Meet Mollie Adler, a cute, bubbly four-year-old who plays with her dolls and teddy bears every Shabbos afternoon. She lines them up in a row and, from a distance, it looks like she is playing “school.” But Mollie has a different dream…
On closer inspection, she can be seen murmuring gently to each one, and pulling it aside to gently treat it – be it with Band-Aids, shots, or medicine. You see, Mollie aspires to be a doctor one day, a frum, female doctor.
While Mollie may not realize how difficult her journey could be, a group of Orthodox Jewish women already in the medical field have.
Meet the women of JOWMA (Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association), an innovative, non-profit support group, specifically created “to empower and advance” all current and future Orthodox Jewish female physicians. Their goal is to facilitate leadership and develop mentorship programs and public networking opportunities. The women also hope to provide preventative health advocacy and educational resources to the wider Jewish community.
So, how did the group get together?
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eliana Fine (Feld), who currently attends the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, didn’t know any Orthodox female physicians growing up. Yet, she found as the sought-after address for queries from many pre-med students as to whether the dual demands of medical school and family can be successfully navigated by a frum woman and mother. These requests multiplied as many more young women reached out to her on social media and soon, Eliana realized just how crucial the need for genuine support was.
The initiative to form an organization was sparked after Eliana connected with hundreds of other Orthodox female physicians and physician trainees through a “Frum Female Facebook Group” started by Sherrie Neustein Orzel, MD. She quickly realized the fundamental importance of an interactive medical platform for frum women to promote, support, and mentor each other. With these goals in mind, JOWMA was launched.
Many young women dream of a career in medicine, but face a lack of support in the Bais Yaakov system where there is a high priority placed on getting married and starting a family. Potential medical students are also worried that their religious principles and priorities may be comprised along this career-path. Thus, many will benefit from Fine’s encouraging outlook, “Yes, medical school is hard and balancing marriage and children with school is hard and challenging, but it is definitely doable. I want to show other women that if I can do it, they can do it!”
With the JOWMA association, Ms. Fine has taken her passion and encouragement just one step further. Joining her are Dr. Miriam (“Mimi”) Knoll as president, Dr. Chana Weinstock Neuberger as vice president, Sherrie Neustein Orzel as co-vice president, Bat-Sheva Maslow as chief medical officer, Ilana Magulies MD candidate 2020, Treasurer and Dr. Mira Hellmann-Ostrov as secretary.
Five days after the organization’s formation was announced, a hundred tickets were already sold for its inaugural event, “Navigating The Medical Career as an Orthodox Jewish Women.” The gathering, which hosted up to a hundred medical professionals at various stages of their training, was honored by the presence of Lawrence Mayor Alex Edelman (Five Towns) and Deputy Mayor Michael Fragin. The climax of the evening was a moderated panel between pre-med, high school, and college students and physicians and physician trainees.
Dr. Maureen Nemetski, MD/Ph.D., chair of the JOWMA Preventive Health Committee, introduced the program with an announcement of the JOWMA Measles Initiative. This enables all Brooklyn residents to contact the JOWMA confidential hotline for vaccine information and arrange for free in-house vaccinations.
To get more of a feeling, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Hellmann-Ostrow. She specializes in Gynecologic Oncology at the Regional Care Centre in Hackensack, New Jersey. She shared some of the in-depth difficulties facing frum women who are training in the medical field. Although she acknowledged that the experience is different for every individual woman, she believes that the main issues revolve around the stigma of the frum woman pursuing a medical career, especially in relation to dating and shidduchim within yeshivishe circles. Social ostracism is also a problem, being that pre-med studies demand a huge time investment.
Indeed, when she began her training, her school refused to send her previous transcripts of study to the college. Luckily, her father was tremendously supportive and encouraged her career through every hurdle. There was so much secrecy that when she began her college studies, she “bumped into someone else from her high school class,” who also began the course, neither one knowing that the other had applied.
She explains that “JOWMA connects people… it allows each one to help the other and learn from each other’s experiences. As there is not a lot of support out there, it makes such a difference to know someone in the same position…”
As president of this worthy association, Dr. Miriam Knoll, a radiation oncologist at the John Theurer Center, presents JOWMA’s vision as a wide-reaching platform to connect Orthodox women in the medical field. Dr. Knoll hopes that JOWMA will serve as an unprecedented avenue for Torah-observant female physicians to bring their expertise into the community. This will be done by creating a speakers’ bureau, comprised of frum medical experts, to educate the community.
She describes that “frum women face a unique set of challenges entering the medical field due to medicine’s strict hierarchy and overbearing time commitments.” In order to help with these circumstances, “JOWMA facilitates mentorship, sponsorship networking, and connectivity, educating the community and future female physicians to help ensure the success of frum female physicians.”
Membership in JOWMA will give women a unique area in which they can actively connect, support, encourage, and guide one another. Select leadership and volunteering opportunities will also be available for members only. A collaborative research committee had launched for those involved in medical research. The organization is also creating an exclusive mentoring program designed to link-up mentors and mentees of all ages and at all stages of their medical training.
A recent JOWMA success story played itself out on a May weekend at the ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) Annual Meeting, in Nashville, Tennessee. Eliana Fine wanted to attend, but felt reluctant to go alone as it was scheduled over Shabbos. Luckily, through the JOWMA platform, another medical professional named Anna reached out and they booked together. They met for the first time at the airport and flew to the conference together.
This is a classic example of how JOWMA “helps to allay the feelings of aloneness (that can plague the frum woman) during medical school.” Once at the ACOG event, through social media networking they were able to meet two other Jewish medical professionals there, who joined in the uplifting Shabbos meals. The critical lesson here is that no matter where you find yourself, one’s Jewish background is an extremely strong connector.
In addition, the organization is gathering information regarding shomer Shabbos residencies throughout the country. Guidance is also given on how to deal with Shabbos and Yom Tov work-shifts and how to word a work-contract. Advice is also presented on how to deal with anti-Semitism in the workplace, which hospitals support the employment of Orthodox Jews, and the like.
Future projects include a webinar series focusing on community health education, the first of which will be held in September regarding the importance of the HPV vaccination in preventing cervical cancer.
There is also a full day conference scheduled for January 5, 2020. This will include research presentations, panel discussions, educational sessions, and trainings for JOWMA participants.
JOWMA is also in the process of compiling a full network of frum, medical experts in different states. This will provide families with doctor referrals and enable continuity of care in case of relocation or move. Prospective help will include the process of medical re-licensing in different states, as well in case of aliyah to Israel.
For more information, visit JOWMA.org
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JOWMA has set up a free and confidential Jewish Health Prevention Hotline: 443-5GETMMR (554-3867), in conjunction with the NYC Department of Health, to provide vaccination advice. As an “antidote” to the anti-vax campaign, it aims to identify families in the Boro Park Orthodox Jewish community and in the future, other communities throughout New York, who desire vaccines for their children. Once these families are identified, a physician (together with a nurse) is sent to their home to confidentially vaccinate these children free-of-charge. Parents are encouraged to establish long-term relationships with these health-care providers, with whom they can turn to for future health advice.