JNF USA Doctors Mission Connects to a Healthy Israel

Monday, December 08, 2014 2:23 PM

“I’ve been in Israel many times, but until now I never knew about the amazing innovations happening here.”

A JNF USA Doctors for Israel Mission visited Israel from the USA for a week of tours, meetings with medical professionals and getting acquainted with KKL-JNF's diverse projects, a number of which are funded by JNF-USA. From start-ups in northern Israel to medical centers in the Arava, the members of the mission learned about Israel and its innovations, especially in the field of medical technology.

Group photo at the Yair R&D in the Arava. Photo: Jessica Schwartz-Schapiro

“Our objective is to promote contacts between American and Israeli medical professionals, and to become acquainted with KKL-JNF's diverse projects in Israel,” said Dr. Robert Norman, who co-chaired the Doctors for Israel Mission. “It is amazing to see how the country is developing, not only in medicine, but in all areas. There is a true spirit of initiative here, of creativity and innovation.”

Medical Start-Ups in the Galilee

Dr. Ronna Schneider at the Vidor Center.
Photo: Yoav Devir

The tour began in northern Israel, where the doctors got a close-up look at some hi-tech companies developing medical technologies. At the Convergent Radiotherapy and Radio Surgery Company in Tirat HaCarmel, they heard about the development of low-energy X-rays for cancer treatment and surgical operations that maximize precision levels and minimize damage to health. At the Given Imaging Company in Yokneam, they heard about ingestible capsules that contain tiny cameras for facilitating visual examination of the digestive system. At Argo Medical Technologies, also in Yokneam, they were impressed by a robotic suit that enables people with spinal injuries to stand and to walk.

Later in the day, they hiked in the Carmel Forest and visited a memorial for the victims of the devastating Carmel fire that happened four years ago. There, they heard about the damage to the forest and about how nature heals itself.

“This mission is the first doctors' mission we’ve organized,” said Dr. Ronna Schneider, who co-chaired the mission. “It is important for us that the doctors get involved with what’s happening in Israel, in the field of medicine and any other fields that interest them. This way they will connect to the people and to the country.”

Building the Negev

The second day began with a visit to the protected playground in the city of Sderot, which was funded by JNF-USA and provides a wonderful bomb-proof play area for the children of Sderot and its surrounding environs. At the Aleh Negev Eran Rehabilitation Village, the members of the mission were impressed by the warmth and the professional services provided for children and teenagers with mental limitations combined with severe physical handicaps. The village was built with assistance from friends of KKL-JNF in the USA and in other countries.

Dr. Robert Norman. Photo: Yoav Devir

In the Beersheva River Park, another project funded by JNF-USA, they saw how a neglected and polluted area has become an expansive beautiful park and has created a real change in the lifestyle of the residents of the city and of the region.

The next stop on their tour was at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel (AMHSI), a unique study abroad program for teens in Israel located next to Beersheva, which was built thanks to contributions from JNF-USA. There, they met teachers and American high school students, who told the guests about their preparation for college studies in Israel, and their experiences, which are connecting them to Israeli life.

During the course of their visit at AMHSI, the group dedicated a new study center at the campus, which was built thanks to the support of Dr. Robert Norman.

Later that day, they met Beersheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovic and representatives from the Or Movement, which are involved in spearheading the development of new communities in the Negev, and they discovered how the vision of the development of the Negev is becoming a reality thanks to people with initiative, hope and good faith.

Agriculture and Science in the Arava

Students from Ethiopia at AICAT, with Manager of Affinity Gruops Jessica Schwartz Schapiro and Dr. Robert Norman. Photo: Yoav Devir

The next day began in Paran, a village in the Arava, where they heard a presentation given by Samantha Levy, Research & Development Coordinator at the Central Arava Regional Council. She told them about life in this distant region, about coping with the dry and hot desert climate, about the agriculture there, which is flourishing in spite of the harsh conditions, and about joint ventures with JNF-USA and with friends of KKL-JNF all over the world, for the residential and agricultural development of the area, and for the promotion of tourism in the region.

Their next stop was the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training (AICAT), where they met Hani Arnon, the director of the center. She told them that they train more than a thousand students a year from developing countries, such as Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and India. This unique educational program offers theoretical studies alongside practical experience on the farms of the Arava. The advanced agricultural technology developed in Israel, some of it funded by KKL-JNF, contributes to the benefit of developing countries.

