By Molly Meisels
On January 5th, 2020, Jewish women from across the Orthodox world will be joining together to share their love for medicine. The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association will be hosting its first annual symposium, with the theme of “Championing Jewish Female Success in Medicine and the Jewish Community.” With the goal of bringing together physicians, residents, medical students, and pre-medical undergraduate students, the symposium will focus on education, mentorship, career building, and networking opportunities for Jewish women, each fighting to realize the dream of a medical career within a Jewish communal and familial framework.
In a world where Jewish women are expected to either balance family, career, and communal obligations, or else choose between the three, JOWMA steps in to prove that the former is possible. “I’ve had pre-meds and high school students asking me, ‘Are you really able to go to medical school and dedicate all the time needed to school while dedicating enough time with your family or committing yourself to a Torah lifestyle?’” said Eliana Fine, second-year medical student at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, and founder and CEO of JOWMA.
Fine, a West Hempstead resident, attended Bais Yaakov schools for her primary and high school education, and then attended Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women from 2015 to 2018, graduating with a biology major. She says that she thought Stern College “was a great school” and that she had a “unique experience,” as she was married during her entire college career. “It was inspiring to see that I was part of a college program with hundreds of other Jewish [women] and they were all pursuing a higher education and a career.”
Growing up in a community where college was not a popular choice for the women around her, especially medical school, she forged ahead.“I didn’t let it deter me,” she said. Fine started medical school as a first-time mother. Believing that her journey could inspire others, she began an Instagram blog, where she posted about her daily life as a mother and a medical student. “I wanted to show people in the [religious] community that it’s doable…I wanted to show people that if there’s a will, there’s a way.”
In the first few months of 2019, through her Instagram blog, she connected with other religious female physicians, and since she did not know any in her personal life, she thought it would be helpful to meet in person. Fine met Dr. Miriam Knoll, a Radiation Oncologist, who introduced her to a Facebook group for religious female physicians. The group had 400 members. Dr. Knoll told her that the members never got together, which Fine thought was a shame. As her two-year old played in the background, Fine informed me that the dots began connecting. After speaking to Dr. Knoll and Dr. Bat-Sheva Maslow, a Reproductive Endocrinologist, she decided to form a small get-together for the female physicians and trainees at a restaurant, where some of the doctors would speak about their experiences in the workforce and community. “I posted on the Facebook group to gauge interest…30 people responded. They showed me their interest,” she shared excitedly Following this initial outreach, Fine connected with Dr. Mira Hellman Ostrov, a Gynecological Oncologist who acknowledged the complete lack of training and networking for Orthodox Jewish women in the medical field, and the importance a panel-like event would hold for those considering medicine and already in the workforce.
In March 2019, the restaurant get-together became a full-fledged panel. At the time, Fine and the other physicians would have considered the event successful with only 10 to 15 attendees. However, Fine believed that a panel was not enough. “With the panelist’s help, we decided to make this an organization,” she said. And with that determination and a brand-new website, JOWMA was formed. The women rushed to get all the pieces for the panel in place, including receiving sponsors to cover the $36 price of the tickets. The planning of the event, from the first message to Dr. Knoll to the creation of the website, occurred within 24 hours. After launching the event, it took five days for Fine to form an advisory board of over 30 physicians and trainees. 100 people signed up for the event.
“We launched mid-March 2019 and the event was in May. We raised an additional $10,000. We got a lawyer to help us…and we formed a legal non-profit organization in NYS, a 501(c)(3),” said Fine about the whirlwind of logistics to make JOWMA as official as possible. After the smashing success of the first event, Fine and the JOWMA Board of Directors knew they were onto something. They began working with the NYC Department of Health to assist in controlling the measles outbreak in New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities, specifically by creating a vaccination hotline. Through the hotline, families could reach out for information on vaccinations and the possibility of having female physicians visit their homes free of charge, to vaccinate their children. Fine told the YU Observer, “We got over 1,000 calls. We catered it to the needs of the community.”
After only nine months, JOWMA is a force to be reckoned with, with Fine as its CEO. Its website describes itself as a “non-profit organization dedicated to supporting, empowering, and advancing the careers of Orthodox Jewish female physicians…aim[ing] to develop leadership and education, while cultivating networking and mentoring opportunities within the Jewish female community.” Their first annual symposium will be the culmination of nine months of work. The full-day programming will include sessions on spiritual equilibrium in the workforce, social media and medicine, surgical skills, financial literacy and disability, career models, and more, along with networking opportunities throughout the day. Fine says that this event, and JOWMA mentorship programming, are helpful for Stern students, as they can offer career advice, general mentorship, research opportunities, and shadowing opportunities. “Our goal is to help any Jewish female who wants to go into medicine,” Fine proudly shared.