Pittsburgh looks pretty good to José-Alain Sahel, the world-renowned ophthalmologist and scientist who recently moved from Strasbourg, France, to Squirrel Hill.
“The feeling we got in Squirrel Hill reminded us of the feeling we had of when we lived in Strasbourg,” said Sahel.
Strasbourg, which is located near the border of France and Germany, is “small but has a strong and well organized Jewish community,” he said.
While the people there, like in Pittsburgh, are “very friendly,” what resonated with Sahel and his wife Annie was the notion of interconnectedness.
“The relationship between the Jewish community, the city of Strasbourg and non-Jewish society is excellent there,” he said. “We felt that this is also in Pittsburgh.”
Sahel decided to relocate following “concerns of terrorism in Europe,” as well as “how to handle Jewish education and integration into society.”
“Specifically, laicism, which should mean freedom and openness, has given rise to a society that expresses defiance against all religions in Europe,” Sahel said.
These attitudes, while driven by a fear of Islamic terrorism, have impacted many across the religious spectrum.
“There is a concern that because of all the Islamic terrorism, religions are viewed more or less as a danger in Europe,” he said. “We want to keep our religion [and] this is something we almost have to apologize for. This is a feeling which has become more and more difficult. Our choice is not to be Orthodox Jews that are not in society, our choice is to be Jews and inserted into an open society that is open to everyone while being Orthodox.”
The Sahels explored various communities in search of a place where societal integration and religious practices were embraced. Despite offers from hospitals and medical schools across the country, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Stanford, the Sahels selected the University of Pittsburgh. The decision was greatly influenced by the efforts of Arthur Levine and his wife Linda Melada, said Sahel.
Levine is senior vice chancellor for the Health Sciences and dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Melada is a sales associate with Coldwell Banker.
“Without them we would have ended up elsewhere,” said Sahel. “They literally pulled us here.”
As a sanctuary to physicians and scientists and a den for Jewish domesticity, Pittsburgh has provided the Sahels with exactly what they were seeking.
“This is a strong ranking university in terms of research and a very strong research system,” Sahel said. “We wanted to find a place where the Jewish life and Orthodox Jewish life was strong, and that it was integrated into the society.
“Dr. Sahel and his extended family were looking for a vibrant community to live an observant Jewish lifestyle in a tolerant and safe environment. Dr. Sahel is an internationally renowned ophthalmologist who had nearly a dozen offers across the United States and abroad. That he and his family chose to join our community is a great honor and speaks to its warm and welcoming spirit. We look forward to helping them build vibrant professional and spiritual lives here in Pittsburgh,” said David Brent, Academic Chief, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics & Epidemiology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“The choice to come to Pittsburgh versus other top institutions is [due to] the high quality of the research, of the hospital system and the support I am promised to develop quality care and innovative therapies,” said Sahel.
As chairman of the department of ophthalmology, and the Eye and Ear Foundation Endowed Chair, Sahel will oversee all ophthalmological clinical activities at UPMC hospitals, as well as associated teaching and research responsibilities.
Sahel’s research concerns restoration of vision in blinding disease and new innovations for fighting blindness.
Though having arrived in Pittsburgh, Sahel will continue his involvement with the Vision Institute in Paris via a partnership formed between the Institute, the Sorbonne, and through his appointments at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC.
Regarded as a leading center for basic and clinical research on vision, the Institute was founded in 2008 and is directed by Sahel.
“José-Alain Sahel is a physician-scientist with a broad and deep intellectual reach, and I believe that his influence here, while clearly focused on our Department of Ophthalmology, will have great institutional impact,” Levine told the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute.
Both as a physician and scientist, Sahel has developed innovations and co-owned more than 20 patents.
Accordingly, he was intrigued by the proximity and relationship of Carnegie Mellon University to the surrounding hospitals and medical school.
“Carnegie Mellon is very famous and quite connected to the medical school, which is also famous,” said Sahel. “It is quite rare to see a city where all of the institutions work together.”
Joining Sahel, and his wife Annie, who taught for more than three decades at the Yavne School in Paris, are their daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren.
The grandchildren will attend Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, said Sahel.
While the Sahels are adapting to Pittsburgh, other members of the family are still in France.
Both of the Sahels’ sons, who are married and have children, remain, as well as Annie’s father.
And although separations and new beginnings are difficult, Sahel credits the Jewish community with easing the challenges.
He cited Rabbi Daniel Wasserman and David Brent, as well as members of the Congregation Poale Zedeck, with welcoming him during his initial stay, as well as “the visit of Cynthia Shapira and Jeff Finkelstein to my Institute in Paris and her kind hospitality once in Pittsburgh.”
Finally, with reflection upon the gathering at the NCSY Garden Sizzler, Sahel noted, “Attending last Wednesday’s party at the Butlers’ and seeing all the community united, the presence of the mayor of Pittsburgh, meant a lot to us.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.