Group photo outside the Arava Medical Center. Photo: Yoav Devir

“Graduates of the program return to their countries with knowledge and agricultural expertise and, no less important, with the conviction that it is possible to make the desert bloom,” said Levy. 
“During their time here, they get to know the country, and they become goodwill ambassadors for Israel.”
“We get a lot of experience here,” said Minda Shafrao, the student leader of the interns from Ethiopia, to the Doctors for Israel Mission, “and we hope to introduce the technologies we have learned here in our countries.”

At the Arava Medical Center, the American doctors were impressed by the modern facility that had been built with support from JNF-USA, and they met Dr. Eitan Lavan, who had recently completed his medical studies and decided to work in the Arava. He told the members of the mission about the challenges of providing advanced medical care to residents of rural Israel.

Irit Shahar, Health Coordinator at the Regional Council, said that the new medical center, which opened around half a year ago, has effected a significant change in health services, and is providing high-quality medical care for the regional population, which numbers about 3,000.

Cardiologist Dr. Mark Zweben was interested in knowing how many of the residents were over sixty, and when he heard there were around 500, he smiled and said, “Excellent, so there’s work here for a cardiologist.” The medical staff promised to welcome him in the Arava, of course.

Dr. Mark Zweben at the Vidor Center. Photo: Yoav Devir

Yair R&D greenhouse. Photo: Yoav Devir

The doctors proceeded to the Vidor Center and the Yair R&D for Arava Agriculture, a research and development station for applied scientific research in the development of agricultural techniques and the determination of suitable crops for growing in the singular conditions of the Arava.

Samantha Levy with a cucumber/watermelon crossbreed. Photo: Yoav Devir

The scientists at the R&D station are developing technologies for making farms more efficient, improving the quality of the produce, and extending the growing season. Biological pesticides, acclimatization of tropical fish for aquariums, desalinization of seawater using solar energy, developing super-foods for the promotion of nutritional security in the world—this is some of the fascinating applied research being conducted here.

Growing vegetables is the most prominent enterprise in the Arava region, but at the Yair R&D station they are exploring additional possibilities, for example: vineyards, flowers, fruit trees, drip-irrigated rice cultivation, even the development of medicines from medicinal plants.

Dr. Rivki Ofir, one of the research scientists at the Yair R&D, spoke about studies for locating medicinal desert plants and investigating their medical capabilities. She took the members of the mission on a tour of the modern laboratories at the R&D station and said, “We are hoping to attract scientists who are interested in different fields of study, to come and live here with us in the Arava.”

Dreidle shaped chilli peppers. Photo: Yoav Devir

A research study on worms for finding a cure for Huntington’s disease was presented by Dr. Ziggy Winters Dr. Neva Bloom described research being done for developing drugs for ALS and other illnesses by experimenting with Zebra fish. “It turns out that in the faraway Arava you can do serious scientific research,” said the scientist, who had been trained at the Weizmann Institute before choosing to live in the Arava.

Mirit Holman-Kanjuk from Moshav Idan spoke about how she came to live in the Arava because of love and then fell in love with the place, too, and with the pioneering spirit of the people. “We are raising our two children here in a warm community and a special atmosphere,” she said. “I am very excited about getting to meet the people behind KKL-JNF, because you are helping us develop this region.”

Dr. Maayan Katrun, another scientist at the R&D, took the members of the mission on a tour of the greenhouses and showed them the diverse agricultural developments—bitter melons that combat diabetes, a species which combines watermelon with cucumber, strawberries that grow above the ground, chili peppers shaped like spinning tops, and so on.

Left: Interactive sand table at the Vidor Center.
Right: Skinny eggplants in the greenhouse. Photos: Yoav Devir

At the Vidor Center – A Window to Arava Agriculture, which was built with the support of JNF Australia, the members of the mission enjoyed the interactive multimedia displays which got them acquainted with the people, the agriculture, and the local fauna and flora of the Arava, and the challenges of living in the desert. 

Dr. Esther Fischer. Photo: Yoav Devir

The guests were impressed by the showcases, which included a sand table with computerized visuals illustrating topographical processes and information about crops, which you hear when you move the sand; wooden boxes with hidden video screens showing personal stories about families in the Arava; presentations about biological pesticides a beehive and an aquarium.

The final day of the tour was in Jerusalem, where the members of the mission visited the Hadassah Medical Center and met doctors who had immigrated to Israel. “I’ve been in Israel many times, but until now I never knew about the amazing innovations happening here,” concluded Dr. Esther Fischer. “I didn’t know about the desert, and I didn’t know about the agriculture, the residential development and the scientific research. This visit was an eye-opener.”