To Heal Body and Soul

A visit to the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Tsfat, northern Israel
April 14, 2021 Updated: April 14, 2021

Commentary

For most Israelis, the Galilee is viewed as a remote place where one goes to heal body and soul.

Spanning some 1,700 square miles and home to an enormous freshwater lake, the Kinneret (harp in Hebrew), the Galilee’s omnipresent olive groves and natural forested hills ascend toward snow-capped Mount Hermon to the north and face the Golan Heights to the east.

Stepping out of the car, one can find oneself walking through quiet agricultural fields, indigenous forests, and olive groves. During the winter rains, small streams and rivers erupt across the landscape, streaking it with a refreshing view. The Galilee becomes so green and sparkly in wintertime that it looks like the land of Oz. A true massage for the eyes.

The Galilee is a land of steep hills, winding highways, and unpaved agricultural paths linking the shores of the Mediterranean with lake Kinneret, where it’s said Jesus once walked on water. And it’s here that after the fall of the Second Temple, the Jewish sages wrote the Mishna, the first series of the books of the Talmud.

It’s home to the tombs of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian saints who in their day were known as miracle workers; they cured diseases and helped women get pregnant. It was their job to heal both body and soul, long before the rise of modern medicine. Their white-domed shrines, many still serving as pilgrimage sites, pop up in the landscape.

The greatest Rabbi, philosopher, and physician of the middle ages, Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides), is buried in Tiberias on the Kinneret, one of the four holy cities of the land of Israel (along with Tsfat, Hebron, and Jerusalem). When my children were teenagers I took them there. They were bored but I told them, “One day you will thank me for this.” Indeed, they did, after having read and studied Maimonides’s works in university.

The towns, villages, moshavim, and kibbutzim of the Galilee open their doors to Israeli guests and visitors from all over. It’s there where they can breathe fresh air, escape traffic, and take the kids on nature walks, to playgrounds, and swimming pools. Many of these communities have established “spas” or health clubs where one can lose weight, gain muscle, de-stress, meditate (or even pray!) and enjoy the presence of one’s family during the many Jewish holidays.

But the Galilee, former home to spiritual and physical renewal, is becoming in modern times a cutting-edge center of healing, teaching, and research, with the establishment of the currently expanding Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Tsfat. As someone who once lived in the Galilee and still visits it frequently, I was curious to find out more. I will share with you what I learned.

A Northern Medical School

The Ziv Hospital was established in Tsfat in 1910. I remember it well; very run down. I used to walk pass it twice a week when I was a lecturer of anthropology at the local community college, at the time under the aegis of Bar-Ilan University (it’s now independent).

Tsfat’s Azrieli Faculty of Medicine and upgraded Ziv Medical Center is thanks to the hard work and dedication of Bar-Ilan University, based in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. I wanted to know more, so I visited Noam Reshelbach, administrative head of the faculty.

Noam is one of those remarkable Israelis who made a career as an officer in the army, trained as an economist, then did an MBA and was asked to steer the course for this new institution. These men and women often “change career” in their prime, bringing a mature and experienced perspective to local institutions.

Also offering a unique approach is the dean of the faculty, professor Karl Skorecki, who moved from Haifa to Tsfat to head the faculty. Having made Aliya (the Hebrew word for migration to Israel) in 1995 with his family, Skorecki views this move as his second Aliya. Born and raised in Toronto, a nephrologist by training, Skorecki can boast prestigious positions at Harvard, the Technion, and most recently, the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. He’s known not only for his kidney research but also for research in genetics and genomics, especially the patrilineal and matrilineal lineages in Near East and Jewish populations.

Although fluent in English, Noam and I chose to conduct our conversation in Hebrew as I wanted what anthropologists call the unadulterated “inside story.”

To my surprise I discovered that a medical school in the Galilee had been on the books for some time. Israel is like many other advanced European and English-speaking democracies despite the fact that it’s as tiny as the American state of New Jersey. The bulk of its citizens live on the coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and most of the big universities, government institutions, and hospitals are found in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and in the Negev city of Beer Sheva.

The Galilee and the Golan, although home to small towns and cities, is largely agricultural and, until recent times, the regional hospitals were not sufficient. With the establishment of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University in Tsfat, the Ziv Medical Center, an affiliate of the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine, changed the medical landscape in the north. It provides the same quality of medical services for “northerners” that coastal and capital dwellers take for granted.

A medical school located in the north was one of the many projects that the gifted yet controversial politician Shimon Peres thought up in the early 1990s. This period, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, allowed Soviet Jews to come to Israel in the hundreds of thousands. Many of them were trained in the sciences and the government at the time did everything possible to find them work in their fields of choice. And so, in a sense, their Aliya triggered the process that led to the new medical school in Tsfat.

Along with political support from the well-known politician Silvan Shalom, and with the generous financial support of the Azrieli family, an Israeli/Canadian family of philanthropists, the funds were raised for stage one, the launch of the faculty and hospital. The government gave the school about ten dunams in downtown Tsfat (about two and a quarter acres) plus the old buildings of the Ziv hospital. A major building project then ensued, which included the establishment of new, state of the art medical laboratories.

