Jews and Medicine in America
Medicine has come under its own microscope in the past year and a half. In an unprecedented and alarming manner, the pandemic upended traditional notions of science and medicine, which in turn affected the average citizen’s view of scientists and medical practitioners. It also gave rise to a new scrutiny of a field that until now seemed sacrosanct.
The lens that focuses on doctors across America focuses on Orthodox Jewish doctors too — perhaps even more so. With a tradition of healing going back to the recognition of Hashem Himself as the ultimate Healer, Judaism is a religion steeped in dictates and intricate laws that pertain to healing the sick. Orthodox Jews who take the Hippocratic Oath do so with a history of dedication and commitment to chessed, and this ethos has driven them to excel in a higher degree to a higher calling.
Here in America, Jewish doctors are at the forefront of medical innovations, discoveries, cures and treatments. Yet this wasn’t always the case, and “My son the doctor” was a long time in coming. What is taken for granted now — the proliferation of Jewish doctors and the easy admittance of Jews into any hospital of their choice — was achieved only after many years of determined and prolonged efforts.
Hospitals across this country bear Jewish names that hardly register as such with doctors or patients today. But more than 150 years ago, those names signaled pioneering establishments. In 19th-century America, it was common for Jews to be barred from practicing medicine in existing hospitals — discrimination which lasted well into the following century. In addition, obtaining kosher food for patients was problematic and Christian missionaries tried converting critically ill patients. Largely in response to the pervasive antisemitism of the day, Jews raised funds and established hospitals of their own to treat and educate Jews and provide employment for Jewish doctors and nurses who were denied education or practice elsewhere.
In 1852, Jews’ Hospital opened in New York City, offering free medical care to Jews who could not afford it. It later became known as Mount Sinai Hospital. Beth Israel Hospital was established in 1891 with similar intentions, although ironically its goal was to counter the German-Jewish-instituted Mount Sinai. Many German Jews sought to integrate into the greater American society over the years, and Mount Sinai had become non-sectarian and had started serving non-kosher food. Beth Israel sought to rectify that, as well as serve as a haven for the floods of Jewish immigrants coming into New York City at the time.
Similar hospitals were erected across the country to cater to the specific needs of Jews, especially poor Jews who might not have had recourse to other hospitals. Hospitals with Jewish names sprouted in big cities, including the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn, Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, The Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Sinai Hospital in Detroit, Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, and the list goes on.
In addition to Jewish hospitals, Jewish medical schools also proliferated because of discriminatory admission practices directed against Jews by medical schools. This bigotry found its roots in both negative stereotyping of Jews and, conversely, in response to excessive Jewish representation in colleges. Because medical students were admitted largely based on academic qualifications, many quotas were enacted against Jews to offset the disproportion of Jewish students who were highly qualified. Some of those quotas lasted until as late as 1970.
Jewish hospitals and medical schools gave Jews a leg up in the medical field and they thrived across the country. Currently, most of the circumstances necessitating Jewish hospitals and medical schools have long since disappeared, rendering most obsolete and leaving many of those institutions Jewish in name only. But one set of challenges gives way to another. The overly successful integration of Jews into American society, with its accompanying staggering assimilation, has led to some abandonment of Jewish tenets in the practice of medicine.
Those challenges, along with others, were discussed in conversations I had with four Orthodox Jewish doctors of repute in various fields of medicine. Each detailed what it means to be an Orthodox Jewish doctor today and described the struggles and rewards of being a man of healing at a time when it is most needed.
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Dr. Moshe Levi lives in the Washington, D.C., area and is currently the Dean for Research and Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular and Cellular Biology at Georgetown University. He is board certified in internal medicine and nephrology and earned his MD from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Prior to joining Georgetown, Dr. Levi was professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics, and bioengineering at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, where he served as vice chair of research for the Department of Medicine. He also practiced medicine at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Dallas, where he was chief of the nephrology section, and served as Professor of Internal Medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
With most Jewish hospitals today being Jewish in name only, do you think there is still a need for them, especially because they were largely founded in response to discrimination against Jewish doctors?
