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Pioneering head of Rambam Hospital’s radiology department has an aliyah story as unique as her career

Dr. Marcia Javitt in her office. (Jared Bernstein/ Courtesy)
Dr. Marcia Javitt in her office. (Jared Bernstein/ Courtesy)

“I cleared up a little extra time to speak,” said Dr. Marcia Javitt early into our telephone interview, from her home in the northern Israeli coastal town of Zichron Yaakov.

This was generous — Javitt heads the radiology department at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, the largest department in the massive health care campus which serves northern Israel’s 2 million citizens, and there’s no doubt that her time is precious.

It was also necessary. Like many olim, or new immigrants to Israel, the story of Javitt’s aliyah — the Hebrew word for the immigration and naturalization process — touches on the personal, professional, and even philosophical. It wasn’t going to be adequately covered in less than half an hour.

Javitt, who is also Visiting Professor of Radiology at Haifa’s Technion University, had a laundry list of credentials when she arrived as a new olah in 2013 — and that was before her huge contributions to Israeli medicine. In her native United States, she headed up departments at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Johns Hopkins at Green Spring Station, University of Maryland, and George Washington University.

She helped found the field of Women’s Imaging, and pioneered imaging techniques aimed at early diagnosis of breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer. In Israel, she’s jump-started research in prostate cancer and breast cancer therapy and screening, and set up a point-of-care learning center in Rambam Hospital that teaches doctors and first responders how to save lives in case of emergency by using ultrasound technology as a “modern stethoscope.”

So it makes sense that Nefesh B’Nefesh, the nonprofit organization which helps facilitate aliyah to Israel from the US, Canada, and the UK, awarded Javitt its prestigious Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in 2018. The prize, established by Nefesh B’Nefesh in September 2013, formally recognizes the achievements of outstanding olim from English-speaking countries and their contributions to the State of Israel.

Dr. Marcia Javitt, center, receives the Bonei Zion Prize from Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2018. (Nati Cohen/ NBN)

As aliyah from Western countries continues to increase, English-speaking olim are making a remarkable impact on the Jewish State economically, socially, and culturally, contributing to Israeli society in all fields. The Bonei Zion Prize is an expression of appreciation for olim who helped bring Israel forward and in recognition of those who encapsulate the spirit of modern-day Zionism.

The Times of Israel spoke to Javitt as nominations come in for the 2021 prize. Through the end of the year, people can submit their nominations for any of the prize’s six fields: Community and Nonprofit; Education; Global Impact; Science and Medicine; Young Leadership; and Culture, Art, and Sports. The following conversation has been edited for length.

There is such diversity among the new immigrants arriving in Israel, who come for so many different reasons. Can you tell us a little bit about your cultural and religious background, and whether this influenced your decision to move to Israel?

Growing up, I lived in a home with a set of parents who were spiritually deeply religious, but at the same time not what you might consider to be completely inflexible. Unfortunately, my family circumstances were very challenging. My father became ill when he was in his 40s and 50s, my mother went to work full-time — which was unusual in those days. A woman working as an executive in a business environment was not a commonplace occurrence in the 1960s. And she had a tough time, it was not easy. She’d often tell me that you have to think like a man and act like a woman. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant at the time, but since then I’ve figured it out.

But she was struggling to keep our family fed and clothed and housed, and she did a great job, and then she developed breast cancer. So we didn’t have a lot of money. And my early experience with Judaism was related to family and the culture in which I grew up. We couldn’t afford a fancy private Hebrew school, so I couldn’t go. I went for a few years and then when things got tough I stopped going. So what I know and learned had a lot more to do with our nuclear family and close relatives than anything else.

And then my husband’s family was so cordial, welcoming, and gracious, as was the entire community — I’ll call it a community, because that’s what it was — of their friends and family. And they were deeply rooted in Jewish religion, so it was easy to continue my connection to the religion. Now we have a home which is spiritually Jewish and religiously Jewish, but like my parents, we are not inflexible. We simply observe the Sabbath, we simply inculcate the same values and priorities in our children that we had growing up, and it’s harmonized. And our children practice the religion as well.

Now we have a home which is spiritually Jewish and religiously Jewish, but like my parents, we are not inflexible

So how did you decide to make the big move?

