Three years ago, when the ground shook underneath Haiti and hundreds of thousands of people were clinging to life, Israel’s field hospitals in Port au Prince captured international media attention. The fact that a tiny army could deploy to the other side of the globe and almost instantly build a world-class trauma facility was nothing short of amazing. However, for all the brilliance, there was a bitter irony: the very same Israel Defense Forces medical corps struggles each year to fill its ranks.
While the population in Israel has more than doubled since 1973, only one new medical school has opened in the intervening years. Forty years ago there were three medical schools for three million people, today there are only four medical schools for more than seven million people (not including IDF's own small medical school at Hadassah Medical Center). The IDF’s situation mirrors a larger shortage of physicians among Israel’s civilian population. In most Israeli cities, there are only four doctors for every 1,000 people and, in Israel’s peripheral cities, the number of doctors drops by half.
The IDF has decided, therefore, to recruit medical school graduates from around the Jewish world. Currently, the IDF is working closely with organizations like The Jewish Agency and its partner Nefesh B’Nefesh to promote the benefits of IDF service to recent medical school graduates.
“We really need people to come here and serve with us,” said Colonel Erez Barenboim, M.D., commander of the IDF Medical Corps’ Medical Services and Supply Center, who spoke at a recent Aliyah fair for medical professionals at The Jewish Agency’s New York headquarters. “The IDF is still the ‘melting pot’ of Israel. The best way to learn what it means to be Israeli is to attach to society through the army. You have a promised salary and a peer group.”
Col. Barenboim also emphasized the career benefits for new doctors who join the IDF—namely, top medical residencies. After completing Hebrew language instruction (ulpan) and obtaining a license from Israel’s Ministry of Health, IDF medical recruits perform 18 months of service as primary care physicians in either combat brigades or support units. After the 18 months, the IDF volunteers are often placed in top hospitals to complete their residencies and are then free to practice civilian medicine or continue their medical careers within the IDF.
“Eighteen months makes a difference in securing good residencies and making connections for civilian life,” Col. Barenboim said.
Rafael Cohen, The Jewish Agency’s northeast regional Aliyah representative, added that the benefits of service in the IDF’s medical corps often go beyond the practical.
“People are making Aliyah from North America because of ideology,” Cohen said. “Olim always tell me, ‘there is something about Israel that touches my soul.’”
Indeed, for young Jewish doctors, a commitment to defend the Jewish state is one of the most profound Zionist statements they can make.