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A Lifetime of Achievement, From New York to Beer Sheva

Jewish Press Exclusive: Head of Ben Gurion University medical school set to receive prestigious Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion prize
Professor Dr. Shimon Glick

Professor Dr. Shimon Glick
Photo Credit: Beit Moriah Synagogue, Beer Sheva

Israel looked quite a bit different the first time Seymour Glick visited from his home in New York. The year was 1954, the population of Israel stood at just 1.7 million people and Glick had decided to use the summer between his third and fourth years of medical school to get to know the country that had been born just six years earlier. 

“I was 22 years old and I saw one of the truly great historic events – creating a new country after 2000 years, reviving a language, reclaiming the desert – taking place, right before my eyes,” Glick told The Jewish Press this week. “It was an amazing time, and I kept thinking about what I would be able to tell my grandchildren when they asked ‘what did you contribute to this.

Sixty years later, it’s a question Prof. Dr. Shimon Glick shouldn’t have too much trouble answering. Under his tutelage, the medical school at Ben Gurion University of the Negev has become a leading teaching hospital and research facility, as well as a backbone of medical support for the city of Beer Sheva. Before the age of 30 his research lab made a major breakthrough in the field of hormone isolation; that discovery, as well as his subsequent endocrinology research, has been cited in medical journals hundreds of times. 

In addition, Dr Glick used his platform as dean of the medical school to develop a curriculum in Jewish medical ethics, a field he says simply did not exist when he began his career. His insistence that top-flight medical researchers also have a responsibility to display compassionate bedside manner has made the school one of Israel’s most celebrated institutions. 

Oh yeah, and then there’s his family, well over 100 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all living in Israel. The family is represented in nearly all communities of Israel: One son teaches in a Haredi yeshiva. Another, also a doctor, doubles as the head of an emergency room in Cleveland, Ohio and of the Efrat Emergency Medical Center, halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron. The centre has won accolades for providing quality medical care to local Jews and Arabs alike. Another son is an active member in the political struggle to force the government to protect Jews’ religious freedom on the Temple Mount. 

Nor has his involvement in Israeli society and the Jewish world been limited to the field of medicine. In the 1970s and 80s, Glick visited the Soviet Union multiple times, with a clear message to Soviet leaders and Jews alike: The world has not forgotten you. Since moving to Beer Sheva in 1974, his adopted hometown has recognised his volunteer activity in the city twice. He’s a perennial candidate for the Israel Prize. 

And yet, when meeting with Dr Glick there is little to indicate that one is speaking with an internationally renowned researcher or the emeritus dean of a prestigious medical school. In contrast to the heads of many university institutes or administrators, there are no leather chairs in his office, no large desk, no corner office with a view of the city.

Instead, Glick maintains a simple, spare office no larger than the researchers and doctors he has overseen since he founded the medical school in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War. Most of the space in the room is occupied by bookshelves, packed dense with medical volumes – Jews & Medicine, Jewish & Catholic Bioethics, Pioneers in Jewish Medical Ethics. Ring binders hold research articles. 

As Glick prepared to accept the Nefesh B’Nefesh Bonei Tzion Award for Lifetime Achievement on Thursday, Jewish Press reporter Avi Tuchmayer met with him for an exclusive interview about his career, Israel, the medical profession and more. 

AT: You were 42 years old at top of your profession, recognised as one of the top doctors in the United States. What inspired you to drop it all and move to Israel? 

I first came to Israel as a medical student in 1954, for the summer between my third and fourth year in medical school. Spent a summer here, at Tel Hashomer, I don’t even remember coming through beer sheva.

Anyway, the Jewish Agency had a program that brought doctors to Israel, but they’d cancelled it for that year. So I contacted individual hospitals, Tel Hashomer said “come,” they gave me a room.  That’s when I decided to make Aliya. 

At that point, decided to make Aliya. It took another 20 years,but eventually we made it. 

What took 20 years?

Ah, there was always something coming up – a new job, a new research grant. I had to finish medical school, then an internship and a residency. 

In 1967 I came to volunteer after the Six Day War. At that time I was offered a job at Shaarei Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, to take over for the outgoing medical director, Prof. Dr. Shlezinger. It’s probably a smart thing I didn’t take it – I’m not sure I was ready at that time to run an Israeli hospital. It’s not easy now, with all I know. I knew I wasn’t ready to come yet.

So what happened that finally pushed the envelope and caused you to make the move? 

I heard that Ben Gurion University wanted to open a medical school – it would have been 1971 or 1972. I wrote to Professor Moshe Pryves, who was then head of the university and head of the medical school. Interestingly enough, Dr Pryves had written to me independently at the same time. Our letters crossed. He’d heard of me from a colleague.

Anyway, I received his invitation, came to look it over, and here I am. 

That was a tough time to make Aliya. Not too many people were interested in throwing their lot with Israel after the trauma of the Yom Kippur War.

Yes, it was a tough time to make aliya. Looking back, I don’t know how they opened the medical school at that time. There were money problems, half the students were in long-dan long-term miluim. But somehow we did it, I really don’t know how. But that’s why Israel works. If you don’t grab opportunity, then things simply don’t happen. 

Tell me about Israel in 1974.

Well, to start with, Beer Sheva then had 70,000 people. We’ve now got 200,000.

And how did the family adapt to Israel? 

What can I tell you, we were very well received. Financially, we were very fortunate: the Health Fund took care of us very well. For instance, There was an apartment building going up in town for the medical school, but the apartments there were not big enough for our family of six kids. So the Fund offered to give me 2 apartments; they broke down the wall between them and redesigned the inside to suit our family. That’s where we still live.

I also have to say that if you go to shul, you’re already at home, no matter where you are. You can drop into a shul in Milan, in Hong Kong, in South America, and people welcome you in. You get invited out, and you’re part of a community. People who come here without that sort of support network don’t understand that.  They go to absorption centres, but it isn’t the same. 

What was it like building a new medical school from scratch? 

Well, I came to new institution, so I could set a lot of the ground rules. We did a lot of things that simply weren’t done in traditional med schools – we introduced students to patients in their first year, for instance. That was as unheard of. Our admission procedure placed greater emphasis on our impressions of the applicant from our personal interview, rather than grades. 

We also administered the physician’s oath when a new class entered the school, rather than when they finished school. So there were a lot of unique factors about the school. What does it mean that the school is “community oriented”?

About the Author: Avi is a news writer for The Jewish Press. In the past, he has covered Israel and the Jewish world for Israel National News, Ami magazine and other international media.


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