A lot of medical schools and hospitals had quotas against Jewish doctors, but they were also founded for the Jewish patients. Even if those quotas are gone, certain patients might still feel more comfortable going to certain hospitals. Like in New York City, there is Mount Sinai Hospital, Beth Israel and Maimonides Medical Center, where patients know kosher food is routinely available.
Quotas against Jewish doctors may officially be a thing of the past, but quotas being used now to attract other minority groups to medical school seem to pose a new challenge for Jews. As the current Dean for Research at Georgetown University, do you see new discriminatory challenges against Jews applying to medical school, especially if they are white males?
I’m afraid that’s going to be the case again. All of the emphasis is to undo what was done. Therefore, there will be a lot of emphasis on accepting underrepresented minorities with the hope that somehow, when they become physicians, they will be serving the other underrepresented minorities. But that’s not entirely clear. When the same emphasis was put on accepting students who would go into general practice and family medicine to alleviate shortages of physicians, that didn’t necessarily solve the problem because part of the maldistribution is due to other social factors, income, etc.
During this process we have already seen that certain people are not able to get into colleges, graduate schools and medical schools. There was a point, for example, that we had to accept more Asian students, and they became so abundant in places like California that it had to be rolled back. Could this affect Jewish students applying to medical school? Yes.
Is there any remedy?
Not yet. I am in charge of a grant that we have to submit to NIH on getting funding to increase underrepresented minority faculty members and even that is tilted in a way that so far is African American. Hispanics are not even mentioned in certain places. So, I don’t think the system is ready to deal with the Jewish issue yet. It might take a while.
There has been much documented antisemitism on college campuses. Are you worried that such an atmosphere might spread to medical schools too?
So far, I haven’t seen anything but we have to be aware and ready and monitor the situation. One of the problems is cancel culture. Everyone is concerned and I was told to be careful. If you say something they don’t like, boom, you’re out. Everything is one way. We are talking to see how we can best deal with the situation, prevent it, and deal with it if it starts manifesting itself.
As an Orthodox Jewish doctor, can you describe how your Judaism informs your practice of medicine?
One big issue I was very actively involved in was end-of-life issues, such as decisions about when to take patients off life-support systems. I was always in contact with Rabbi Moshe Tendler, whom I met when I was a student at Einstein Medical School, and there have been several other people I’ve consulted with. This became an issue, because on the one hand we talk about Judeo-Christian values in this country and on the other, we go different ways. That was always a challenge. Whether it was my own personal beliefs or my religious beliefs, it became an issue.
Does halachah play a role in the way you treat patients?
Yes, definitely. I make it clear where I’m coming from but, ultimately, the patient and family make the decision. As a nephrologist, for example, I wouldn’t suggest taking a family member off dialysis or off the respirator. We would give them the choice in a way that I never encouraged it but I never prevented it either. Or I would have discussions with them if they wanted to do hospice and ask them if they’re sure they want to do that because people may sell it one way, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s not always so. There have been cases where I have helped take patients away from hospice and brought them back to regular care.
During this past year and a half, COVID revealed many different viewpoints within the Orthodox community that mirrored existing schisms in the wider public regarding social distancing, masks, vaccines, etc. Can you comment on the situation and your approach?
It affected all aspects of Jewish life, limiting the number of people that could go to shul, and distancing and masks. It created a problem with minyanim. All the interactions were impaired, including Shabbat lunch and inviting people. And now we have directives to wear masks indoors again. We don’t know the facts. There is a lot of fighting going on.
All these are not simple issues. I’m aware of and have dealt with them and we have had differences of opinions with others. It’s a balance between hiding someplace and not getting exposed versus all the psychological impact. We don’t know what’s right and wrong because we look only at COVID positivity. We don’t see what the taxation is on the children who don’t go to school.
