Despite naysayers in their communities and the medical field, these health workers manage to have kids, follow religious law and save lives doing the work they love
NEW YORK — Miriam Knoll didn’t make the decision to attend medical school lightly. Both of her parents are physicians, so she knew becoming a doctor was possible. But in her Orthodox Jewish community, some voices say that the career choice is unrealistic for a woman who wants to get married and have children.
“When my mom went to medical school, women were only a quarter of all medical students and certainly, frum women were a very tiny percentage,” Knoll told The Times of Israel, using the Yiddish word for Orthodox Jews. “That number is growing, and yet frum women still find themselves being asked, ‘Why are you going into medicine?’”
Knoll ended up graduating from New York University’s school of medicine in 2011. She is now a radiation oncologist at Montefiore Nyack Hospital and a mother of four. She’s also president of the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA), which provides essential support to some 200 Orthodox Jewish female physicians and medical trainees. Its membership has been growing since its establishment in 2019.
With an eye to the next generation, JOWMA volunteers also mentor close to 100 young Orthodox Jewish women in high school or college who are interested in medical careers.
“A lot of women in our community get married young and have children while in medical school and early on in their residencies, and that’s very uncommon [among non-Orthodox medical students],” said Knoll. “That makes it very difficult, but we want to be able to do both.”
A network of support
Brooklyn native Rochel Leah Lehrer is a physician assistant (PA) in neurosurgery at Westchester Medical Center in New York. When at age 11 Lehrer lost her younger brother after he was hit by a car outside his school in Brooklyn, she knew she wanted to “make people feel better and try to heal everybody.” She has been working in the field for some 20 years. In addition to JOWMA, several more organizations offer support to the thousands of Orthodox Jewish women working in various areas of medicine.
“I started PA school [at Touro College] when I was 20,” Lehrer said. “We were only two frum girls in my class.”
Physician assistants, Lehrer explained, have a wide range of responsibilities in the hospital including examining patients, ordering lab diagnostics, prescribing medication, and performing assessment and treatment plans. They also participate in and publish clinical research. In 2021, the profession was named the best career in the US News and World Report.
Lehrer and her colleague Adena Homnick founded the Jewish Association for Physician Assistants some 18 years ago. The organization is now recognized as a special interest group of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.
“It feels like family, a warm and comfortable environment,” she said.“We noticed that there was a group for every race and religion, but there was nothing for Jewish physician assistants,” Lehrer said. “Our goal is to reconnect with each other through continued education, job networking and social events.”
Chaya Milikowski was 26 and pregnant with her third child when she began feeling a strong desire to go back to school. Not knowing what she wanted to study, she decided to flip through the Bureau of Labor Statistics occupational handbook, which lists career options from A to Z, and ultimately decided to go for nursing.
“You engage a lot of different sides of you,” Milikowski said. “There is the compassionate social side where you’re helping patients and families through some very difficult times, but there is also the intellectual aspect, especially working in critical care, where things can change from minute to minute and you need to be very perceptive.”
Since 2015, Milikowski, a mother of five, has worked as an intensive care unit nurse practitioner in a small community hospital in Maryland. She is a board member of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, which has over 415 members in 19 chapters across the United States.
The group runs an active Facebook group with 2,600 followers and organizes nursing conferences and webinars, career events and a mentorship program for new nursing graduates, among other initiatives.
Shabbat, sheitels and motherhood
Society’s general bias against mothers in medicine, Knoll believes, remains the main challenge for Orthodox women in the field. The perception that “women are not leading medicine, they are not the chairs of departments, they are not running conferences at the same level as men,” she said, is a problem for all women, “but when you have kids at a younger age, it’s harder.”
Dr. Chana Weinstock Neuberger was single when she started medical school. Still, she and her parents were hesitant about her pursuing a career in medicine.
“In my community, most girls don’t go to college but [my parents] realized that it was something I really needed,” she said. “I was doing a very out-of-the-box thing in my community.”
Weinstock Neuberger is an oncologist. When she first started her professional path, she questioned whether she’d be able to get married and have a family while being a physician. She now has four children.
“I think there is still some hesitation for women doing this, even in the Modern Orthodox world,” she said. “The pressure to get married, it’s on everyone, but it’s possibly magnified in the [ultra-Orthodox] community.”
Lehrer, who currently lives in Monsey, New York, said she couldn’t have succeeded in her career path without her family’s support.