Planting the seed

A physician shows a medical Birthright group that blending profession and Judaism works.

MEDICAL BIRTHRIGHT: Israel participants attend a presentation of battlefield first aid.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
MEDICAL BIRTHRIGHT: Israel participants attend a presentation of battlefield first aid.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This summer, I had the uncommon privilege of staffing a Birthright/Taglit trip to Israel for 38 medical students and other health-care professionals from across the United States. This wonderful opportunity came my way because this annual Birthright experience was co-sponsored by the American Healthcare Professionals & Friends for Medicine in Israel (APF), and I serve on its national board of directors.
APF has three major functions: to create and maintain a list of physicians who commit to volunteering to travel to Israel on short notice in the event of a national tragedy; to provide scholarships to Israeli physicians and nurses to travel to the US for one to two years to learn new techniques and bring them back to Israel; and to organize an annual workshop in Israel on disaster preparedness for US physicians.
How fitting, then, that for the past several years, APF has co-sponsored a Birthright trip to Israel to inspire and engage the next generation of young physicians and other health-care workers. During this early and critical period in the development of the students’ professional identity, my role was to integrate their growing sense of becoming health-care professionals, appreciation for their Jewish heritage, and a growing understanding of (and, hopefully, love for) Israel.
Half of the participants were either incoming medical students or those on vacation between their first and second years of medical school – the only period in four years with enough unscheduled time to be able to participate in a 10-day trip! The remaining half of the group included practitioners or students of nursing, physical and occupational therapy, pharmacy, genetics and psychology.
Many of the students had little formal Jewish education and their knowledge of Israel was similarly limited, with the exception of a few students who had Israeli relatives or had been to Israel previously.
Interestingly, on the personal statements included in their Birthright applications, two students admitted to thinking of Israel as a “racist” country and wanted to come to Israel to see for themselves.
Although my immediate reaction might have been to summarily exclude such students from the trip, the much-wiser Birthright program leaders recognized that these are precisely the types of young men and women whose opinions would likely be changed upon witnessing firsthand the reality of Israel.
Seeing Israel Our Birthright adventure included many of the typical sights and experiences usually included on a first trip to Israel – the spirituality of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Kotel (Western Wall), witnessing a mountaintop sunrise after a 4:30 a.m.
climb up Masada, the experience of unsinkable swimming in the Dead Sea, the beauty of Ein Gedi waterfalls, the adventure of kayaking on the Jordan River, the mysticism (and souvenir shopping) of Safed, and firsthand observation of the strategic value of the Golan Heights.
Medical Birthright participants at the Birthright ‘mega-event’ As a medically oriented Birthright trip, we added several medical experiences.
These included a tour of Laniado Medical Center in Netanya and a lecture by a physician from the Israel Medical Association.
Another experience – rare among Birthright trips – took place at an Israel Defense Forces training base for medics and physicians, where we were privileged to observe an actual training exercise of battlefield first aid, triage and evacuation of simulated patients, complete with the realistic sounds of gunfire, flashing lights and smoke.
This provided our young students a glimpse of – and certainly an awe-inspiring appreciation for – the experiences faced by IDF soldiers, many of whom are younger than they are.
One unforgettably moving and inspiring experience was a presentation by Lt.
(res.) Dr. Asael Lubotzky. As an IDF medic serving in the Golani Brigade during the Second Lebanon War, he bravely rescued many soldiers (for which he was later honored), until he was critically wounded. His response to suffering a disabling injury, requiring 15 operations and eight months in the hospital, could have understandably led to depression and withdrawal from society. Instead, he was inspired to become a physician and complete his studies at the Hebrew University Medical School. He currently serves a pediatric residency at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem.
A particularly meaningful and valuable experience of all Birthright trips is the arrival of six to eight sameaged Israeli peers – often IDF soldiers on leave – who join the trip for about five days. Selected specially for our medical Birthright trip, we were joined by IDF medics, an IDF physician and one post-IDF Hebrew University medical student. This not only gave our students the opportunity to ask many questions about everyday life and the military experience in Israel, but the five days of camaraderie also allowed them to establish a more personal connection to Israel and Israelis.