From the physician’s point of view, there has always been confusion and there continues to be confusion because this is evolving. We’re learning as we go along. The people who get into trouble with others are those who make very bold statements about whether there is danger or whether there is no danger. Or those who say that you have to do something specific rather than those who say, “As far as we know now, that’s what we’re doing today, but we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week.”
Knowledge evolves and changes. Facts change. Unfortunately, many people don’t like an intellectual approach. They want simple black-and-white answers — yes, do it, or no, don’t do it. But that’s not life and that kind of approach gets people into trouble.
Do you think that approach has undermined the public’s trust in the medical profession and even in yourself?
Not me personally, because I took the approach that we are learning, and no one should expect me to give an answer that will be correct, because it might totally change in 24 hours from now. I always made it clear that in medicine we can make decisions based only on what we know.
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Dr. Marc M. Silverman
Dr. Marc M. Silverman is Board Certified in Orthopedic Surgery and is affiliated with NYU Langone and St. Barnabas Hospitals. He received his medical degree from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the Arthroscopy Association of North America.
Dr. Silverman is currently on the teaching staff at NYU School of Medicine, New York Medical College, and NYCOM. He is also an Orthopedic Consultant and Sports Medicine advisor at Fordham University.
As a graduate of Einstein Medical School, which was founded to counteract quotas against Jewish students, do you think the idea of a Jewish hospital or medical school is still relevant?
Having a Jewish-sounding name doesn’t make a hospital Jewish nowadays. In any case, most hospitals have a chapel or a bikur cholim room, especially in New York City, and most hospitals have kosher food. Also, when you go to a hospital, you’re primarily looking for quality care.
But there is the issue of a Jewish medical school. Most major Jewish hospitals are affiliated with a medical school — for example, Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai Medical School. For years, the only truly Jewish medical school that was under Orthodox auspices was Einstein Medical School, although they have since lost their affiliation with YU. Twelve years ago, New York Medical College was taken over by Touro and Lander College and the entire medical school and hospital became Orthodox. That means that all the food served there is kosher, the medical school allows there to be no class on Yom Tov, etc.
Do you find Jewish ethics regarding quality of life play a role in Jewish hospitals?
Perhaps that exists in hospitals in Eretz Yisrael, where there might be a completely different attitude because so much of the hospital is frum. But I think outside of Eretz Yisrael, it also exists. I think it is dependent on patient choice. Patients have autonomy to make their own decisions now, and physicians might go along in terms of end-of-life issues.
Do those ethics ever conflict with a hospital’s concentration on the financial aspects of care?
There probably is some friction between those two, but I think hospitals are cognizant of their patients. Every hospital has clergy to counsel patients. There are so many rules and regulations that are in flux. But I’m an orthopedic surgeon and I don’t deal with people who are dying.
What challenges are Orthodox Jewish doctors facing today?
You really have to divide it into three stages: the medical school experience, the residency experience and a doctor’s practice. Each one has to be taken individually. You really can get by as far as keeping Shabbos and kosher in almost all medical schools these days. Obviously, some make it easier. But many lectures are online now, as we saw in the pandemic.
Residency can be tricky. It used to be that some fields used to want to attract the smart frum guys to their programs and so they offered Shomer Shabbos programs. Nowadays, although there are quite a few Shomer Shabbos programs, it’s very difficult to be a resident and never have to work on Shabbos or Yom Tov.
Once you are a physician, it really depends on the field of medicine you go into. Taking care of patients is still considered a higher calling and you need to have a Rav and a Posek to know how to go about it. I always say the talmidei chachamim go into radiology. There are few emergencies and they get to sit in a dark room, read the x-rays and then they can take out their gemaras and learn.
There might be shomer Shabbos residency programs available, but do you think it is more difficult for frum Jewish males to get accepted into medical school in a system where a sort of reverse discrimination is working against them?
That’s a good point. I work with admissions with medical colleges. If you’re a smart minority female you’re going to get your pick of any school you want, because schools do want to fill racial and gender quotas. You’re right that there is, in a certain sense, a bit of a reverse discrimination against the Jewish white male.
Would any of the challenges ever lead you to dissuade young people from going to medical school?
