Does every Jewish mother want her son to become a doctor? Not always. If you’re a member of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Israel, where many young men are expected to spend their days learning Torah full-time, many mothers in these communities would much rather say, “my son the rabbi” than “my son the doctor.”
And while there are ultra-Orthodox doctors, many of whom immigrated from abroad or found religion later in life, a Hasidic doctor who grew up in a local Hasidic community is as rare as a unicorn.
For Yehuda Sabiner, the path to medical school was an unorthodox one. The son of the dean of a Hasidic Gur yeshiva in Jerusalem, Sabiner, now a 29 year-old father of three, said that he has wanted to enter the medical profession since he was four years old, when he innocently asked his pediatrician what he would have to do to become an MD.
When he told his parents that he wanted to be a doctor, they saw it “as a cute thing that children say,” he recalled. But when he continued insisting on his chosen profession at age 16, it ceased being amusing and became a source of concern for members of his family.
“As I grew up, I saw you can do it as a religious mission, as hesed [lovingkindness], which is very important part of the Jewish tradition. My mother had tears in eyes and said ‘I thought we passed the hard times,’” Sabiner told the Forward. But as he continued in yeshiva, getting high marks in Talmud and appearing to be on track to eventually become a rabbi or a religious court judge, his parents began to relax, although he would occasionally bring up the subject of medicine throughout.
While the ultra-Orthodox world is anything but monolithic, its overall workforce participation is significantly lower than in the national-religious and secular sectors, and many members of the most fervent Haredi communities shun secular studies and higher education.
According to figures released by the Israel Democracy Institute in December, some 45 percent of Haredim live in poverty and just under half of Haredi men are unemployed. Employment figures tend to be lower among members of “Lithuanian” or non-Hasidic Haredim. Despite these figures, however, there has been an increase in the number of Haredim studying for professional careers and the average Haredi monthly income increased by eight percent between 2015-16, “reflect[ing] a rise in ultra-Orthodox salaries among those employed,” according to the IDI. These gains can be credited to the “rise in the number of well-educated members of the ultra-Orthodox community and the advancement of ultra-Orthodox workers in the labor market (as a result of a combination of appropriate skills and education, and government programs).”
Sabiner’s dreams did not fade after his marriage. When he again announced that he intended to become a doctor, his parents replied that it was an issue for him and his wife to handle, while his new bride broke out crying.
“It almost destroyed our marriage,” he recalled, describing how her wife had thought she was marrying a future rabbi.
However, she soon had a change of heart and “came to me with tears in eyes, still upset, and said she won’t be the one to destroy my dream.”
Enrolling in a academic preparatory program run by the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, Sabiner worked hard to make up all of the education that he missed attending a Haredi school. “I didn’t know anything, even the ABCs, [certainly] not to write or read in English,” he said. Studying late into the night, his wife helping him, and he gradually began to approach the level of education necessary to undertake medical studies.
After he left the Technion’s Haredi program and integrated into their primary track together with secular students, social life was initially awkward but he was soon accepted by his peers as just another student.
“The beginning was very strange,” he recalled. “It already began in the entrance of the building. The guard stopped me and wouldn’t let me go in: ‘What are you doing here?’ Girls were terrified to sit next to me, but after two weeks the ice melted and I have probably the best fiends of my lifetime here.”
Back in the Hasidic community, Sabiner initially kept his studies secret, but after he let the cat out of the bag he said he was surprised by the response.
“I give classes in my shul about halacha and ethics and medicine,” he said. “I cannot say that I’ve had any problems in the last couple of years.”
And despite their initial reluctance to support his dream, once he had chosen his path, Sabiner said that his parents became his biggest supporters, both financially and emotionally, giving him the breathing room to finish his studies.
Overall, he said, the majority of Gerrer Hasidim are in the workforce so his decision to work wasn’t as surprising to people as his choice of career, and he thinks that there is definitely a desire by many of his contemporaries to enter higher education and the professions.
“Almost from the beginning, I received emails and phone calls from the whole spectrum of the Haredi community, asking how to get into medical school,” he said, adding that he believes efforts to force the Haredim to include secular subjects in their school curricula would probably backfire. “Attempts to force change are creating a reaction of negativism and can destroy the willingness for revolution in our community. I really think it’s a process that’s continuing and we must minimize the intervention so that it will be successful.”
And despite their initial reluctance to support his dream, Sabiner’s parents have since become his biggest supporters, both financially and emotionally, giving him the breathing room to finish his studies.
Sabiner, who is in the final stages of his medical degree, has a message for his fellow Haredim.
“We are not cola bottles from the factory, where all the bottles come in the same shape and color. Everybody is an individual and if you want something you should dream the highest [dreams] and do your best to achieve it whether it’s being a rosh yeshiva or doctor or lawyer,” he said.
Sam Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Israel. A former Jerusalem Post and IBA News correspondent, he is the author of ‘Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry’.
JTA contributed to this report