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November 9, 2020 7:35 am

French Olim Help Fill Needed Health Care Gaps in Northern Israel

avatar by Judy Lash Balint / JNS.org

Opinion

New immigrants experience their first High Holidays in Jerusalem as official residents of Israel, Oct. 6, 2019. Photo: The Jewish Agency for Israel.

JNS.orgAs a wave of Islamist terror directed at churches and priests raises religious tensions in France, a special group of recent French immigrants is relieved to be settling into their new life in Nahariya, Israel’s northernmost coastal city.

Thirteen families with at least one health-care professional each arrived in August under the auspices of a new partnership between Keren Kayemeth L’Yisrael (KKL) and the independent non-profit Klitat Kehillat Yisrael organization, known in French as Alyah de Groupe, or “Group Aliyah.”

One of the main reasons the new immigrants chose to settle as a group in Nahariya is because of the opportunity to work as physicians, dentists, and pharmacists in a region that on the one hand is underserved by health professionals, and on the other hand is the home of the Western Galilee Medical Center, the largest government hospital in the Galilee.

Dr. Hava Tmim, 40, is a family doctor who ran her own clinic in a Paris suburb for more than a decade. In a phone interview with JNS conducted in Hebrew, Tmim explained that she and her husband, a computer engineer, wanted to go to a place where their skills would be needed and their aliyah would be meaningful. The Tmims had been planning to relocate to Israel for a few years. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, their pilot trip was canceled, so they had never stepped foot in Nahariya before their move.

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Tmim expressed gratitude for the efforts of Klitat Kehillat Yisrael, whose workers are almost all volunteers. “With their help, we were able to navigate the bureaucratic challenges of making aliyah during a pandemic with five children,” she said. That included arranging housing, schools, ulpan (intensive Hebrew-language classes), and most importantly, assistance with translating documents and liaising with the Ministry of Health and the health maintenance organizations, where she hopes to find work after ulpan. Making aliyah with a group of families from the same country with similar careers was also reassuring, she explained.

The group aliyah model fits neatly into the goal of KKL’s Israel 2040 project, which is to encourage development in the Galilee and the Negev, and eventually to attract 1.5 million Israelis to populate those peripheral areas by 2040. According to the objectives outlined by the group, as many as 150,000 of those new residents could be immigrants.

With that kind of projected population growth, more medical facilities and professionals will be needed. Right now, according to a 2018 report from Israel’s Ministry of Health, Israel has a rate of 3.1 doctors for every 1,000 people, below the OECD average of 3.3 per 1,000 people.

Israel also has only five nurses per 1,000 people — the fourth-worst rate among 34 countries in the OECD. There are just 6.8 medical graduates per 1,000 people in Israel, compared to an OECD average of 12.1; and only 2.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared to 3.6 per 1,000 in the developed world; plus, a hospital occupancy rate of 93.8%, the second-highest among OECD countries, according to the report.

A number of reasons exist for the shortage of doctors and hospital beds, including rapid population gain and a high fertility rate; the retirement of many of the medical professionals who arrived in the wave of aliyah from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s; the relatively low salaries for health-care professionals; and the subsequent high rate of emigration of physicians.

While it’s a drop in the bucket, the 2020 Nahariya French medical professionals aliyah program is already the second one of its kind, and KKL is planning on more groups once the pandemic has passed. KKL is also partnering with Nefesh B’Nefesh in a similar venture designed to attract professionals to the north from English-speaking countries.

Ronnie Vinnikov, director of KKL’s Global Resource Development Division, told JNS that his organization is invested in supporting aliyah from France and English-speaking countries as part of its core mission of settling the land.

Since its founding in 1996, Klitat Kehillat Yisrael has assisted more than 8,000 French arrivals, or olim. In 2020, the French program had a budget of 3.2 million shekels (about $940,000), of which KKL contributed 1.6 million shekels (about $470,000). In comparison, KKL’s 2020 contribution to the Nefesh B’Nefesh Go North aliyah program was 8.9 million shekels ($2.63 million), reflecting the larger number of potential olim.

For Tmim and the others arriving from France, the path to becoming licensed and finding work in their fields should be relatively smooth. After completing the five-month full-time ulpan course, taking written exams from the Ministry of Health and serving a three-month internship, they will be eligible to start work. Tmim said she looks forward to getting back to seeing patients after the six-month resettlement and adjustment hiatus.

Another member of the French group who settled in Nahariya is anesthesiologist Dr. Dan Tayeb. The 32-year-old and his pregnant wife, a psychologist, and their two small children checked out hospitals in Haifa and Jerusalem before deciding that he would be more needed in Nahariya. The northern city also offered a calmer atmosphere and a slower pace of life that suited his family.

Vinnikov said he remains assured that Israel will attract many more professionals like Tmim and Tayeb in the coming years. “There’s definitely heightened interest in aliyah right now. I hear it in every forum I take part in.”

In fact, aliyah numbers from France — the world’s third-largest Jewish community with a population of around half a million Jews — have been in decline after a high of 6,628 immigrants in 2015. Just 2,415 French Jews arrived in 2018 with 2,227 coming in 2019.

But Vinnikov, himself a veteran immigrant from Ukraine, noted that he is confident that “more and more French Jews who have a very strong Jewish identity and see Israel as their second home will slowly decide to make the country their first home. Jews understand that not only is Israel the safest place, it’s the only place where one can be assured that the next generation will remain Jewish.”

Judy Lash Balint is a contributor to JNS.

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