No, because every day you are doing mitzvos. Every day you’re doing something; you’re not just out there making a living. You are helping people literally yomam valailah. I can’t come home at night or go into a shul and not have someone come up and ask me a question. There’s so much opportunity to help that has nothing to do with making money. It’s a complete lifestyle of chessed. I tell young people that if they are going into medicine to get rich, they are going into the wrong field.
How does your background as an Orthodox Jew distinguish your approach to medicine?
There are some wonderful doctors who are not Orthodox or Jewish. But there are some extraordinary frum doctors who go out of their way for others and do chessed because the idea of helping people night and day without payment is part of the way we are brought up in our frum societies — in our yeshivos, families and homes. That chessed comes naturally and that’s inculcated in our medical practice. If you go into medicine, especially more recently, you don’t do it to get rich, so I do think people who go into medicine, for the most part, are doing it for the right reasons.
Can you describe how COVID impacted you as an Orthodox doctor living in the Orthodox community?
I didn’t treat any COVID patients but I’m very involved with it still today. Every one of my elective surgery patients has to get COVID tested and it’s made it very difficult. As far as the reaction of the Orthodox community, for the most part, the frum doctors really understood from the very beginning how serious this was and how careful everyone had to be as far as masking and social distancing. In the beginning all doctors were “all hands on deck.” In this next phase, I think the vast majority of doctors, including Orthodox doctors, get the concept of vaccination.
Do you think vaccination and mask mandates have morphed into a politicized issue and undermined the public’s trust in science, especially in the frum community?
They are very much political issues. I think most frum doctors follow two things: Daas Torah and intelligent information. For the most part, I’ve found that daas Torah sided with the idea of listening to the experts. Baruch Hashem, there are enough frum doctors who are experts, but there is so much we didn’t know about. I think whatever we could find out about COVID we had to listen to our doctors. I think Rabbanim got that. Some had other feelings but I found that most sided with medical experts. But things are fluctuating and there’s so much we still don’t know. It’s tricky and I’m not an expert in this field.
Are there are any specific issues related to medicine that the Jewish community faces today?
There’s a point that bothers me all the time and that is that we don’t really have one voice or one derech. We’re split amongst ourselves and that’s terrible — the fact that one community does one thing and another does something else. Especially now, with COVID, how they treated things in Teaneck versus Boro Park or Lakewood versus Queens. In the days when we had a Posek Hador here in America, like Harav Moshe Feinstein, I think people of all stripes listened. Now we are too fragmented.
I think that makes it very difficult for our community and for physicians to treat them because every community has a different mehalech. To me that has become the biggest challenge. Not just with COVID, but with the measles vax and even end-of-life issues. We have this problem constantly — different communities, different Rabbanim; all Orthodox, all fine and upstanding. And I think it’s a shame that there isn’t achdus amongst our people and that we’re divided amongst ourselves.
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Dr. George Moskowitz is a Board-Certified Family Practitioner with a practice in Boro Park, Brooklyn, since 1988. He has hospital privileges at Maimonides, Beth Israel, Methodist, and Brookdale Hospitals. Prior to working in Brooklyn, Dr. Moskowitz was a solo practitioner in family medicine in Charleston, South Carolina.
Dr. Moskowitz, who earned his MD from the Medical School at Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, also serves as Clinical Assistant Professor at Albany Medical Center. He currently provides outpatient, hospital and home-based medical services through “Hospitals Without Walls.”
As someone used to being affiliated with many hospitals in New York City, do you see anything “Jewish” about Jewish hospitals today?
Zero. I think it’s attributable to a lack of Jewish education. Many of the Jewish aspects of hospitals are relegated more to a visitor rather than a participant in the hospital making decisions. Actually, religious Catholic doctors had a higher point of impact on their hospitals than the Jewish doctors had on Jewish hospitals, because so many Jewish doctors were not religious.
