Health care and halacha

Health care and halacha

Yeshiva University conference to look at intersection of medicine and Jewish law in Israel

Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women students make up the board of the Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society. Yeshiva University

From the beginning of life to its end, observant Jews are governed by Jewish law, or halacha. Thus the practice of medicine in the Jewish state also is influenced by halachic principles. A day-long conference, “Prescribing for a Nation: Examining the Interplay of Jewish Law and Israeli Health Care,” addresses major issues on that topic. The conference, hosted by the Yeshiva University Medical Ethics Society, a student-run organization, is scheduled for Sunday.

“What makes Israel so unique is that so many people working in hospitals are practicing Jews,” Talia Felman of Teaneck said. Felman, a junior at YU’s Stern College for Women, is institutional outreach coordinator for MES and serves on its board. “It’s a challenge that the Israeli government has [striking a balance] between halacha and what needs to be done to keep the country running,” she said.

Felman said that when she was a student at the Jerusalem-based seminary Michlala in the year after high school, she took a medical ethics class that stimulated her interest in the field. “Just having a solid background in halachot [Jewish laws] in general and being exposed to Israeli bureaucracy makes it easier to understand, and apply, and think about these issues,” she said.

The Medical Ethics Society does not shy away from controversial or complex issues. Past conferences and events have grappled with the interplay of halacha with infertility, organ donation, modern genetics, mental health issues, and medical dilemmas related to the Holocaust. This conference, similarly, is boldly confronting difficult questions in health care.

“Our hope is that this year’s MES conference will help participants better understand how halacha shapes every aspect of our lives and provides them with a newfound appreciation for the differences and similarities of the practice of medicine in Israel and America,” said conference chair Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, who is associate professor of emergency medicine at YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and a mentor to the MES program. “As Israel is comprised of a largely Jewish population, it presents unique challenges,” he said. “Issues such as the practice of medicine on Shabbat, sensitivity to the Kohen visiting a hospital, infertility treatments, end-of-life decision-making and organ donation are but a few of the issues for which the Israeli medical landscape differs from ours.”

“With health care policy in the United States evolving right before our eyes, we are all interested to learn how Israeli institutions tackle the same difficult questions,” said Stern College senior Chana Herzig, co-president of MES.

Professor Yonatan Halevy, director general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, will give a keynote address, “Running a Modern Hospital According to Halachah.” Shaare Zedek Medical Center is on the cutting edge in many medical fields, including infertility research and practice, an area that has many halachic implications. As approaches to infertility have been developed, rabbis and doctors have worked together in creative ways to sanction high-tech methods for conception, enabling observant Jewish couples to overcome obstacles to fertility. Shaare Zedek’s in vitro fertilization clinic boasts a high success rate for challenging cases, enabling observant Jewish couples to conceive within religious parameters.

Two of the speakers, Rabbi Zvi Gluck and attorney Mark J. Kurzmann, are involved with the organization ZAKA (the Hebrew acronym for Zihuy Korbanot Ason, or Disaster Victim Identification). In Israel, ZAKA volunteers are among the first to arrive at the scene of an accident, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack. They carefully and respectfully collect remnants of victims from the scene, including blood and body tissue, in order to afford every part of the human body a dignified burial. Because they frequently are first responders, ZAKA volunteers also have been trained in first aid, and some have become paramedics. One conference session will focus on “ZAKA International and the Legal Ethics Behind Jewish End-of-Life Rescue.”

Talia Felman, who is a biology major with an interest in medicine, explained what the Medical Ethics Society has meant to her. The organization represents an intersection of a number of fields, she said. “Sometimes they contradict and sometimes they converge.”

“It gives a more holistic experience,” she said. “I get to be exposed to issues in science, sometimes through the lens of philosophy, sometimes through the lens of law, and sometimes through the lens of halachah.”

Who: Speakers including Dr. Mitchell Schwaber, director of the Israel Ministry of Health National Center for Infection Control; Dr. Michael Frogel, president-elect of American Physicians and Friends for Medicine in Israel, and Rabbi Mordechai Willig and Rabbi Yosef Blau of YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

What: A conference “Prescribing for a Nation: Examining the Interplay of Jewish Law and Israeli Health Care”

Where: Yeshiva University’s Wilf Campus, 500 West 185 Street, Manhattan.

When: Sunday, October 20, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Why: To explore the intersection of health care and halacha in Israel

How: Pre-registration is required. Register online at Registration fee ($36 per adult, $60 per couple, $10 for college students, $5 for high school students) includes free parking and lunch.

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