Meet Israel’s First Hasidic Med School Student

Does every Jewish mother want her son to become a doctor? Not always. If you’re a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, where many young men are expected to spend their days learning Torah full-time, many mothers in these communities would much rather say, “my son the rabbi” than “my son the doctor.”

Article by Sam Sokol, published on on July 3, 2019.

Meet Israel’s First Hasidic Med School StudentMeet Israel’s First Hasidic Med School Student

And while there are ultra-Orthodox doctors, many of whom immigrated from abroad or found religion later in life, a Hasidic doctor who grew up in a local Hasidic community is as rare as a unicorn.

For Yehuda Sabiner, the path to medical school was an unorthodox one. The son of the dean of a Hasidic Gur yeshiva in Jerusalem, Sabiner, now a 29-year-old father of three, said that he has wanted to enter the medical profession since he was four years old when he innocently asked his paediatrician what he would have to do to become an MD.

When he told his parents that he wanted to be a doctor, they saw it “as a cute thing that children say,” he recalled. But when he continued insisting on his chosen profession at age 16, it ceased being amusing and became a source of concern for members of his family.

Sam SokolSam Sokol

“As I grew up, I saw you can do it as a religious mission, as hesed [lovingkindness], which is very important part of the Jewish tradition. My mother had tears in eyes and said ‘I thought we passed the hard times,’” Sabiner told the Forward. But as he continued in yeshiva, getting high marks in Talmud and appearing to be on track to eventually become a rabbi or a religious court judge, his parents began to relax, although he would occasionally bring up the subject of medicine throughout.

While the ultra-Orthodox world is anything but monolithic, its overall workforce participation is significantly lower than in the national-religious and secular sectors, and many members of the most fervent Haredi communities shun secular studies and higher education.

According to figures released by the Israel Democracy Institute in December, some 45 percent of Haredim live in poverty and just under half of Haredi men are unemployed. Employment figures tend to be lower among members of “Lithuanian” or non-Hasidic Haredim. Despite these figures, however, there has been an increase in the number of Haredim studying for professional careers and the average Haredi monthly income increased by eight percent between 2015-16, “reflect[ing] a rise in ultra-Orthodox salaries among those employed,” according to the IDI. These gains can be credited to the “rise in the number of well-educated members of the ultra-Orthodox community and the advancement of ultra-Orthodox workers in the labor market (as a result of a combination of appropriate skills and education, and government programs).”

Sabiner’s dreams did not fade after his marriage. When he again announced that he intended to become a doctor, his parents replied that it was an issue for him and his wife to handle, while his new bride broke out crying.

“It almost destroyed our marriage,” he recalled, describing how her wife had thought she was marrying a future rabbi.

However, she soon had a change of heart and “came to me with tears in eyes, still upset, and said she won’t be the one to destroy my dream.”

Enrolling in a academic preparatory program run by the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Sabiner worked hard to make up all of the education that he missed attending a Haredi school. “I didn’t know anything, even the ABCs, [certainly] not to write or read in English,” he said. Studying late into the night, his wife helping him, and he gradually began to approach the level of education necessary to undertake medical studies.

After he left the Technion’s Haredi program and integrated into their primary track together with secular students, social life was initially awkward but he was soon accepted by his peers as just another student.

“The beginning was very strange,” he recalled. “It already began in the entrance of the building. The guard stopped me and wouldn’t let me go in: ‘What are you doing here?’ Girls were terrified to sit next to me, but after two weeks the ice melted and I have probably the best fiends of my lifetime here.”

Back in the Hasidic community, Sabiner initially kept his studies secret, but after he let the cat out of the bag he said he was surprised by the response.

“I give classes in my shul about halacha and ethics and medicine,” he said. “I cannot say that I’ve had any problems in the last couple of years.”

And despite their initial reluctance to support his dream, once he had chosen his path, Sabiner said that his parents became his biggest supporters, both financially and emotionally, giving him the breathing room to finish his studies.

Overall, he said, the majority of Gerrer Hasidim are in the workforce so his decision to work wasn’t as surprising to people as his choice of career, and he thinks that there is definitely a desire by many of his contemporaries to enter higher education and the professions.

Sam SokolSam Sokol

“Almost from the beginning, I received emails and phone calls from the whole spectrum of the Haredi community, asking how to get into medical school,” he said, adding that he believes efforts to force the Haredim to include secular subjects in their school curricula would probably backfire. “Attempts to force change are creating a reaction of negativism and can destroy the willingness for revolution in our community. I really think it’s a process that’s continuing and we must minimize the intervention so that it will be successful.”

And despite their initial reluctance to support his dream, Sabiner’s parents have since become his biggest supporters, both financially and emotionally, giving him the breathing room to finish his studies.

Sabiner, who is in the final stages of his medical degree, has a message for his fellow Haredim.

“We are not cola bottles from the factory, where all the bottles come in the same shape and color. Everybody is an individual and if you want something you should dream the highest [dreams] and do your best to achieve it whether it’s being a rosh yeshiva or doctor or lawyer,” he said.

Sam Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Israel. A former Jerusalem Post and IBA News correspondent, he is the author of ‘Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry’.

JTA contributed to this report

This story “My Son The Doctor” was written by Sam Sokol.

I want to be a doctor, not a rabbi’: how Israeli ultra-Orthodox are being drawn into work. Traditionally, Haredi men have not joined the labour force. That is starting to change

Article by Harriet Sherwood, published on on September 10, 2018.