The only person in the world to make something close to an authentic Jewish hospital is the Klausenberger Rebbe with Laniado Hospital — Sanz Medical Center in Netanya in Israel. That’s the only Jewish hospital in the world. Even Shaare Zedek doesn’t have the Jewish values that it used to have. The hospitals themselves are basically run by uneducated Jewish people.
Many of these hospitals were founded to counter antisemitism. Do you see any remnants of antisemitism left in medicine?
Unfortunately, the antisemites are the Jews who tolerate hatred of other Jews. The people in the medical profession who do the most damage are non-religious Jews, especially since they became dominant in the field and many of them are so blind to the Orthodox Jewish community.
Isn’t that countered by the presence of many Orthodox Jewish doctors, especially in places like New York City?
No. Most of the Orthodox Jewish doctors today are very weak. There are very few family doctors who have a real sense of the community. They’re specialists and they don’t have a real taam of the community. There’s no real cultural basis for their involvement in the community and no unity amongst them.
What kind of challenges does this lack of a pervasive Orthodox Jewish position create?
Many years ago, when I was in college, I had to take a bizarre class I had never heard of before called political science. Looking back at the last 50 years, political science has taken over journalism, politics, education and even medicine. Something is wrong when political science dominates the scene and takes G-d and morals and ethics out of the picture. We are really suffering from this. Even COVID-19 is a political science. It’s not based on any science that I’ve learned, and I’m a scientist.
How has this philosophy manifested itself in a concrete way?
Look at end-of-life issues. Several years ago, I was approached by the family of a very prominent Orthodox Jewish man who was terminally ill. The family told me that the hospital he was in wanted to put him in a room with only IV fluids and let him die in a couple of days. I told him to tell the doctor to call me immediately, because I am against that. I ended up becoming this person’s doctor, although I initially hesitated because I am a Kohen and didn’t want to take on a case where I knew the patient would die. But under my care, he lived for four more weeks after I set up a hospice in his house with a full ICU. He was able to don tallis and tefillin and spend time with his family.
This same hospital also sent a medical ethics representative to Maimonides, who told us about this new policy. She described taking terminally ill patients and giving them only water and the patient dies without pain. She even cited an article advocating not giving them any food or water, which may stimulate even better pain relief. One person in the room asked about nursing home patients and she said it can be done with any patient you want. Essentially, if a medical doctor determines that a patient has a short life ahead of him, this is allowed. This is a cultural thing, which completely goes against Jewish ethics and morals.
In what other way do Jewish ethics influence Orthodox Jews going into the field of medicine?
Most of them go in with the idea that there is chessed, emes v’tzedek. There is truth in medicine. The miracles that we see every day, small and big, are phenomenal and you have a certain satisfaction. Also, there used to be camaraderie. Doctors would have respect for the community and the community used to have respect for doctors.
Unfortunately, that’s gone. Political science has done this. Society seems to have lost respect. So, you have to be higher than the level of wanting an MD tag or wanting to make a lot of money as a specialist. It really comes down to humility. You have to see that the service you provide is more important than payment for that service. The profession of being a doctor is fantastic, not the business of it. But the challenges today also involve the high cost of going to medical school, and you usually don’t make the money back.
It seems more challenging now for Orthodox Jews, specifically males, to enter the field. Do you think there is a lowering of the bar for those entering medical school and consequently a lack of qualified doctors?
It’s a very good question. The minority concept that’s being used now is totally racist. It’s totally inappropriate and being run by people who don’t know about the challenges of medicine. It’s a form of reverse discrimination when the Jew becomes more white than the white person.
Yes, there already is a lack of doctors. You have a second-class devaluing of the medical profession. There’s incompetence and it’s horrific. Now you have midwives delivering babies and everyone is a “tech doctor” without even knowing what medicine is. It’s weakened tremendously. But human beings need doctors — they are not replaced by PAs or Hatzalah members trying to be doctors.
Despite the challenges, would you encourage frum people to go to medical school today?
I am one of the few doctors who say they should go to medical school. The vast majority today dissuade people from going to medical school. Even doctors tell their children not to. But I say, if you’re not a Kohen — go. If you are a Kohen — don’t go. My children wanted to go to medical school but they’re Kohanim and I discouraged them from going.
