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Always on Sundays

Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association to confront unique challenges at meeting in Teaneck

From left, OJNA’s founding president, Rivka Pomerantz, Shera Dubitsky of Sharsheret, who will speak at the conference, and ONJA’s L’via Weisinger.
From left, OJNA’s founding president, Rivka Pomerantz, Shera Dubitsky of Sharsheret, who will speak at the conference, and ONJA’s L’via Weisinger.

You might expect that a daylong conference of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association would be held on a Sunday. Instead, it’s scheduled for Thursday, May 19, at the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

The choice to meet on a weekday is one clue to the very reason for the organization’s existence. Their inability to work on Saturdays often imperils Orthodox nurses’ job prospects, and when they do get hired they ordinarily compensate by working on Sundays and legal holidays.

“We have unique issues related to keeping Shabbos and getting jobs,” said L’via Weisinger of Teaneck, who has been a registered nurse for 20 years. She is the vice president of the national organization, which now has 1,051 members on its Facebook forum.

“Every nursing job in a hospital requires working on Saturday,” Ms. Weisinger said. “In the New York area, where lots of Orthodox nurses are looking for jobs, if a unit’s nurse manager hires one Orthodox nurse she usually won’t take another because of the Saturday accommodation. Other nurse managers won’t even consider hiring someone who won’t work on Saturday.

“It’s one of the biggest employment barriers to Orthodox nurses in hospitals, so we often end up in clinics, doctors’ offices, schools and camps.”

Chaim Book, an employment lawyer from Teaneck, will address legal issues related to employment discrimination at the conference.

“Different regions and hospitals treat it differently,” Ms. Weisinger said. “But basically, if the requirements of a job include working Saturday and you can’t fulfill the requirements, you don’t get the job.” Ms. Weisinger, the mother of five, is a per-diem postpartum nurse at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and a part-time school nurse at Teaneck yeshiva high schools Ma’ayanot and Heichal HaTorah. She also runs a lice-checking service and a lactation consultancy called Mommy Juice.

Nursing students often are expected to attend clinical sessions on Saturdays, she adds, although here the law clearly states that religious beliefs must be accommodated. “I’ve heard that outside of the New York metro area, nursing students have been kicked out of school for not showing up for Shabbos clinicals, and there have been some successful lawsuits,” Ms. Weisinger said.

Sabbath observance may be a universal concern for observant hospital nurses and student nurses, but it is hardly the only one.

For instance, married Orthodox nurses who wish to cover their hair in keeping with tradition often are told they may wear a wig but not a hat or a scarf. Yet many women don’t like wigs or cannot afford one.

“I have to thank the Muslim nurses because the growing acceptance of the hijab has made it more acceptable for Jewish nurses to wear scarves and other types of head coverings,” Ms. Weisinger said.

Similarly, hospital rules about nurses’ uniforms have become more accommodating because many Jamaican nurses also prefer to wear skirts, Ms. Weisinger said. Orthodox female nurses opting to wear a skirted uniform for reasons of modesty, however, must arrange with the hospital to have their special attire laundered and ready for them, unless they are allowed to bring their own uniforms to work.

Head-covering also can be an issue for male Orthodox nurses who want to wear a kippah, Ms. Weisinger said. OJNA’s membership includes a handful of men; that number is likely to grow as more Orthodox men go into nursing to fill a need for male-to-male care in religious communities.

Nurses in specific settings have their own specific questions. For example, Orthodox hospice nurses need guidance about balancing official policies with Jewish requirements regarding end-of-life care, ranging from hastening death to handling a corpse’s bodily fluids to leaving a dead body alone.

Rivka Pomerantz, a nurse in Maryland, started OJNA in 2008 as a Facebook and Yahoo forum where religious nurses could network, pose questions, and share solutions. “I was less than a year out of nursing school and I needed people to talk to,” she explained.

