The Human Spirit: Prize winners

The remarkable story of a young haredi woman winning several scholarships on her way to a doctorate in sciences at the age of 26.

AvitalSwisa311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whenever prizes are announced I check to see how many have been awarded to women. Hence the name of Avital Swisa caught my eye as a recipient of an Adams Scholarship for outstanding Israeli doctoral students in the sciences. The support for their studies is provided by Marcel Adams, a Canadian-Jewish real estate developer who survived the Holocaust and who believes in investing in human potential.
Swisa is the sixth of 11 children in a Jerusalem religious family. As it happens, I attended her undergraduate graduation ceremony at Hadassah College in Jerusalem and reported on it in this paper.
She was part of a class of young, very religious women, many wearing mortar boards fitted over scarves and wigs, who had opted for a new program that allowed her to graduate simultaneously from two schools, the Haredi College and Hadassah College Jerusalem. The students completed a rigorous three-year course that provides both theoretical background and high-level professional skills in biological and medical lab work. Medical laboratory graduates used to work mainly in medical labs and hospitals, but today they are recruited for the country’s burgeoning research programs. Pharmaceutical companies, academic research departments and biotech start-ups are waiting for savvy new lab workers who can play a part in developing new medicines and treatment modalities.
LAST WEEK, I met with Swisa at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute during a break in a scientific conference. At 26, she’s working toward a doctorate, and she’s already presented a paper at a forum in Washington, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
She squirms uncomfortably when I ask her about knowing how smart she was as a little girl attending the neighborhood Beit Ya’acov religious girls school.
“I suppose I realized I was a good student, because other kids were always consulting me about the right answers in homework,” says the petite, soft-spoken young woman. “While most kids dreaded tests, I looked forward to them, because it was an opportunity to show that I knew the answers.”
At home, her sabra mother Rivka had her hands full, bringing up the large family as her father Eli, who worked for many years in the IDF, was rarely home. She took pride in bringing up her family on modest means, making sure her children were immaculately dressed. “If you’re clean and neat, you have confidence in meeting the world,” said Rivka. “Avital was one of the smaller girls in the class. I always told her that size doesn’t matter. She was shy and modest, wrote poetry and liked music.”
Avital’s four older sisters and one brother married soon after finishing high school. Avital was expected to do the same, but she didn’t want to.
“Already in high school I was thinking differently,” she said. “A very religious girl from a good family isn’t supposed to have so much personal ambition, but I did. There are study options within the haredi world. You can continue through 13th and 14th grade and become a teacher, a bookkeeper or a computer programmer. I like computers, but none of those seemed like the right option for me.”
Her personal ambition was to become a doctor. Frustrated and miserable about her options as a 12th grader, she developed Crohn’s disease. Her parents were distressed by her depression.
Said Avital, “When I turned 18, all the wishes I received from my family and friends were ‘just be happy.’ They all felt terrible that I was so forlorn.”
THE SUMMER after graduation had nearly passed when Swisa spotted the advertisement for the lab technician course in the paper. The curriculum included molecular genetics, microbiology, bioinformation, medical fields like pathology, hematology and pharmacology. And it was aimed at religious women.
“One of my older sisters said she’d go with me to the Open Day,” said Swisa. “Biology was my favorite subject in high school, and I wanted to sign up immediately. I realized I was what they were looking for, too, from an extremely religious family and also able to handle a challenging science curriculum.”
Going to a university would have been unthinkable for her and for her family back then, she said. Like most graduates of strictly religious, gender-segregated elementary schools and high schools, they rejected regular university and college campuses as far too secular.
Hadassah College, too, was a coed college, but special arrangements were made to accommodate religious women. Nearly a decade ago, educator Adina Bar-Shalom (daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef) began addressing the possibility of providing the sheltered environment prized in the haredi world while providing higher education that wasn’t watered down. The laboratory students would hear lectures in segregated classes at the Haredi College and complete the lab work in the summers when the college’s usual mix of men and women students would be absent.
Swisa didn’t have a matriculation certificate, the passport to higher education for students here, because her high school didn’t offer one. College counselors directed her to a year’s preparatory program. She qualified for a scholarship.
“Looking back, I don’t know what I would have done without it,” said Swisa.
She loved the class of religious young women who, like her, wanted to think independently while remaining religious. And when she graduated, one of the professors recommended an internship at the Department of Cellular Biochemistry and Human Genetics. Prof. Yuval Dar encouraged her to turn her excellent laboratory work on the regeneration of the pancreatic beta cells in treating diabetes into a master’s, and subsequently a doctoral program. Along the way, she also earned a scholarship from the Ariane de Rothschild Program for Women Doctorate Students.
WHEN SHE finishes the PhD, there’s an old life goal to achieve: She wants to be a doctor. A psychiatrist. She’s already taken the psychometric exam and – not surprisingly – scored high.
A close relative suffers from schizophrenia. “I have no doubt that this is a disease that can only be cured in the laboratory. With my experience, I believe I can contribute.”
According to her mother, the entire family is proud of her. “When Avital won the latest scholarship, people kept calling. We don’t have Internet at home, so I went to one of my daughter’s homes to read what Avital had won. She’s still modest about her achievements.”
But Rivka admits that, in her world, it’s not simple to have a daughter who has chosen a different path. Indeed, as respectful as she is of Avital’s choices, she, too, is worried that she’ll get so involved in her career that she won’t get married and have children. “My other girls were married by 20. One is a successful clothing designer, and she already has three children. I know how much of life’s joy comes from your children, and I don’t want Avital to miss that.”
She also believes that in the end, their devout religious lifestyle offers the greatest personal satisfaction and protection.
Avital does want to get married, she says. But she’ll need to find someone with whom she can continue to grow. “I was almost swallowed up by life,” she said. “But now I feel confident that my determination can overcome most obstacles. Best of all, I was given an opportunity to dream, and I learned that one dream leads to another, and I’m still dreaming.”

The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.