The lack of belief in G-d is what has destroyed the whole culture, especially in medicine. We need Orthodox Jewish people in medicine — the intelligence, the heart, the emotional component and spiritual element.
Can you talk about COVID and how it’s affected the Orthodox community?
Misinformation and those claiming it are the killers. We’ve lost true common sense. We have to understand that medicine and science change; they’re not fixed in stone. What they are pronouncing as law today is not going to be law tomorrow. And only someone working in the community can see this. I saw COVID in the community as early as January of last year. I couldn’t believe what was going on. I noticed symptoms in my patients that weren’t normal. I called specialists I knew and they said it was nothing. That was blocked information. There was no one to talk to.
It’s horrific what has been done. It’s called global hysteria which was infected through the American scene and it has transposed itself to all countries in the world. The real phenomenon that people are ignoring is that the Wuhan virus came from China and that should have been the focus of all the energies and resources — to block it from happening again. It can happen again. And the vaccines are totally and absolutely dangerous. I have patients coming back from vaccines with side effects. They are toxic. These are facts.
What do you propose?
There’s little to do. The system is so broken and politicized. It’s a huge business — medicine, insurance carriers, pharmaceuticals, patients and entitlements. It’s a very big challenge. The only good thing I can tell you is that there still are some good people out there.
From a Jewish perspective, and I’m not a Rabbi, and from a spiritual perspective, and I’m not a spiritualist, what’s missing is emunah — belief in G-d. We need to reinstate that along with good medicine. We go to the best doctor and we pray.
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Dr. Moshe Kerstein
Dr. Moshe Kerstein is affiliated with Maimonides Medical Center. He has a specialty office for pulmonary medicine in Boro Park and an office for internal medicine in Williamsburg.
Dr. Kerstein attended SUNY-Downstate Medical Center and was trained in internal, pulmonary and critical care medicine in a shomer Shabbos program at Maimonides Medical Center.
Most hospitals that were founded as Jewish seem to have little that is Jewish left about them. Do you see any need nowadays for a Jewish-oriented hospital or have they become obsolete?
I absolutely believe that there is a need for a Jewish-oriented hospital. Our philosophy of life is completely different from the non-Jewish philosophy and it really makes a very big difference. We often face a culture clash between Orthodox Jewish patients and doctors who have a completely different philosophy of treatment, including end-of-life treatment. We have various chayei shaah issues that are not addressed by the non-Jewish population. If you have a hospital that’s more understanding of the Jewish culture and attitude toward medical care, then it would definitely make a very big difference, not only in people’s comfort level, but also in real terms of how the patient is treated.
Wouldn’t the notion of a Jewish-oriented hospital be contingent on the presence of the Orthodox Jewish doctors affiliated with it?
Of course. The care that a patient receives is affected by the attitude and philosophies of the doctors in the hospital and of the hospital’s administration. I think it’s very important to have a community hospital that addresses the needs and the culture of the community it treats.
As an Orthodox doctor, do you feel that you are facing more challenges now than in previous years?
Very much so. There have been significant changes in the philosophy and goals of medical care over the past decades. Many medical decisions are made based on financial considerations rather than the optimal medical care for a particular patient. This is frequently driven by the insurance companies. Also, there is a much greater stress on getting patients out of the hospital as soon as possible. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the appropriate length of stay is very important for the care of the patient. However, it’s also a financial consideration for the hospital. It depends on where the decision is coming from. If it’s beneficial to the patient, then it’s very good. If not, then it’s not good.
Because an Orthodox doctor would presumably base his medical practice on halachah, do you encounter conflicts in that realm, or are you able to fuse the two together?
Sometimes we can fuse the two. Other times, there’s a conflict and then we have to try very hard to work it out within the hospital system. Sometimes we’re successful and sometimes we’re not.
