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Telfed launches medical degree for SA students in Israel

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After a six-year behind-the-scenes journey, Telfed (the absorption organisation for South Africans in Israel) has launched a world first – a seven-year medical degree in English in Israel.

The offering is a game changer for South African Jews who want to study medicine. They won’t have to do community service, the degree is highly subsidised, and they can take it anywhere in the world – including returning to work as doctors in South Africa.

“This programme has been six years in the making, but we finally signed on the dotted line,” says Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline. “It starts with a three-year BSc pre-med degree in English at Ariel University. They will then write an exam called the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test), and go for an interview. Depending on their score and the interview, they will be able to commence four years of medical studies in English at the Medical School of International Health at Ben Gurion University (BGU). The Ariel University international pre-med academic programme will begin in September this year.”

Kline and previous Telfed Chief Executive Sid Shapiro pursued the idea because “we identified a need amongst South African Jewish students. With excellent matric grades, many of them couldn’t get into medical studies at South African universities. Others were discouraged by the two years of community service requirement in very remote areas. The Telfed initiative answers all of these issues and is an excellent aliya promotion project. A student who studies in Israel for seven years will most likely make aliya and live in Israel.

“It’s the first time that a seven-year medical degree in English is available in Israel for diaspora youth,” says Kline. “We negotiated with three universities and several academic colleges for six years, looking for partners. After many meetings, they all told us that it was an impossible task. We didn’t give up. I thank Orly Zuckerman of the Jewish Agency Aliya Division for bringing Ariel University on board. Last year, once Professor Izhak Michaelevski of Ariel University decided that it was feasible to start a pre-med degree in English, all the pieces finally fell into place.”

Normally, such a degree at Ariel University is expensive, but Telfed managed to negotiate it down to 15 000 shekels (R68 163). “In addition, if the student makes aliya, we have negotiated with the student authority [in the Israel ministry of absorption] that all their tuition for the BSc will be paid for. So it’s a free degree. In addition, they will be able to apply for Telfed scholarships of up to 10 000 shekels (R45 442). Even if they don’t make aliya, they can still apply for Telfed SASI scholarships of 6 000 shekels (R27 265) a year. Finally, the first year of the degree is also recognised by the Masa programme. So even if the student doesn’t make aliya, they can get a significant scholarship from Masa to cover their first year.”

The four-year medical degree at BGU usually costs $40 000 (R583 960) a year – out of reach for most families. “But Telfed has engaged with a very generous donor who has dedicated a $1 million (R14.5 million) fund to help South African Jewish students to do this four-year section at BGU.” The money has been set aside, but the details are still being finalised, which is why Telfed cannot name the donor at this stage.

Kline says getting into the BSc pre-med isn’t difficult, but the MCAT is a challenge. Even if students don’t proceed to the medical degree, they will still have an excellent BSc. In addition, someone who already has a BSc can write the MCAT and possibly proceed straight to the four-year medical degree. If a student’s Hebrew is good enough, they can do the four-year medical degree at other Israeli universities like Ariel, Bar Ilan, or Tel Aviv.

Telfed also made a deal with the Israel Student Authority, which will normally fund either a student’s undergraduate or master’s degree if they make aliya, but not both. However, “It has agreed to give 10 000 shekels (R45 442) for all seven years. This is something it has never done for anyone else, but it’s doing it for South African students doing this medical degree,” Kline says. “So if you make aliya or not, it’s affordable.” Though Telfed would love students to make aliya, they can return as doctors to South Africa or go anywhere else in the world.

The degree will be open to the entire English speaking world, so it will be an international gathering of students. “However, we have brokered it for South African students and will be focusing on them,” Kline says.

He’s working with Marc Lubner of the South African Friends of Ben Gurion University (SAFBGU), and they envision getting a few non-Jewish South African students a year to do the degree then return to South Africa as doctors.

“The SAFBGU, whilst looking to support BGU, equally looks to benefit South Africa,” says Lubner. He’s also chairperson of the South Africa Israel Chamber of Commerce, which will play a role in screening candidates with a vision to returning top quality doctors to South Africa after their degree.

Lubner paid tribute to Kline and his Telfed team for bringing the project to fruition.

“The humanitarian spirit of my dad continues through this programme,” he says, referring to the late, great philanthropist and businessman, Bertie Lubner. “It brings enormous amount of joy that his energy is still with us.”

Students will be able to live in dorms on campus or travel to campus. Though Ariel is in the West Bank, Kline emphasises that it’s safe to live or travel there on the main highway, and the campus is extremely secure.

He notes that Ariel has a warm community. Rabbi Hillel Maizels, the son of the renowned late Rabbi Desmond Maizels, is the Ashkenazi rabbi of the city. His wife, Dr Yael Maizels, is a lecturer in the BSc pre-med programme. Kline recalls that the late Rabbi Maizels planned to study medicine and even did some of the degree, but eventually joined the rabbinate. Now, South African Jewish students can continue that path not taken, with his own daughter-in-law teaching them.

“This is the only programme of its kind in Israel,” says Maizels, who will teach anatomy. “It’s a basic course for anyone interested in medicine or anything health related like physical therapy or nursing. I always say that to understand how the body works, you need a map and language, and that’s anatomy.”

Along with being a lecturer, the mother of five children, and a rabbi’s wife, Maizels is a cutting-edge scientist and researcher. At the moment, she is focusing on the new field of personalised oncology. She looks forward to connecting with South African students and welcoming them not only as a lecturer, but as someone who can support them.

“We’re excited. It’s been a long road, and now there’s a lot of anticipation,” says Kline. “The programme will be launched officially in May after Yom Ha’atzmaut, with members of the Jewish Agency, government ministries, Telfed, and the universities.”

Students can email auinternational@ariel.ac.il for information on how to apply. Telfed will release more information shortly.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Susan Weil

    Apr 8, 2022 at 10:40 am

    What a fantastic idea.

  2. Jenny Cohen

    Apr 8, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Unbelievable an amazing initiative. Weldone. My boys would’ve loved to join this, but now I think its too late

  3. Marcelle Nathan

    Apr 9, 2022 at 8:58 pm

    Amazing

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