Heal the Galilee, Heal the Country

Can Israel's newest medical school relieve pressure on the nation's doctors?

A new school of medicine, the fifth in Israel, will open in Safed on October 30. And although the city has become predominantly Haredi over the past 30 years, with relatively low use of institutional medical services and low percentages of infant vaccination, Israeli leaders are now looking to Safed to revive the Galilee and provide a solution to the growing distress of the country's doctors.

Many expectations rest on the shoulders of the 124 students who have enrolled for the school's first academic year. Of the 124, 54 are Israelis who have completed preliminary studies in universities abroad and have now returned to Israel to undertake three years of clinical medical studies prior to internship; the remainder have completed undergraduate science programs and will now retrain for a bachelor's degree in medicine on a four-year track.

Safed medical school
Yaron Kaminsky

At the beginning of the week, during the cabinet meeting that resolved to allocate an additional NIS 20 million to improving the teaching level of the new faculty, the country's leaders sought to reawaken the Zionist vision that is accompanying the launching of the new school: "The budgetary to the faculty is a lever that will dramatically boost the north of the country," declared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; "The faculty will turn Safed into a magnet for a strong population that will settle in the area and contribute significantly to the Galilee," announced Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, whose office is in charge of setting up the medical faculty.

For their part, the new students are excited to begin the year, but would rather lower the expectations. "It's a bit overstated to say that we're returning to Israel and moving to the Galilee only because of ideology and our love of Israel; but you could certainly say that we are serious people who care about and would like to be involved in Israel's health system," says Roee Golan, 27, a resident of the center of Israel who will begin his studies in Safed after three years at medical school in Budapest, Hungary.

The study methods at the new school are not the only matter of interest for the faculty's pioneer students; many are also worried about how they will fit in in Safed, a city that currently attracts primarily Haredi and Hassidic communities and shuts down almost completely on the Sabbath. No student dormitories have been built in anticipation of the first year of studies, and many of the students have found apartments in the city, near the school. "Just this week, I signed a contract for an apartment in Safed. There is a living-expenses stipend that is supposed to help us and is aimed at encouraging people to move to the Galilee," Golan says.

"This came out of nowhere, when we first heard there was a new faculty opening in Israel," says Tom Konikoff, 26, from the center of country, and another student returning after medical studies in Debrecen, Hungary. "Most of the students studying medicine abroad want very much to become doctors, but found it difficult to study in Israel because of the high entrance requirements. These are good folks, and the state should act to convince them to come back," he says.

"We're trying to see ourselves as the first year of the medical school, the founding generation, studying in the sub-optimal conditions of Israel's north. It may sound ridiculous, like something out of a Zionist textbook; but you have to admit that the conditions in the north's medical institutions are different to those we've been accustomed to in the center or even in Hungary, although that's also an advantage," Konikoff says.

The faculty's first students are already working on creating a new students' association that will assist in their integration in the Galilean holy city. "No one is trying to turn Safed into a secular city and we have no intention of provoking anybody there, we would just like to create alternatives that suit our lifestyle," Konikoff says.

The new association is expected to join the other medical students' associations, which fought aggressively over the past year in support of the doctors' campaign. In fact, many of the new students personally took part in the recent protests.

In anticipation of the faculty's opening, a surge in activity can be felt on the ground. Bar-Ilan University president Moshe Kaveh went on one of the university's largest fundraising trips this week in support of the faculty's permanent campus, to be built over the next five years at a cost of over a billion shekels, half of which will come from the university's budget. The government, which has so far invested NIS 50 million in the project, will hold its weekly cabinet meeting at the faculty's present building on opening day. The building, situated in the center of Safed, once housed the historic Hadassah Hospital and was renovated at a cost of NIS 130 million.

"An auditorium was built for conferences and lectures; there are large and small study halls for groups of various sizes, study rooms fitted with computers, a library, a cafeteria with bar stools and a balcony facing the view," says the dean of the faculty, Prof. Ran Tur-Kaspa, who also serves as director of the Internal Medicine Department D and the Liver Institute at Beilinson Hospital. Over the past two months, Tur-Kaspa has been busy bringing back to Israel physicians and scientists who had been working abroad and will now serve as the faculty's first professorial backbone.

In four years, the faculty is expected to train 200 new doctors; and beginning in 2015, it will train 150 doctors each year. These new practitioners are supposed to serve as a complementary solution for the lack of doctors in Israel and the understaffed medical services in the country's outlying areas, alongside the new wage agreement that provides higher wages and a residency grant for doctors prepared to work in such areas.