Jewish Comfort School


Medical school is difficult enough. For observant Jewish students who have to balance their religious obligations with their academic responsibilities, the pressures can be especially intense.

Not so much, perhaps, for observant Jewish medical students who have enrolled at New York Medical College in Valhalla, or at least not since 2011, when the medical school became part of the Touro College and University System.

New York Medical College, founded in 1860, had been under the auspices of the Archdiocese of New York since the late 1970s.

The school has long had a history of accepting Jewish students, as well as other minority groups, when there were quota systems elsewhere.

As Dr. Edward Halperin, chancellor and chief executive officer of New York Medical College, said, “New York Medical College never had quotas. It was the most Jewish medical school during the Depression. This place has been a bastion against bigotry. It’s the culture of the place.”

Still, the medical school’s inclusion in the Touro College and University system since 2011 has been even more transformative.

Besides offering kosher food in the cafeteria, a daily minyan and optional Torah lectures, the school also closes for Jewish holidays and ends early on Friday afternoons, erev Shabbat. There are mezzuzot on doorposts in public areas, as well as in private offices, as requested. An eruv is in the works, students, staff and faculty can daven in a dedicated synagogue space and there are even Shabbat observant tracks in some of the residency programs, such as internal medicine, pathology, diagnostic radiology, pediatrics and family medicine.

“It’s definitely more appealing to have off on the holidays and to have a full kosher cafeteria,” said Shimon Farber, a second-year medical student, from Lawrence, L.I. “The faculty understands our obligations.”

The switch from a medical school under Catholic tradition to one under an observant Jewish institution did take some tweaks.

“The obvious elephant in the room is how are we going to transition a 150-year-old medical school under the archdiocese to a school under Jewish auspices that follows traditional observant Judaism,” said Rabbi Moshe D. Krupka, executive vice president at Touro. “We are all people of good will and good faith. We were very respectful of the previous administration. For example, while we follow the traditional Jewish calendar, we kept Good Friday. We know what it is to be observant.” There is a daily Muslim prayer meeting, for example.

Since the change, there has been an uptick in students applying from Yeshiva University and Stern College. “They feel comfortable with the daily minyan and with having a kosher cafeteria,” said Halperin. For those in the Shomer Shabbos program, they “won’t have to beg or ask” for that time off.

Added Rabbi Krupka, “It’s the destination of choice for those who know they won’t have to worry about Shabbos and yom tov.” Still, he said, “we’re not running a rabbinical seminary.” A topic at one of the Torah sessions might be how to ease fasting on Yom Kippur, given by a gastroenterologist.

There are about 25 observant students in the first-year class of 195 students, who appreciate the culture at the school, and the supportive community they find here.

“Our teachers and the doctors are very involved,” said Jerry Frenkel, a second year medical student from Monsey in nearby Rockland County. “We’ve become a big community.”

For second-year medical student, Cyril Rosenfeld, from Indianapolis, “other students have been overwhelmingly supportive. If you need a light turned off [during Shabbat], they’re helpful,” she said.

Ultimately, of course, religious accommodations don’t distract from the fundamental mission of the medical school.

“There is no Jewish, Catholic or Protestant way to teach medicine,” Halpern said. “The curriculum didn’t change.” While there are no activities scheduled for Shabbat or yom tov, “we don’t ask if they reach for the Talmud or ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ There’s no restriction on stem cell research or reproductive health.”

The culture is very much about mutual respect for diversity and faith traditions.

“The other part of the story is how eager and accommodating the staff has been since the transition,” said Rabbi Krupka. “Non-Jewish administrative assistants call on Friday to wish us ‘Shabbat shalom.’ They’re sensitive to the Jewish calendar. Nothing is imposed on the campus. We care about all faith communities, and educate the campus as a whole.”