This connection was made jarringly real during our visit to Mount Herzl, Israel’s military cemetery. While we were all moved by reading grave marker after marker documenting the tragic losses of so many young lives, the students were taken aback by two of the more recent graves, on which family members had placed meaningful memorabilia from the lives of their deceased sons, including Birthright name tags with their names on them, indicating that they had accompanied Birthright groups at some point.
This observation, combined with their new friendships with current IDF soldiers, suddenly put a very personal face on the stories they hear about Israel, war and terrorism.
For the first time, and for the foreseeable future, these students now “have skin in the game,” and will feel a much more personal and emotional connection to the news stories they watch on TV and the Internet.
Jewish and professional While not traipsing around Israel on Birthright trips, I serve as associate dean and director of graduate medical education at Beaumont and the Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine. In this role, I work with young interns, residents and fellows as they transition from being newly graduated physicians to their next stage of learning, experiencing and forging their identities as medical or surgical specialists and sub-specialists.
On Birthright, my role was similar – with one additional element. During this critical period of identity formation for these medical, nursing and other health care students, I had the opportunity to explain, demonstrate and model how one’s professional identity as a physician could be integrated into one’s identity as a Jew with a love of Israel. This was accomplished through a series of several 10-minute presentations throughout the trip, on the bus and at meals, on topics that combined their growing interests in medicine, Judaism and Israel.
One example was a brief talk on communal responsibility, citing two examples from the Bible and two from medicine.
Another dealt with the often-misunderstood Jewish view on organ transplantation, including the status of this procedure in Israel, where, like in the US, it is both allowed and often encouraged by religious authorities, yet a scarcity of donors results in many people dying while on the waiting list.
We discussed pikuah nefesh – the Jewish concept that a physician (and everyone else!) can and must push aside the stringencies of Shabbat to save a life – and even, in certain cases, for the mental well-being of a stricken individual.
We also discussed the widely accepted, but less-often followed Jewish principle that “…Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). We focused on both components of that precept – the need to love and take care of oneself in order to function optimally as a person and as a physician, and the need to love others, which, if followed, necessitates the kind and compassionate approach that we must adopt with all of our patients, leaving no stone unturned as we do everything possible for their wellbeing.
During our conversations with Israeli physicians, our students learned how that precept is followed by their Israeli medical counterparts through the care rendered by medical teams consisting of Jews, Christians and Muslims, all working together to provide medical care and loving kindness to a similarly mixed patient population.
At one point during the trip, we joined with all the Birthright trips from 10 countries that were in Israel at the same time for a “mega-event” in the ancient amphitheater in Caesarea. During the evening of song and celebration, it was announced that this summer a significant milestone was reached: 500,000 Birthright participants since the program began in 1999.
The medical Birthright group in Israel Studies have demonstrated a number of tangible markers of enhanced Jewish identity and sense of personal connection to Israel among those who experienced a Birthright trip, compared to their peers who did not.
Speaking only for the group of 38 whose experience I shared, I am certain that every one of them enjoyed the experience, learned a great deal about Israel, developed a more realistic and deeper understanding, and left with a stronger and more personal connection than when they arrived.
I am less convinced that they will retain that same feeling without repeated infusions of input, whether by subsequent participation in communal organizations, synagogues, formal or self-education, Israeli art and culture, or activities of the APF that sponsored their trip.
For my very first time, I entered the world of Facebook just prior to the trip, with the intention of maintaining an ongoing relationship and influence during these next formative years.
In the prescient words of Hagai, our Israeli tour guide, Birthright successfully planted a wonderful seed. Without any watering, it has very little chance to develop.
With a little bit of water, it will grow a little bit. With repeated watering and tending, it will thrive and blossom.
My hope is that this medical Birthright experience will promote lifestyles in which their dedication and commitment to the compassionate and tireless practice of medicine will combine seamlessly with their appreciation of their Jewish heritage and their love of Israel.
Jeffrey M. Devries, MD, MPH, of Huntington Woods, is associate dean and professor at Oakland University William Beaumont School of Medicine and director of graduate medical education at Beaumont Health. He is also on the board of the American Healthcare Professionals & Friends for Medicine in Israel ( The views expressed here are his own, and do not represent the views of any of these organizations.
This article first appeared in the Detroit Jewish News.