‘The whole-person perspective’

‘The whole-person perspective’

A chasidic mother of 10 graduates tops in her medical class

Dr. Alexandra Friedman, photographed by Dmitriy Kalinin, courtesy of Touro College & University System.
Dr. Alexandra Friedman, photographed by Dmitriy Kalinin, courtesy of Touro College & University System.

Leaning in.

Having it all.

Super Mom.

Wonder Woman.

None of those phrases come anywhere near describing the jaw-dropping achievements of Dr. Alexandra Friedman of Monsey, chasidic woman, wife, and mother — of not one, not two, but 10 children, one an infant, a set of baby twins, and one newlywed; top — not among the top, but top — graduate of her medical school class, former NIH researcher, and all-around astonishment.

One thing that does not come easily to Dr. Friedman is talking about herself. She does not downplay her accomplishments, really; she just doesn’t seem to see them as anything out of the ordinary.

She grew up the daughter of a defense contractor who was involved in creating the Iron Dome that now snatches rockets from the skies above Israel. He also worked at the Pentagon, so she spent part of her adolescence near Washington. That means that she matriculated at a local school, the College of William and Mary, the elegant, extremely competitive colonial-era research university that is known for its intellectual rigor, but not for the way chasidic life flourishes on its lovely campus.

And in fact Dr. Friedman was not yet chasidic. But “I was always interested in chasidus,” she said. “It has a very spiritual side to it, and that’s what attracted me to it.”

Just as she felt the mystical pull of chasidism, she also felt an entirely different pull — to science. “I always had enjoyed the idea of medicine,” she said. “I knew I had a talent, and people in my life encouraged me. I didn’t find it difficult in college.

“I also had a yearlong research fellowship at the NIH” — that’s the National Institutes of Health — “working on neuroendocrine immune integration,” she continued. “I worked with Dr. Esther Sternberg, who has written a few books on it. She was an inspirational mentor, and I stayed in touch with her.”

Dr. Alexandra Friedman (Photography by Dmitriy Kalinin)

After she graduated and finished the fellowship, Dr. Friedman got married; she and her husband, Yosef, moved first to Brooklyn and then to Monsey. “I had children, and that became the primary focus of my life,” she said. “I stopped everything. I was a stay-at-home mother, which I absolutely loved.

“But then, at a certain point I needed to start working, to contribute to the family.

“So I had an Orthodox marriage and family, but I still had this interest, potentially, in pursuing something else. I needed some kind of job, and I was interested only in medicine, not in anything else.”

What about research, since she seems to have been so affected by her year at the NIH? No, she said. “I did contemplate research science, but if you are a Ph.D. in medical science, all you can do is research or you have to find a physician to work with, particularly if you are interested in clinical research. But if you are a physician, you can do either.”

At that point, Dr. Friedman had seven children.

“When I started thinking that I might want to go to medical school, I contacted Dr. Sternberg, who had moved to Tucson, Arizona, and started an integrative research laboratory, and started to work in an interesting field, neuroarchitecture, about how architecture affects your brain.” (That’s actual architecture, the study of buildings and space, not the architecture of the brain.) “I told her that I want to apply to medical school and I need some recent work,” Dr. Friedman said. “How can you have a chasidische family in Tucson? There is a chasidische retreat there, so we were able to be a part of it. There are mostly people there in the winter but there are bungalow colonies, and we were able to be part of it for that year.

“So I did research there, and then I applied for a master’s degree program in Touro. They have a program that leads you directly into medical school if you do well enough. If you are in the top ten percent, you automatically are admitted.

“And rather than just starting in medical school to begin with, I wanted to be sure that it would work — school and family — that the whole balance could work.

“I was particularly excited about Touro’s program because it is automatically shomer Shabbes.” Not all of Touro’s students are Jewish, much less observant, much less chasidic, but the school is geared for observant Jews. There are no classes on Shabbat or holidays, among many other provisions for observant students, faculty, and staff. No student at Touro ever has to decide between halacha and school.

“Before I started, I spoke with my rav,” her rabbi, “about different job opportunities,” Dr. Friedman said. She, her husband, and their family aren’t part of any one community, she explained, but they fit into the network of Toldot Aharon chasidim in Rockland. “My rav said that it was not a traditional thing, but he is the son of the Toldos Aharon rabbi, and he was aware that his grandfather had given permission for women to become midwives, so they could help women in the community.

“He said that it would be fine if I could keep up my observance,” she said.

Students at Touro College of Medicine in Middletown work in a simulation lab.

From her family’s home in Monsey, Dr. Friedman had only a short commute to the Touro campus in Middl-etown. So when it was time to move over to medical school — not surprisingly, she was in the top 10 percent, and could pick whichever of Touro’s medical schools she wanted — she decided to enroll there.

Touro has three medical school campuses in the tristate area. Two — the one in Middletown and another one in Harlem — train and credential doctors of osteopathy; another, in Valhalla, offers an MD. She chose the Middletown school — formally Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine — for two reasons, Dr. Friedman said. One was how short her commute would be. “The other reason was because I have always had an interest in holistic/integrative medicine, and the DO is a good training for that as it gives a full standard MD-type medical education, and I took standard MD board certification exams that MDs also take,” she said. “And I was additionally trained in osteopathic techniques, which incorporate a more holistic approach to patient care. That gives me a broader set of training with which to treat my patients.”

So how did she do it?

“The year of research was a good idea,” Dr. Friedman said. “It was easy; I was able to get my brain from sitting at home to being at school. And it reminded me of my passion for medicine, for science, for clinical research.