So, probably 10 or 15 years ago my husband says to me, “I think we should move to Israel.” And my response is, “What are you talking about? I’m at the top of my game, I’m extending the academic ladder.” I didn’t imagine that there was any place for me to work in Israel that could possibly be interesting or rewarding. I’m an American woman. I didn’t serve in the Israeli military, I wasn’t connected to that academic community. I supposed I could try to find a way in, but I couldn’t imagine it. So he says, “Well, maybe I’ll go over there one day and you’ll follow me.”

Fast forward to 2012, we’re in Israel back and forth, we’d had a home in Jerusalem for about a decade then, and I hear from someone who I knew as a young resident in training, and he says, “you’re here in Israel to celebrate Passover, why don’t you just go talk to the people at Rambam Hospital, they’re looking for a new chairman of radiology.” I said, “are you kidding me? I’m an American woman,” and I gave him the same litany of things I just said before. And he said, “just go talk to them. Send me your CV and I’ll let them know you’re coming.” But I didn’t expect anything to come of it.

I walk into Rambam and there I find a stellar group of managers, a completely outstanding clinical service in radiology with similar high quality in the clinical specialties surrounding it, and beyond that, here’s this enclave of content matter experts and clinicians in this very amazing tertiary care hospital, which sits right across the street from the Technion, which is a brain trust of basic science. And they were looking for somebody to take the reins of the department and stitch together a closer connection between Rambam and the Technion by bridging the gap with translational research and education, and so on.

I really didn’t think anything would happen – I had a great time, I loved meeting the people, I went home. Well, they called me back and said “you need to visit us again.” So I went back and I spoke to the group again, and the next thing I know, I’m making aliyah, because it was too good to be true. It was just that simple — it was unbelievable.

And I suppose you could be amused because I’m the one who made aliyah, and he’s the one who ended up following me!

The entrance to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Did Zionism or support of the State of Israel play into it at all?

So we’re seriously Zionistic in that way, we are supporters of the State of Israel. We voted with our feet, we showed up here. And I don’t regret it for a second. I love this country. I love being here.

I remember, when I first came to work at Rambam, I went to human resources like everyone does, and they explained to me what they expect, and my responsibilities, and clocking in and clocking out, and then they said, “and here are the Jewish holidays that are officially observed.” And I looked at this list and I started to cry. They said, “what’s wrong?” I was weeping because all my life I’ve had to fight to get some of those days off. I’ve had to negotiate, manipulate, cajole, beg, sometimes even just not have those days off because people were impossible. And here someone was saying to me, “you’re Jewish, you’re in your homeland, you are home. We observe these holidays. You don’t need to struggle. Here they are.” It was so meaningful to me — it was an endorsement of what I had done.

Illustrative: Celebrating the harvest on Shavuot at Jerusalem’s First Station (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

Can you tell us about how it’s different working as a medical professional in Israel as opposed to the United States?

Obviously the biggest difference is that Israel has nationalized healthcare; the United States really does not. And the mechanics, logistics, and operational aspects of the business side of medicine in the US is very different than it is here. In the US, there’s still a relatively prevalent fee-for-service construct. There’s a drive to do more and get paid more. The more stuff you read and do, the more you get reimbursed and paid.

In Israel that’s not really the case, the nationalized healthcare is an entitlement. And there are advantages and disadvantages in both systems, but to manage in a system like the one in Israel, one has to be mindful of the objectives that were set forth that started the system in the first place. To allow each and every citizen of this country to be entitled to be taken care of is a major advance, in my opinion.

Do you have any advice for medical students or even established physicians and medical professionals who are thinking about moving to Israel?

Yes, first understand that human beings are the same wherever you go. They’re seeking assistance — they want to be made better, they want to be cured, they want to be helped, and human nature is pretty much the same wherever you are. So the experience of treating the patients is going to be a little bit different by virtue of the system you operate in and the incentives that are functional in the system here compared to other places, but the people are not that different. People are people wherever you go.

So I would suggest that anyone who’s interested in living in this culture and having the kind of freedoms and advantages I’ve described earlier, explore it. Come and visit! Come visit me, I’ll show you my place if you’re interested in radiology. I’m open to that — I have people come and see me, and I welcome them. I got an email yesterday from someone in New York State who is a chairman of a department and said he’s always been interested in making aliyah and can we speak? And I said of course, and I’m going to call him.