The medical school and hospital have been designed not to just fulfill the needs of its local residents, students, and professors, but to provide first-rate medical teaching and services for the entire north of Israel including the Golan Heights, whose residents would otherwise have to drive to Nahariya on the northern coast for anything that a local clinic could not handle.

In 2011 the first classes began, and some 500 students have graduated since then. The Faculty of Medicine grants M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees as well as, of course, the coveted MD diploma. Some students combine the MD and the Ph.D., linking their research and practice. In this case, the process takes seven years instead of four. Research, which at the faculty must be translational, is focused on the specific needs of the residents of the Galilee who comprise Jews and Arabs divided by ethnicity, including Christian Arabs, Druze, Muslim Arabs, Circassians, and Jews from as far away as New York or Bokhara.

Not surprisingly, the genetics and epidemiology of these communities drives some of the big research and treatment projects. For example, the incidence of diseases such as cancer and diabetes is different among Arab and Jewish communities. And lifestyle now complicates matters further, as many communities were once primarily agricultural and people burned off their body sugar during a hard day in the fields. That’s no longer the case as most Jewish and Arab residents of the Galilee are in business or professions and live a sedentary lifestyle. The Arab community is now experiencing a near epidemic of diabetes due to this dramatic change in lifestyle

Ethics and Outreach

The Azrieli Faculty of Medicine is also the recipient of generous funding from “Mifal haPais,” a ubiquitous national lottery that does make a few lucky citizens millionaires each year but is primarily known as a charity. It allows the faculty to offer doctor/researchers the kind of money and research support that they would and could get in Europe and the Americas. And, the faculty sends its interns and researchers to clinics and hospitals throughout the north to both learn and to make sure that the doctors in these relatively isolated communities are challenged to keep up with the international standards and research that emanate from Tsfat. The university provides the logistics and transport needed to link and integrate the clinics of the north with each other, deepening the local links and school’s professional and academic relationships.

Noam laughed and told me, “You know Geoffrey, Israeli medical students are different. Most of them have three to five years of military experience behind them. They may be young but they are fully adult and have faced life and death situations. They are curious, blunt, and direct and they are not afraid to question the thought and practises that they experience in these rural clinics. I have to say it keeps the doctors and nurses there on their toes, even though at times the interaction may be a bit unpleasant.”

Noam then pointed out that Bar-Ilan is consciously a Jewish university and the medical ethics taught and practised there emerge from Rabbinic Judaism. A good academic trained modern philosopher will be the first to tell you that values do not and probably cannot emerge from science. Every scientific and medical innovation can be used for good or bad. Nazi “medical practice” is the most famous case in mind.

And so, the school insists that every Jewish student must study Judaism, usually two lectures a week, given by Bar-Ilan staff who are academic experts in their field. Given that 30 percent of the student body is not Jewish, this is one of the first instances in history where Christian and Muslim medical students are offered the opportunity to understand Jewish medical ethics from the inside out and not the outside in.

Perhaps now it’s becoming clear to them why the popes of Europe and the sultans of Maimonides time hired Jewish doctors. I asked Noam, given the ethnic diversity of northern Israel, whether the school practised affirmative action. His reply was, “Absolutely not. We take the best and brightest regardless of race, creed, or color!”

He then showed me a video, an example of community involvement: the Teddy Bear Hospital. This outreach program is a way for the faculty and local medical establishment to engage the wider community. They invite children under the age of 13 to bring their teddy bears to a special clinic (on campus), where their bears are given tests and various treatments, all with the assistance of their owners. I remember seeing one Jewish boy with his side curls and tsitsit fringes, carefully holding his bear, while one of the nurses inserted an IV into the patient and stoic teddy bear’s outstretched arm, while the owner looked on with a profoundly serious expression. I only wish that I had experienced this as a child; perhaps my fear of hospitals would have been far less than it is now.

Noam told me much more about the projects and research being carried out at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine, mostly things that you can find on their website, and soon after I had to take my leave. I had just scratched the surface of the story of this innovative institution run by dedicated, gifted, and talented professionals and scientists. It’s truly improving the quality of life of over a million Israeli citizens who deserve the same quality of care as residents of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

As I left the university campus I walked the streets of old Tsfat. Walking past a new-age Orthodox shop that sold spices, I remembered a quote from the Talmud that commented on (yes the Talmud is one vast commentary) the balance between the health of the soul and the health of the body. I quote it in full:

There was a spice seller who used to make rounds of the villages near Sephorris (in the Galilee) and he used to announce and say, “Who wants the elixir of life?” The people crowded round him, Rabbi Yannai who was sitting and studying in his parlour heard him announce, “Who wants the elixir of life” and called out to him, “Come over here and sell it to me.” The spice seller said to him, “Neither you nor those like you need it.” But Rabbi Yannai persisted, whereupon the spice seller went to him and pointed out to him the verse “Who is the man who desireth life?” and said, “What is written after it?” “Keep they tongue from evil … depart from evil and do good.”

I marveled that here in the Galilee, more than 1,500 years ago, Jewish sages were exploring what it means to live both a healthy life and a good life. At the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in this Galilean town of Tsfat, this debate is taking a new turn in the latest effort to heal both body and soul.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist-at-large who has spent 20 years travelling, living, and working in East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.