When the sirens woke each of them early in the morning on October 7, 2023, Arielle and Neta both had trouble understanding what was going on. They’ve been attending medical school in Israel for two years, and they had never experienced rockets being fired at Tel Aviv in such large numbers. Both women ran to the bomb shelters in their apartment buildings, half awake and confused by why the rockets had come out of the blue, without any warning.

At first they thought it might be a fluke. But when the sirens went off for the third time within an hour, and the videos of terrorist attacks started to circulate among their friends and neighbors, they knew something serious was happening.

Arielle and Neta are both third-year students at the American Medical Program at Tel Aviv University (formerly known as the Sackler School of Medicine). They’re both 25 and grew up in the Bay Area — Arielle in Moraga and Neta in Palo Alto — and both have been receiving interest-free student loans from Hebrew Free Loan. These loans help make the cost of medical school a little more manageable for them and their families.

Hebrew Free Loan has been helping students from Northern California attend medical school at Tel Aviv University for years. After the war with Hamas began, we reached out to our current student loan recipients to see how they were doing. We’re glad to report that Arielle and Neta are both safe. When we spoke with them, each was looking forward to resuming their rotation in internal medicine soon, after a four-week interruption.

Arielle and Neta both have roots in Israel: Arielle’s father is Israeli, although she was born in the U.S., and both of Neta’s parents are Israeli. She was born in Haifa and came here when she was three. When it was time to choose a medical school, each of them was drawn to attending school in Israel. The American Medical Program at Tel Aviv University is chartered by the Regents of the University of the State of New York and accredited by the State of Israel, so the degree qualifies students to practice in either the U.S. or Israel.

At her parents’ urging, Arielle flew home four days after the attacks to be with her family until things stabilized a bit. Her father, who had served in the special forces of the Israeli Navy, wanted her to leave right away. His intuition as an Israeli was telling him that events were on a scale different than anything they’d lived through before.

It took Arielle a few days to come to that decision for herself. The hospital told students that their program would be closed indefinitely and there would be few volunteer opportunities for inexperienced medical students. Many of their teachers told them they would be safer in the U.S. When Arielle and her roommates started worrying that the airspace would be shut down completely and they wouldn’t be able to leave, they began searching for flights. A few days later they managed to return to the U.S. by way of Rome.

“ I think I’m still in a state of shock in some ways. Everything was so chaotic and scary, and our world was thrown upside down overnight. I would have stayed in Israel if the hospitals told us they needed our help, but they didn’t. A part of me feels still guilty about leaving, even though my parents were telling me to come home. But I love Israel, and I want to go back.  – Arielle

Neta’s experience was somewhat different. Her parents, both Israelis who served in the IDF, initially compared the situation to the Yom Kippur War. They assured Neta that Israel’s missile defense system, the Iron Dome, would keep Tel Aviv safe, and they encouraged her to take a few days to think about what she wanted to do. They said they would be fine with whatever decision she made, whether that was coming home or staying to see things through in Israel.

As Neta realized how much need there was going to be for people who could help with medical care, she just assumed she would stay. During the first week of the war she assisted with massive blood drives run by Magen David Adom, the Israeli Red Cross. Then she started going to Sheba Medical Center, the hospital where she’d been doing her rotations, to help manage routine patient care. Given the influx of people injured during the terrorist attacks or in the war since, combined with the number of doctors and residents called up from the reserves to serve in the military, the hospital needed as many hands on deck as possible.

“It didn’t cross my mind until a few days after my classmates left that maybe I should have gone home too. It just feels like it’s my place to be here and help in whatever way I can. The war has brought out a sense of community and oneness, and I feel even more connected to Israel than I realized.”  – Neta

Neta found herself plunged into a much higher level of care provision than when she was a student on rotation, and she began learning on her feet as fast as she could. When we spoke, she said that she felt “weirdly adjusted to this new reality” in which it seemed normal if they went down to the bomb shelter only three times in a day.

By early November, the university announced that rotations would resume soon, so those students who left the country when war broke out faced some hard decisions. (Of 55 students in their third-year class, Arielle and Neta estimate that roughly 35 went back to the U.S., at least temporarily) Some students still felt scared to return. Others had parents urging them to put their safety first and stay home, even if it meant sitting out a year of medical school.

Arielle decided to go back, boarding a flight to Europe just a few days after we spoke, where she caught an El Al flight to Tel Aviv.

“I’m not ready to give up on my dream of graduating from Tel Aviv University. I chose this program because I wanted to spend four years in Israel, and the war hasn’t changed that. I lived on a kibbutz and in Tel Aviv after high school through a MASA program, and ever since then I’ve been drawn to the idea of making aliyah someday.”  – Arielle

Neta was preparing herself for the possibility that a few of their classmates wouldn’t return. She understands how hard it is for students whose family members are constantly worried. For some of them, waiting out a year or even transferring to a school in the States might be their only viable choice. She’s grateful that her own circumstances give her other options.

I’m lucky because I have a bomb shelter in my building. I have lots of family here, so if flights get canceled I have somewhere to go. I hope my classmates who’ve gone to the States come back, because we’ve gone through two years of medical school together and we’re a really close-knit group. But it’s such a personal decision, and we’ve all been asked to make it so quickly.”  – Neta

Here at Hebrew Free Loan, we feel for our student loan recipients at Tel Aviv University and so many other students who were in study abroad programs in Israel when the war broke out. We recognize the shock, fear, and uncertainty that they and their families have had to deal with. And we understand the extra expenses they’ve had to take on, when they needed to book last-minute flights out of the country.

We invite any students who are facing financial hardship as a result of the war in Israel to reach out to us. We may be able to offer additional student loan support, even if they’ve already borrowed the maximum amount for the year. To discuss your situation, email info@hflasf.org or call (415) 546-9902 x110.

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