When final exams come to a close this June, a group of first-year medical students don’t intend to stop their studies. They’ll chug right on, but in Israel rather than on Long Island.
A team of student leaders at Stony Brook University School of Medicine is now busy reviewing applications for a highly selective trip called Kesher Refuah, Hebrew for “medical connection.”
Led by their first-year peers Kate Wallis and Rachael Grodick, the group of six to eight students will hail from Stony Brook only, but founders Cheryl Vinograd and Sharon Lewin hope to include students from other medical schools in the future. The physicians-in-training will embark on a two-week learning and working odyssey to Israel, where they will trail expert pediatric cardiologists, volunteer in clinics across the country and witness the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We’re trying to understand Israel’s roles in the world and how holistic it is,” Wallis said. “One of the big things we’re trying to do is create this view that Israel is not just for Jews.”
The Kesher Refuah program began last year, after then first-year students Vinograd and Lewin organized a pilot trip for their March spring break.
“We started off hoping to put together a spring break medical mission trip which a lot of other medical schools have,” Lewin said. “Where would we go? Where would we want to invest this rare precious time that we have?
“Israel represents this huge opportunity for growth – expanding our careers, expanding our lives.”
And as soon as they figured this out, Vinograd and Lewin approached Dr. Richard Fine, dean of the Medical School, who responded to their ideas with enthusiasm.
“I think they’re to be commended for their tenacity in pursuing this venture,” Fine said. “It provides them with an ability to develop an insight into a world where they have a relationship.”
Vinograd and Lewin outlined two main components – expanding their medical knowledge and connecting to their Jewish roots. During the medical portion, the group unanimously agreed that their trip to Save a Child’s Heart – located outside Tel Aviv – was the highlight of their visit and the place where a semester of learning sprung into life, Lewin said.
Save a Child’s Heart is an Israeli-based organization that brings children from developing countries to Israel for expert pediatric cardiac care.
“[Israel is] a melting pot, so their medical students and residents have to learn to relate to people from a variety of different places, just like in our own country,” said Dr. Evelyn Bromet, a key adviser to the group and professor of epidemiology.
While shadowing the doctors and playing with the children at Save a Child’s Heart, the students also learned that nearly 40 percent of the patients were Palestinians, according to Lewin.
“We just all felt like interacting with the children, children with whom we had no common language and seeing how they were coping with these life-threatening illnesses so far away from home,” Lewin said, noting that children came from all over the world — Iraq, Tanzania and close to home in Gaza.
“We had brought our stethoscopes with us so the kids started playing with them,” she continued. “They started listening to their own hearts and our hearts. They were listening to what keeps you alive.”
Another educational opportunity afforded to the students was their visit to Jersusalem, where they met with the directors general of the city’s two principal hospitals – Shaare Zedek and Hadassah Medical Center – and learned about the Israeli health system directly from its leaders, Vinograd said. As American undergoes signifianct change in its own healthcare sytem, it isessential for students to learn about a different kind of structure, where nearly everyone receives medical care, Fine said.
“Their system is patterned after many of the systems in Western Europe and many systems in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe,” he added. “That will potentially benefit them accepting and potentially promulgating that type of change here in the future.”
The five students on last year’s trip hailed from a wide array of Jewish backgrounds — Lewin speaks Hebrew and had a wealth of Jewish experiences behind her, but Vinograd had a more basic Jewish education, they said. While in Israel, however, each person found a way to develop their own spirituality as they toured historical sites and memorials like Yad Vashem.
This year, the team hopes to include at least one non-Jewish participant.
“Religion is not going to be a criteria,” Vinograd said. “That notwithstanding, there will be much exposure to Jewish culture – it is a huge component of the trip.”
Though they have abundant faculty support, they travel without any faculty accompaniment – a policy that professors like Bromet think is essential to their development as future leaders. In future years, as the program gains more recognition, the team hopes to open the program to students from other medical schools.
But this capability largely depends on funding — this year, for example, the group still needs to raise about $30,000 more so that personal costs will be minimal, according to Vinograd.
“All of our grants that we’ve received so far are contingent on having pre-trip education,” Wallis said. Kesher Refuah is receiving continued funding from a Boston organization called Zionist House, and Hillel International’s Shusterman Foundation for alternative break programming.
Leading up to this year’s trip, not only will the students strengthen their understanding of international medicine techniques, but they will also focus on Israel advocacy. The students will discuss Israeli current events and study some Hebrew, and they will learn how Israeli medicine can improve the country’s image across the world, with the assistance of Rabbi Joseph Topek, director of Stony Brook’s Hillel and Jewish chaplain for the university.
“When the image of Israel is under scrutiny, learning about the Israeli medical establishment is probably the best way to understand the type of compassionate society that Israel really is,” Rabbi Topek said, hoping that the non-Jewish participant will appreciate how so many Israeli hospitals are filled with patients from Gaza.
“That person goes back and they talk to other people about what they saw and experienced there,” he continued. “Israeli medicine speaks for itself.”
This year, Wallis hopes to expand the itinerary beyond Israel’s major cities to the Negev, where they hope to visit local Bedouin clinics with the help of professors from Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva. The group will also devote large portions of the trip to learning about post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that Israeli physicians must deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Both medically and spiritually, students sense that they will be witnessing the forefront of change in Israel, where they will shape their own identities as both future physicians and Jews.
One of the most riveting moments for Vinograd was meeting Abraham Infeld, the former president of Hillel International, who taught them what it means to be part of the Jewish people and explained how dynamic and diverse Israel is becoming every day.
“He gave us this challenge — it’s up to our generation to unify a people that is no longer uniform,” Vinograd said. “We really need something now to tie us together, and in our own way we know that Kesher Refuah can address that.”
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