Look at the controversy over the Jewish baby in England. There are so many people, including international government representatives, trying to assist the parents in continuing to provide medical care to the baby at no cost to the British hospital system. But the hospital and the British courts are pushing back because of their philosophy that they don’t feel that it is in the best interests of the baby to survive.
That’s an extreme example, but on certain levels, we face the same concerns — not only with babies but also with adults who face end-of-life issues or complicated medical diseases and debilitation. And we have to deal with this philosophy of not providing medical care to a patient because it is not deemed worthwhile on the part of the medical system to go through the treatment process and financial expense so that the patient can live another day or week or even six months. As such, they’re not willing to consider dialysis or putting in a feeding tube. We see this in real cases frequently throughout the country, even right here in New York, and families are forced to battle against this.
As a pulmonologist, you saw your fair share of COVID devastating the frum community. Can you describe how it personally impacted you?
Even though I had to temporarily close my office, as many physicians did because of the situation, I was busier than ever. I was inundated with phone calls at all hours, day and night. Besides the patients who were ill, people were desperate to get information about their relatives who were hospitalized. During the first wave, there was minimal, if any, significant information coming out of hospitals that would enable family members to be involved in the care of their relatives. Families of patients were calling for help just to get a bit of information about the status and care of their relatives.
Hospital staff were overwhelmed and everyone was fearful because there was a great lack of understanding of what was going on. Many people were becoming critically ill or dying. Their relatives, who were willing to come in and help provide care, were not allowed in. Patients suffered from the lack of communication, sometimes resulting in a lack of appropriate care. This affected not only patients who were ill with COVID, but also those who were sick with non-COVID illnesses.
A year and a half later, we have more information about COVID but it has also become a highly divisive political issue that is leading to “misinformation” and a lack of public trust in medicine. Can you comment on how this has affected the frum community?
I don’t think it’s limited to the frum community. It’s true all across America and likely other places too. I think even many doctors have less trust in the medical agencies that are supposed to guide us because of all the flip-flopping. As a physician, it requires a great amount of time to keep up. There are many conflicting scientific studies and reports. Some are real, some are not. Some were published and then retracted. Some were published, yet not publicized.
Medicine is plentiful with new diseases and new syndromes that have been identified or discovered and now we have to learn how to treat them. But COVID has affected so many people very quickly and, as you say, it became very political. In many instances, the ability of a doctor to use his/her knowledge and medical experience to provide care was taken away. It affected medical providers and, of course, it affected the patients and their families.
Do you see other medical challenges that currently face the Jewish community and Jewish patients?
As mentioned earlier, I think a very major challenge is the difference in philosophy of life that has entered into medical care throughout the world, but especially in the United States. There are certain states in which a debilitated or elderly person who requires critical care may have no chance at all. In the past, New York was one of the states in which these issues were easier to deal with. But Orthodox Jewish families have had to deal with increasing challenges because their philosophy of the importance and value of life has not and does not change over time, and that view often clashes with the views of hospital administrators and physicians of various societies whose philosophies and ethical values continue to change.
We believe life is precious, even if the person is demented or had a stroke or can’t provide anything to society at large. A frum person measures quality of life on a different scale than somebody who doesn’t have the same values. Each case should be guided by each person’s Rav and Posek. In the past, it was much easier to allow that to proceed. We’ve all seen and heard of multiple cases where a patient was treated and recovered and went on to live a long, productive life.
I avoid trying to predict the future. I’m always on the side of advocating for my patients, both from a medical perspective and in honoring their religious beliefs. I think it is paramount to never lose sight that the care of the patient should be the most important thing.
Is there anything the frum community can do to better promote that philosophy?
It’s very important for the frum community to support and be involved constructively in local hospitals. If you want the hospital administration and staff to understand your culture and address your needs, then you have to use that hospital and be involved. Otherwise, there’s really no reason for the hospital to reach out to you and have an understanding of what you require. It’s no different than an election, when people criticize politicians but don’t go out to vote. If you’re not at the administrative table where decisions are made, who is going to speak up for you? We need involvement to effect change.