The great Torah scholar Maimonides affectionately known still to this day as Ramban by rabbis and yeshiva students alike was also a physician who toiled to heal the sick. At the height of his medical career, Maimonides became the personal physician of Saladin, one of the most powerful Arab rulers in history. Ever since Jews and Medicine have appeared to be closely intertwined. My own grandfather Paul B. Szanto had left Hungary after World War I to study medicine at the University of Vienna at a time when many Jews had taken up medicine in Vienna.
I have discovered that the spirit of Maimonides very much lives on at the University of Miami . I first started to realize this as a guest at Dr. Michael Lewis’ Passover seder back when he was assistant dean at the Miller School of Medicine. Lewis went out of his away to accommodate as many medical residents during the holidays as he could.
The Jewish Medical Society Association (JMSA) at UM provides a community for Jewish students. Drs. Alex and Hilit Mechaber have often hosted the students at their home for Shabbat dinner. Internal medicine resident Sabrina Taldone who also received her BS, MBA, and MD from UM says the dinners made her “feel welcome and comfortable with her medical school extended family.” JMSA provides Jewish medical students lunchtime lectures by rabbis, cultural resources, and support for holidays.
Howard Levene, a neurosurgeon at UM tells of having to help organize a minyan for another physician who needed to say Kaddish. “We met, davened, and ate guava rugelach,” Levene explains. As a member of the admissions committee of the medical school, Levene had to once explain to the other members that a religious student would be a really good fit because South Florida has the third largest Jewish community. As a ENT resident at UM, Ronen Nazarian remembers “the magical experience” of joining a Havdallah lighting in a patient room during surgical rounds on a “lonely Saturday night.” “For me it meant even more to have an opportunity to slow down and reminisce on traditions I used to share with my family 2,000 miles away,” Nazarian recalls.
University of Miami also played a key role in helping Bar Ilan University set up Israel’s fifth medical school, The Azrieli Faculty of Medicine in Safed. Very much in the tradition of Maimonides, the affiliated Ziv Medical Center in Safed treats Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Druze patients. During the Lebanon War in 2006, both injured soldiers and civilians received their treatment there and today many victims of Syria’s Civil War are also cared for there. Michael Lewis and Dr. Joseph Rosenblatt, then interim director of the Sylvester Cancer Center at UM, took part in early planning meetings for Azrieli. The Sylvester Cancer Center assists Bar Ilan in enhancing the quality of cancer care in Israel’s Galilee as a result of signed agreements. Another Miami area connection to the Azrieli School at Bar Ilan are major Miami Beach supporters Dr. Marc and Karen Rivo.
Despite the long history of Jews in Medicine, when my grandfather, Paul Szanto, came to the United States Jewish physicians and students still faced discrimination. Rosalind Franklin University where my father Philip Szanto taught pathology for 30 years was originally established to help disadvantaged Jewish students. Similarly, Jewish hospitals like Mount Sinai in Miami Beach were established throughout the United States to provide a place where Jewish medical students, physicians, and patients could all feel welcome.
The strength of our healthcare and medical education is enhanced by embracing diversity. I am happy to see the Jewish community continues to play a large role in supporting healthcare as well as medical research and education.
The focus on diversity is not limited to the medical school at the University of Miami. The new president of the University of Miami exemplifies diversity. Julio Frenk’s grandfather fled the Nazis and his mother’s family came from the Canary Islands. As health minister in Mexico, Frenk greatly expanded the availability of healthcare. Frenk went on to be a very successful dean of the Public Health School at Harvard before coming to the University of Miami.