Among the recent posts is a query from a nurse seeking tips on how to make family time when you have to work on Sundays, evenings, and legal holidays, and a rehab-center nurse’s question about how to deal with the prohibition against feeding non-kosher food to Jewish patients.

Ms. Pomerantz, who will not be at the conference because she is in her third trimester of pregnancy, says she realized after moderating the forum for a couple of years that it would be beneficial to have face-to-face meetings. “So we started with networking meetings at restaurants in Brooklyn and in Baltimore,” she said.

Ms. Weisinger helped Ms. Pomerantz grow OJNA into a full nonprofit organization about two years ago.

The upcoming conference, OJNA’s first independent event, is attracting nurses from across the country to listen to experts discuss topics of relevance to them and to their patients through a Jewish lens: employment laws, handling corpses, breast and ovarian cancer, the healing power of laughter, care of the special-needs population, perinatal loss and bereavement, teens at risk for substance abuse or sexual abuse, and care of Holocaust survivors.

“These are general topics, but a lot of Jewish nurses tend to work in Jewish communities and they need to understand these issues from a Jewish perspective,” Ms. Weisinger said.

“We find we are very often called to help out on a communal and neighborhood level, having nothing to do with our jobs, because we have sensitivity and medical knowledge and training that helps us pick up on things like anorexic behavior. Particular behaviors can manifest differently in the Orthodox population than in the general population. Also, educating Orthodox nurses about the resources within our own community is vitally important. You’d be surprised how many don’t know what’s available.”

The conference is sponsored by Holy Name, by NechamaComfort, a Teaneck-based Jewish nonprofit supporting parents and families following miscarriage, pregnancy loss, stillborn babies or infant loss, and by CareOne at Teaneck. Metropolitan Jewish Hospice Service will recruit at the conference, where kosher breakfast and lunch will be served. The conference is open to the general public, not only to Orthodox nurses.

“Our observance creates several issues on the job, and that’s why it’s an Orthodox group,” Ms. Weisinger said. “However, we don’t mean to be exclusionary. Many of the topics relate to any Jewish nurse.”

“We don’t want to tell you how to practice your Judaism,” Ms. Pomerantz added.

Holy Name Medical Center’s chief nursing officer, Sheryl Slonim, who also is the center’s executive vice president for patient-care services, said that the hospital agreed to sponsor the OJNA conference in keeping with its mission “to ensure that all patients coming through our doors feel safe, welcome and confident that we will treat them within the context of their personal, cultural and religious needs.”

Holy Name’s location in the midst of Teaneck’s thriving Jewish community “positions us as the medical center of choice for a large number of Orthodox and traditional Jewish patients,” she added. “Our nurses alert our Jewish liaisons whenever a patient requires use of the Shabbos room or other religious accommodations. As is evident by the program for the OJNA conference, each topic has relevance to concerns that arise on a regular basis for our nurses when treating this population.”

Sometimes the concerns have an amusing angle. Ms. Weisinger said many Orthodox nurses must be sensitized about the language they use on the job. “We need to leave the Yiddish colloquialisms at home and speak English instead of Yinglish,” she said. Avoiding syntax such as “I’m staying by my friend for the weekend” or “My son said over the lesson he learned in school” helps convey a more professional image.

In general, she said, Orthodox nurses must learn “to be effective nurses to all our patients, no matter their religion, and leave our religion at the door when we care for them.”

At times, however, standing out as Jewish has unexpectedly nice consequences. On the OJNA Facebook group, several nurses said that mothers have named babies after Orthodox obstetrical nurses who cared for them during labor. “In my pediatric clinical I met a Hispanic mom who named her baby Malki,” one nurse wrote. “All her kids have Jewish names.”

If you want to go:

Who: Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association

What: Annual Conference

Where: Teaneck Jewish Center, 70 Sterling Place

When: Thursday, May 19, 2016 8:00 am-4:30 pm

Register here

Email jewishnurses@gmail.com for more information and sponsorship opportunities.

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