Medical student Yehuda Sabiner in class: ‘In the end 99% of people were encouraging me.’ Photograph: Rami ShlushMedical student Yehuda Sabiner in class: ‘In the end 99% of people were encouraging me.’ Photograph: Rami Shlush

From the age of three, Yehuda Sabiner harboured a secret ambition to become a doctor. But it seemed unlikely to be fulfilled: he was raised in one of the strictest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel.

His education was limited to religious study, first at a private school that barely taught mainstream subjects and later at a yeshiva, a religious school, where he spent 14 hours a day studying Jewish texts. Sabiner, a bright boy and an outstanding student, was earmarked to become a leading rabbi.

But he never forgot his dream. When he was 21 he confessed his ambition to his new wife. She was horrified: she had married him on the understanding that he would be a rabbinical leader. Also, he had no knowledge of science. But Sabiner’s yearning would not go away.

Now 28, Sabiner is embarking on the final year of his medical degree. He will be the first person born and raised in a Haredi community in Israel to become a mainstream doctor, and he plans to specialise in internal medicine.

Sabiner has benefited from a pioneering scheme at the Technion university in Haifa to draw young ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews from largely closed communities into mainstream education and then into the workforce.

The numbers are still tiny – about 60 out of a total student population of 10,000. “But the idea is to bring the number to 200 within five years, and to 400 within 10 years,” said Prof Boaz Golani, a vice-president of the university. “Engaging the Haredi community is important for Israel. Having a civil society where entire segments live in their own world and with little interaction with others is not healthy. It’s a recipe for tension and animosity.”

Sabiner has dreamed since the age of three of becoming a doctor. Photograph: Rami ShlushSabiner has dreamed since the age of three of becoming a doctor. Photograph: Rami Shlush

In 2017 the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel rose above one million for the first time, accounting for 12% of the population. By 2065 they are expected to make up a third of Israel’s population.

Traditionally, Haredi men are not economically active. Many spend their time in religious study, relying on state benefits to support their large families, which average almost seven children. But in recent years the Israeli government and educational institutions have taken steps to integrate the Haredi population into colleges and workforces.

“There was a concentrated effort launched a few years ago by the ministry of transport, which needed more engineers,” said Golani. If the Technion could get Haredi students on to its courses, jobs could be guaranteed.

“We knocked on the doors on yeshivas in Bnei Brak [an overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox town near Tel Aviv]. We found a few rabbis ready to talk to us. The idea was to take young men who had the brain and intellect to meet the scientific admission criteria, and who were not perceived as chief rabbis of the future.

“We said we would not try to force any change of lifestyle of students, such as [strict] dress codes or praying. We kept a low profile.”

The Technion team identified 37 young men for a pre-university programme run from an anonymous rented warehouse in Bnei Brak. Over the course of 18 months, teachers tried to close a 12-year education gap to bring the Haredi men up to the standard of high school graduates.

They studied from 8am to 10pm. “It was like a bootcamp, very intensive,” said Golani. “But they brought from the yeshivas an ability to study hard, to focus, to apply logic, so we built on these skills.” At the end of the programme, about half were admitted to the Technion; they graduated this summer.

Bringing the students up to the required educational standard was not the only challenge. Gender segregation, a norm in Haredi communities, was a big issue, Golani said. “We told them upfront that we would not allow gender segregation on campus, no way. We suggested they arrive at class 10 minutes early and sit together, and they accepted that. We also told them that we have female professors, and we will not tell them they can’t teach certain students. They accepted that too.”

Another key issue was use of the internet. “So each [Haredi student] carries two phones: a kosher phone, with no apps, and a regular smartphone. On that there is an app which tracks the history of all addresses browsed and sends a report of every website visited to a designated person in their community.”

Some students have been ostracised by their communities. “One girl was boycotted by her friends. Someone else told me he was hiding for years, lying to his wife and family, telling them he was studying at another yeshiva when he was at the Technion.”

The university also runs programmes aimed at encouraging Arab students to enrol. “That tends to be easier because their communities are eager to see them gain top-quality education and so the community resistance is much lower,” said Golani.

It was essential to integrate “untapped resources” – meaning Arab-Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews – into the economy, he added. “The economy of Israel is largely based on the hi-tech sector. It’s the locomotive that carries the entire train of the Israeli economy. But we just don’t have enough people. Israel is a small country; we’re not India or China.”

Sabiner is now in the final year of his medical degree. Photograph: Rami ShlushSabiner is now in the final year of his medical degree. Photograph: Rami Shlush

When Sabiner embarked on the challenge of becoming a doctor, initially he faced scepticism. “I was told it was impossible for me to catch up [academically] and to be accepted, that I would never make it as a doctor,” he said. But staff at the Technion “believed in me when no one else did”.

“I was sure this was the only thing I want to do in life. I studied day and night, with a baby on my shoulder and my wife studying with me. I finished [the pre-university programme] with 99% in every field, and I was accepted [on the medical course].

“In the beginning, I kept it as a secret, only my close family knew. But then it became a known secret and I was under the microscope. In the end 99% of people were encouraging me.”

Now that the end is in sight, he wants to encourage other Haredim to follow suit. “When I started the journey I said I don’t want to be a single episode. So I opened a group on social media telling other Haredim how they could become a doctor. Now we have 35 more in medical school.”

Attitudes were changing, he said, with more integration and mutual understanding. “People understand we’re not a bottle of Coca-Cola on a production line, we’re individuals. If you want to do medicine, you should do medicine, and if you want to be a lawyer, you should be a lawyer. And if you want to study the Torah, go for it.”