in either the North or the South of Israel,” Star told the Magazine. “So I applied to jobs all over Israel, and what I found in Beersheba, aside from a wonderful job opportunity at Soroka hospital, is a rapidly modernizing city with a large research university and relatively affordable housing.”
Star, 32, originally from Indianapolis, has just finished his fellowship in stroke neurology at the University of Cincinnati after doing his residency at the Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine in Chicago. Ariel, 28, who hails from Pittsburgh, teaches English at the University of Cincinnati and hopes to continue her career teaching at the university level in Beersheba. The couple met in Israel in 2009 and decided to make aliya after completing their graduate degrees and training in the US.
“We believe that Israel is the best place to raise our children, to allow them to develop into people with a strong sense of community, Jewish peoplehood, and commitment to something bigger than themselves,” said Star.
The family has already found a home to rent, and the two boys are already signed up for kindergarten. Star himself will be working as a stroke neurologist in the Soroka Medical Center Department of Neurology as well as lecturing on neurology in the American program at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Medical School.
“It would not have been possible without the help of NegevWorks, which is a new project for olim to the South who have jobs arranged prior to aliya. This not only helps with placing children in kindergartens, but also with providing special webinars, setting us up with real-estate agents to help find a place to rent, and a personalized ulpan program that is flexible around my work schedule,” he said.
ELISSA FREEDMAN, a family physician from West Hartford who is making aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh on August 16, also plans to live in Beersheba with her husband and three boys, aged 11 months, four and five, and work in the health field.
Asked what attracted her family to the South, she said: “It is a rapidly growing community and I am thrilled to support the growth of the Negev. In Beersheba, you truly feel you are seeing Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom.
We have also benefited from extra personal support as we have planned our aliya through Go South and the new NegevWorks program.”
Freedman studied at Ben-Gurion University in 2003, and “developed a warm and supportive group of Anglo and Israeli mentors and families that I am eager to return to,” she said.
“There are many exciting things I am considering professionally. There are many diverse communities – religiously, socioeconomically, and immigrants in Beersheba, which draw on my unique international health background. There is a large Bedouin community and I find meaning in helping build bridges between communities. In recent years, I have developed an interest in children and adults with disabilities. I hope to contribute to developing resources for the ‘differently abled’ in the Negev.”
Ravit Greenberg, director of the Go South and NegevWorks programs, said that research had identified medicine as a field in which
olim could greatly contribute in the Negev. According to a recent study by the Israel Medical Association, there are 4.6 doctors per 1,000 people in the Tel Aviv area, whereas in the South the figure is only 2.3.
Soroka University Medical Center and the health funds in the South are seeking physicians in particular fields, and they are not finding appropriate recruits within Israel.
“With our partners we created a soft-landing program that meets the employment needs of olim coming to the Negev, and the needs of the Negev,” added Lisa Rahmani, director of European Aliya Programs at Gvahim.
“In addition to the serious shortage of physicians and healthcare professionals, and as a result of the building of the Cyber Security industry in Beersheba, there is also a need for hi-tech and software engineers, as well as R&D professionals in chemistry, alternative energy, and desert agriculture.”
NEGEVWORKS OFFERS participants and their families a comprehensive aliya package that covers employment placement, housing, Hebrew lessons and a social framework. From 2013 until the end of 2016, Greenberg estimated that some 1,500 immigrants from the US and Canada will have moved to southern Israel through NegevWorks and other Go South programs, amongst them approximately 20 medical and paramedical professionals. Nefesh B’Nefesh has brought 530 doctors and psychologists to Israel over its 14 years.
According to Greenberg, “The olim are so satisfied with their quality of life, with the pace of the life, with the fact that they can afford a spacious space, and being where they can be impactful within their communities. When people make aliya and feel like they’re giving to Israel, and not just taking from Israel, they find meaning in their lives and meaning in their aliya.”
Zvi Pardes, 32, from Calgary, Canada, and his wife, Gahl, 28, who moved to the US as a child from Israel, met online, fell in love, married, came on aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh last year with their then oneyear- old daughter, and moved to the innovative religious community of Be’erot.
Zvi handles business development for a hi-tech firm named ROI Escalator, which is located in the WeWork Space at the Advanced Technologies Park in Beersheba, while Gahl commutes three times a week to her job in Or Yehuda.
“Our aliya has been as smooth and successful as one could hope for,” Zvi said. “Nefesh B’Nefesh really helped us with some procedural difficulties in the beginning. With everything, there’s a cost-benefit analysis which you have to apply, but I think for me the economics made a lot of sense. It’s just so much cheaper to live here, in terms of housing, even though Beersheba has doubled prices in the last 10 to 15 years.”
The family is moving out of their rented apartment after buying a semi-detached house just a few weeks ago.
“Thank God, we’re doing well, and we plan to stay here. Beersheba’s a really exciting city and I have tremendous hopes and trust in the vision of where it’s going. I see the immense amount of investment on all levels, and not just money. The university, the municipality and others are coalescing to really create something exciting here. And being part of that is very exciting.”
■ For more information: www.negevworks.org.il