Zionism and the need to remedy a nursing shortage are working hand-in-hand in southern Israel. For the past eight years, the head nurse of the Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheva, Masha Hechtlinger, has been traveling as often as five times a year to the former Soviet Union to interview and recruit potential Jewish nurses.
She goes armed with the promise of financial support, while the nurses learn Hebrew and prepare to take Israel’s rigorous test to become registered nurses. And she holds out the prospect of employment at Soroka for those who pass the exam.
For Douglas Rimsky of Scarsdale, a regular contributor to UJA-Federation who was looking for a program in Israel to fund, this project was a natural.
“It excited us because it is a win-win situation,” he explained. “It brings in Russian immigrants and trains them to fill the need for nurses in the Negev. That helps solve the problem of bringing in those who end up a drain on the economy.”
Rimsky said he and his wife, Phyllis, along with their daughter, Sarah, who was then 19, went to Israel two years ago to view several projects. He said he and Sarah, who accompanied him to Soroka, were instantly taken with its staff and the nurses they met.
“We went into a classroom where a new group of nurses were and we discussed their expectations,” Rimsky recalled. “They said they didn’t realize they had so much to learn about nursing and how hard the adjustment was from a language standpoint. But they were a closely bonded group and they were proud of what they had done in Russia.”
Next, Rimsky said, he and his daughter met with working nurses who had graduated from the training program, which usually takes three years to complete.
“One was assisting in the operating room, another had moved up three levels and was now one of the head nurses, and we were told that another nurse had continued her education and become a doctor,” he said. “We were very impressed with them. They were extremely resourceful.”
Rimsky, who owns a textile firm in Manhattan, said he was so impressed that he opted to contribute $300,000 to the project. “You get more of a synergy with this program—two bangs for the same buck,” he said. In a phone interview from her home in Israel, Hechtlinger, Soroka’s head nurse, said she goes to the former Soviet Union accompanied by representatives of the Jewish Agency. That organization, one of whose goals is to encourage immigration to Israel, tells nurses about the Soroka program and screens potential applicants for Hechtlinger to consider. She said she then interviews each one and offers the opportunity only to those she believes have the ability and drive to meet the challenges ahead in Israel. Hechtlinger noted that she has interviewed more than 2,500 nurses since 1990 in the former Soviet Union and that 384 accepted her offer, 53 of them men. Most of them were single and between the ages of 20 and 30. Hechtlinger guessed that 80 percent are now married, some to other hospital personnel.
Mona Abramson, executive director of the American Friends of the Soroka University Medical Center of the Negev, said the nurses are given a small stipend on which to live while they learn Hebrew and study for the nurses’ exam. She said the stipend is designed to allow the nurses to spend full-time on their studies without the distraction of having to work.
Abramson said the number of nurses who arrive as a group to start training has been as high as 58. But Hechtlinger said that number has declined to about 35 because classroom space in the hospital is at a premium.
A new classroom will cost about $250,000. Funding for it, along with support for other aspects of the program, is something for which UJA-Federation’s capital campaign is seeking supporters, according to Carol Weintraub, executive director of UJA-Federation’s capital development fund and special initiatives. (For information, call Weintraub at 212 836-1785.)She said one Long Island donor contributed enough to build a nursery at Soroka for the staff’s preschool children. The impetus for the nursery came from the immigrant nurses’ program because the new arrivals who brought their small children with them did not have a family support system to care for the children.
Hechtlinger said that depending upon their work shift, starting nurses at Soroka earn about $1,500 per month, which is comparable to the salary of a middle-income family.
There are 700 nurses at Soroka today and once expansion plans are completed in the next few years, Hechtlinger said another 500 nurses would be needed.