Safed is a lovely town in Israel’s Galilee region that’s known for its artist colony and for being the historic centre of kabbalistic learning. But for the past seven years, there has been a more modern, scientific sort of learning in Safed.
The Azrieli faculty of medicine at Bar-Ilan University calls Safed home and a few weeks ago, Dr. Karl Skorecki was appointed as its dean.
Skorecki, a native of Toronto who attended the Community Hebrew Academy (now TanenbaumCHAT) and graduated in 1977 from the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, is still getting to know his way around the campus. He previously held several academic and leadership positions in medicine, nephrology, genetics and biomedical research at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.
One thing he’s sure of is that the Azrieli medical school plays an important role in improving people’s health in northern Israel.
Several years ago, Israel’s ministries of health and education made a strategic decision to increase the number of medical students in the country. Though Israel rates high on the World Health Organization’s evaluation of international medical systems, it does need more doctors, particularly in the north, where Safed is located. Much like northern Ontario, the Galilee is considered the periphery of the country and is under-serviced medically, Skorecki said in a telephone interview from Israel.
Bar Ilan’s faculty of medicine is affiliated with six northern hospitals, including those in Tiberias, Safed, Nahariya and three in Nazareth. It also maintains close relationships with a number of clinics in smaller communities in the north.
The Galilee is home to more than one-million people and is known for possessing unique challenges for medical practitioners, Skorecki continued.
People in the Galilee experience greater incidence of diabetes, genetic diseases, cardiovascular occurrences and infectious diseases than in the rest of the country.
The school can help address those issues by graduating more doctors, promoting medical research and education, and upgrading the health and well-being of people living in the region, Skorecki said.
The Bar Ilan medical school not only attracts top medical students, it also brings in researchers, while providing interesting research opportunities for graduate students who continue to work in the north, he said.
“One of the goals I have is to meet the challenge of attracting outstanding applicants who are attracted to the mission of the school, which is more of a societal dimension, to give back to society. We are trying to create a difference in terms of social accountability and contribute to society,” he said.
Skorecki believes that students who hail from other parts of the country will come to Safed and fall in love with the place.
Skorecki made aliyah in 1995. Over the years, he’s made headlines in the Jewish world for his research into the genetic background of Jews.
In 1997, he found DNA evidence that the majority of modern-day Kohanim, or members of the Jewish priestly caste, are descended from a single common male ancestor.
Skorecki said he had been looking into the genetic component of kidney disease. His findings into the genetic markers carried by Kohanim – whether in Lithuania, Morocco or Iraq – gave him the tools to further his research into kidney disease.
In 2005, he showed that about 40 per cent of today’s Ashkenazim are descended from four “founding mothers.”
In both instances, these common markers are associated with the branch of the human family originating in the Near East about 3,000 years ago, which has led Skorecki to conclude that most of the Diaspora communities in the world today can trace their lineage back to ancient Israel.
As dean, Skorecki is considering creating relationships with Canadian medical schools. One he has in mind is the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, which has locations in Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Like the Azrieli school, its mandate is to provide medical services to a population at the periphery of the province, which is currently under-served.
“I’d love for there to be formal exchange programs with Canadian universities,” he said.