Dr. Yehuda Sabiner, First Gerrer Chassid to Graduate Medical School: “Any way you choose, you should do the best you can.”
When a 29-year-old Israeli graduates medical school, it doesn’t usually make headlines. But when Dr. Yehuda Sabiner graduated from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology Rappaport Faculty of Medicine earlier this year, his name appeared in The Forward, The Guardian, The Jerusalem Post, and other publications. Why? He’d just become the first Gerrer Chassid to complete medical school in Israel.
Like most boys growing up in Ger, Dr. Sabiner attended cheder. Since he was intelligent and hard-working, his family expected he would end up as a rabbi or dayan. However, unlike those other boys, Dr. Sabiner dreamed of becoming a doctor.
“When I was a child, I had in Jerusalem two very special pediatricians…and they were both very special in their profession but also in terms of being a mensch—in compassion and empathy to(wards) their patients.
“But as I grew up, I also understood that the field is very attractive…you have to be very smart to understand this stuff, and you must be curious about it, and it’s one of the fields…you can provide so much help and chessed to the members of your community, to human beings. So, it’s definitely one of the beams of the olam umed—you know: Torah, avodah, gemilut chasadim.”
Every once in a while, he mentioned this idea, but his parents, his teachers—they all believed it was impossible. His schools, like many Charedi institutions in Israel, did not teach secular studies. How would he obtain the secular education necessary to enter university? And why would he want to leave the noble—and socially accepted—pursuit of Torah study, anyway?
At 16, Dr. Sabiner consulted with his mashpia, telling him about his dream. He asked why did he have to study so hard in yeshiva if he planned to leave the beis medrash? Dr. Sabiner explains, “He was a very smart guy, and he told me, ‘Listen: Now you are just 16 years old. Do you want now to go out? No! You’re going to lose your shidduch, you’re going to burn yourself… If you want to be anything successful in life, then you have…to be the best in that situation. And I can guarantee you that if you’re going to bring all your effort now in yeshiva, it’s going to help you after marriage [whichever way] you go.’”
Dr. Sabiner laughs. “He was very smart, and he was also right!”
That effort that Dr. Sabiner exerted in yeshiva paid off in a number of ways. At Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, Dr. Sabiner sometimes learned 13, 14 hours a day. “In SHOVAVIM…we had a project for studying five hours in a row without going to drink, or to talk, or to the bathroom,” he explains. This developed zitzfleisch in young Yehuda which would pay off later at the Technion, where, as exams approached, it was common to pull all-nighters with study partners.
Moreover, Dr. Sabiner attended a top iyun yeshiva, which studied each subject with great depth. “I got my brain, all the time, exercised,” he says. “In yeshivos…they train you always to ask—not to trust in the lines in front of your eyes, what people said before. Always face it again, always check it, always see, ‘Is it true in this time, in this situation?’
“When you see a case of a patient, a medical case, you always try to challenge the first diagnosis, you try to challenge people who said something else, to see, is it still possible? Still true?”
However, there were several hurdles to Dr. Sabiner entering medical school. For one, he had to win over his wife, Rachel, who initially opposed his path. Although Dr. Sabiner, before their initial meeting, had attempted to alert her to his plans to leave full-time learning, his father-in-law had misinterpreted his message. Rachel had anticipated working outside the home to support their family while he remained in learning indefinitely. Had she not changed her mind, Dr. Sabiner says, “there was no chance I was going to study medicine, no way I would break our marriage for it.”
Baruch Hashem, she did change her mind, and then Dr. Sabiner needed practical assistance. That came through the Technion. In Bnei Brak, the Technion—Israel’s Cal-Tech or MIT—established a mechina, an institute to teach high-school level material on a condensed schedule. While most mechinot have nine-month programs, the Technion preparatory school for Charedim is extended to almost a year and eight months. Its programs are taught by top teachers, including some PhDs, but says Dr. Sabiner, “They’re teaching the basics. At one point, the teacher wrote on the board: N = the set of natural numbers.” And half the class asked, ‘What is N?’ and the other half asked, ‘What’s a natural number?’”
Many students dropped out, but most completed their program and went into tech or engineering fields. Some joined private firms, while others started their own businesses or entered the public sector.
Once at the Technion, in Haifa, Dr. Sabiner was at first mistaken for the kashrus supervisor rather than a student. But it didn’t take long for him to feel welcome on campus. He warmly praises the Technion. Not only did they provide scholarships and tutoring in challenging subjects like math and chemistry, the faculty trusted his ability to see his plans through. “When I said [that I wanted to become a doctor] for the first time to my family—my family wasn’t so much worried that I was going to university. They were sure I was dreaming! You grew up already! You can’t just decide at 20 years old, ‘I want to be a doctor!’ It’s impossible! The Technion believed in me.”
Asked what surprised him most during his university years, Dr. Sabiner tells of his one-month rotation in a Family Medicine practice in Bnei Brak, during which he feared other Charedim would refuse to let him remain in the room during their appointments. “[O]ut of four weeks, only four people asked me to leave. They were not Charedi! They were secular people, very modern. But in that room, we had rabbis, rebbes, rebbetzins…all of them very supportive. A little bit surprised, but very supportive.”
Dr. Sabiner, Rachel, and their children continue to live in Bnei Brak. He’s planning to specialize in either Internal Medicine or Pediatrics. (He explains, “I very, very much like the field of diagnosis and to deal with the big picture, with multi-organ systems.”) While during the most intense periods of his university life he could only snatch brief periods of Torah study—he refused to go to bed at night without learning for 10 or 15 minutes, at least—today he can fit more in. “I have chavrusos…big talmidei chachamim, and we study twice a week for a couple hours. And Motzaei Shabbat, I am studying with a big rabbi, Tur and Shulchan Aruch about the halachot refuah and refuah l’Shabbat.”
The majority of Gerrer Chassidim already work, just not in full-time, professional-level positions. As more Charedim enter university and professional careers, Dr. Sabiner expects the community will have to adjust. “[I]t’s very common to go to a shul—a Chassidic or Litvish shul, or a Modern shul—in the United States, and you see people waking up, four o’clock in the morning, five o’clock in the morning, and having a shiur for two hours before going to work. And the minute they come back from work, they have another shiur, and they are studying a lot of material. I think this is going to be the next challenge in Israel, to provide a background to support those so-called balebatim.”
Interestingly, Dr. and Mrs. Sabiner would prefer their son become a rabbi or dayan. Nonetheless, all their children will receive tutoring in math and English after school. “We want to provide them with the option that when it comes time to decide what path [they want]…[they] will have opportunities to do whatever [they] choose.
“I am not a missionary who thinks that everyone ought to go and study a profession. But a guy who does not find himself in one place should try another place. And if he’s already decided to go work, why should he bring home a salary of 6000 shekel a month, a low income, when he could go and study and pick a good profession? He could help his family, help himself, help his country. Help your community! He’ll have more money to support different things. Why not do it the right way? There are very, very, very talented people among us—boys and also girls—and they should get the full potential of whatever they want to be. I really don’t care if it’s as a rabbi, a rosh yeshiva, a lawyer, a doctor—any way you choose, you should do the best you can.”
In conclusion, Dr. Sabiner says, “I am far from being a genius. There are a lot more talented people than me. But I was stupid enough to try it the first time.” He chuckles. “I think that when people know it’s possible, they’re going to do it! You’re going to have to fight for it. It’s not easy, it’s not easy for anyone, especially someone who has never studied general sciences, but still it is possible, and once you know it’s possible, you can do it.”