Illustrative: A doctor checks a medical ventilator control panel while wearing protective clothing at the Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, March 16, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

But it’s said that medical professionals don’t make as much money in Israel.

One of the biggest things that’s an impediment to people coming over here is that the salary scale, quite frankly, for physicians here is much, much less than in the United States. And it stops people, it gives them pause. And the young folks growing up in Israel — I have many friends who have teenagers and people in their early 20s who are in and out of the military — they look at their job prospects in Israel, and sometimes they leave. Because they want to be able to have that life, that great life, the American dream. They want all the things that we talk about in theory: the house with the picket fence, they want to have all the advantages of a nice fancy car and this and that.

But you know what, I hate to say it given the fact that people want it, but — that’s stuff. That’s disposables. Those things are gettable if you really want to get them. You can get them here in Israel, you can get them elsewhere — maybe it’s a little easier in the US — but it’s just stuff. It doesn’t feed your soul. It doesn’t make you into a happy individual.

Some of the most unhappy people I know are people you and I would probably refer to as very wealthy. They don’t have the satisfaction of being surrounded by people who love them, to love and be loved, to be embraced by a community, to be warmly welcomed into a Shabbat service or to someone’s Shabbat table. They may have a big bank account, but it doesn’t help.

Illustrative: A Shabbat meal. (Gefilteria/Shulie Seidler Feller)

Can you talk a little bit about working with Nefesh B’Nefesh and your aliyah process?

They were incredible. I wouldn’t have been able to manage without them. And it’s hard to explain in a short time exactly how important they were to me and many, many others. It’s a big decision to make aliyah, and you need to have a lot of information in order to process all of the challenges that come along down the road — which in my case came very quickly.

I told you the story of my first couple of visits to Rambam. I then put in a bid for the job, and then Rambam was in touch with me with a very short timeline for me to decide to take the job or not. There had been a little bit of a breakdown in communication through no one’s particular fault, and I had roughly 48 hours to get to Israel, make aliyah, go apply for the job, and get it all finished in that amount of time — including obtaining a medical license. This is an epic story, people don’t believe it really happened.

At that time, there was a shutdown of the American government, the passport office was closed, it was impossible to get almost anything done, and my passport was expiring at the exact minimum amount of time that you’re allowed to travel internationally. I think you need about six months left on your passport to travel internationally, and I was down to the last couple of hours, just by chance.

So I jumped on a plane, flew to New York, went to the Jewish Agency, got an aliyah visa, went from that office to the airport, got on a flight to Tel Aviv, went out of the arrival gate directly to the aliyah office in Ben Gurion Airport, where I made aliyah, I took my new Israeli passport, my rollerboard suitcase, I got in a taxi and went to Jerusalem where I met with someone in the licensing office to apply for a temporary medical license. They gave me a number. I went from there in a taxi up to Rambam, I got on a computer, had a little bit of help from one of the nice people in human resources, and I entered all the data including the medical license number, my new passport number, my new Israeli ID number, and made the application successfully. And that all happened in under 24 hours.

Illustrative image of visitors in Zichron Yaakov, on February 4, 2017. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Did you still have your rollerboard suitcase with you?

[Laughing.] I did! It was crazy! And then I took a taxi to this little bed and breakfast in Zichron Yaakov, where I stayed for the next day or two, and I fell in love with that town, and that’s pretty much how we ended up building a house here.

But I want to make a point here, which is that the people in Nefesh B’Nefesh were so kind and so helpful, not only about the documentation that I needed and helping me to get where I needed to go, but also for everyday issues that come up — things that you need to know. Like how do you get enrolled and what do you do once you’re enrolled in the kupot [national health insurance carriers] for your health care, are you allowed to import goods, do you have any benefits. They told me so many critically important basic things about everyday life that were so useful, and I still sometimes go to the website for questions, now, even today, having been here six years full time. I think they’re great, and they’re really a special group of people. It’s an amazing organization, and they have my respect and my gratitude. They’ll have it forever.

This article was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA. Nominations for the 2021 Bonei Zion Prize are currently being accepted through December 31, 2020. Click here to submit your nomination via the Nefesh B’Nefesh website.

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