“Deciding to go into the master’s program was a huge decision,” she continued. “I didn’t even have a computer at home.” She did highly sophisticated work with computers, of course, just not at home, and soon she got a laptop.

And soon she got back into the rhythm of being a student. “The first few weeks were very difficult, but my undergraduate premed study techniques were still in my brain,” she said. “I love learning. I love school. That was always something I loved.”

How did she juggle her formidably complicated schedule? “When I was an undergraduate, I was very involved in extracurriculars, so I would manage my schedule around those things. Now I had my family, so I scheduled it in the same way.

“My family was the opposite of school, so it was a very different focus that gave me a nice break from the stress of medical school.”

Dr. Friedman has what sounds like extraordinary self-control. “I have always been a night person,” she said. But in a class toward her master’s degree, “we learned about how the liver detoxes your body, and I realized that I wasn’t getting the ideal sleep time for my liver. So I tried out becoming a morning person.

“I started getting up early, between 3:45 and 5:15, and I would study. Our exams were in the morning, and once I got used to being up early it gave me a ton of time to review all the material.

“And then every morning I’d drive to Middletown. I took the Palisades, and I would see the sun rise.

Alexandra and Yosef Friedman. (Photography by Dmitriy Kalinin)

“It was so beautiful.”

When she started the master’s program, Dr. Friedman’s youngest child was six weeks old. She was pregnant twice while she was in medical school, once with twins. “Thank God, praise HaShem, pregnancy is enjoyable for me,” she said. “It is not difficult. It all ended up being fine. I didn’t need any more sleep.”

What was it like being older than most of the other students? “When you are in a certain context, people assume that you are like them,” Dr. Friedman said. She also looks far younger than her age. “People didn’t know how much older I was, or how many children I had,” she continued. “The age difference wasn’t a barrier. But being chasidische was such a unique thing.”

While being chasidic shapes and defines her life, it does not affect the way she practices medicine, Dr. Friedman said. “When it comes to anything medical, in the context of a professional medical practice, gender issues don’t apply.” She can touch male patients; when she is functioning as a doctor, her touch is purely professional and therefore a-gendered. Being chasidic does not make her different from her peers in that regard.

But having more life experience does set her apart. “I think that it helped me,” she said. “While other medical students were figuring out their lives — this is the time when you are figuring out marriage, friendship, family — I was just in school. I already had my family settled. I already had my general path in life settled. I had just two focuses — my family and medical school.”

Her life experience also gave her more emotional resilience, Dr. Friedman said. She did her rotations in the evening at Montefiore Nyack, “and I found that in the psychiatry rotation, I was able to understand people’s life experiences at a different level than some of my peers.

“In my OB/GYN rotation, I had a lot of experience. I could understand what my patients were going through, and feel compassion and empathy.

“And it also was interesting sort of being the liaison because I am Orthodox. When people would see me as a doctor among doctors, they would ask me questions that maybe they wouldn’t feel comfortable asking other people.” To be specific, she said, Orthodox women were comfortable asking questions about the laws of family purity and other halachic issues affecting them as women because they knew that she could understand the questions “both as a physician and as a chasidic Jew.”

Dr. Friedman has decided that she will become a pediatrician. She, her husband, who works with special-needs children and therefore has a more portable job, and all her children except her married daughter are moving to Florida for a three-year residency.

She explained why she decided to put aside her reluctance to talk about herself to tell her story publicly. “I am a very private person, but throughout my life I have read publications, and there are times when you read something that tells you that there might be a tiny little something in it that can apply to your own life.

“When you see that a real-life person has accomplished something, you can learn from that. The reason that I am making my story public is because my goal is to help people. I want to help people as a physician, but I don’t just want to treat their ailments.

Dr. Friedman hugs three of her 10 children. (Photography by Dmitriy Kalinin)

“I like a whole-person perspective. I want people to see that if you have a talent, a passion, that it is possible to pursue that, maybe later in life, maybe with children, with religious observance. These things don’t have to be obstacles.

“If you have a passion and a skill you can do what you want with them. It is important to see that modeled. It is important for people to be able to do that.”

She repeated her thanks to Touro. “I am very grateful to have had this program, with its Shabbes observance,” she said. “I don’t think I could have done this without it. I never studied on Shabbes or yontif, even though I could have. I was able to carve that out, and to be able to graduate at the top of the class.

“That was a surprise, to have been able to do that, and to still be able to give all that time to my family and to HaShem. That is amazing.”

Dr. Kenneth Steier, a DO, is the executive dean of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine.

He explained the difference between osteopathic and allopathic medicine. “These days there actually is very little difference,” he said, although that was not at all the case when osteopathy was developed in the late nineteenth century. Then, it was “based on the body’s inherent ability to heal itself through an understanding of structure and function.” Now, although some of that understanding of the body as a machine whose parts must align properly if they are to work still informs the osteopathic schools’ curriculum, the schools that produce MDs and DOs “merged residency programs, and the standard for education is the same. So there is very little difference that a patient would notice.”

The differences sometimes do attract different medical students, though, because DOs learn everything that MDs learn, and then they learn more. “We put more stress on wellness and healthy living,” Dr. Steier said. “We are a little more holistic, and our graduates tend to migrate to primary care.

“It’s a little less about a liver transplant, and a little more about keeping the liver healthy,” he continued.”

Then he talked a little bit more about how much Dr. Friedman accomplished. “It is hard enough for most students, who are single and have no children,” he said, marveling at it. “Single 25-year-olds struggle to get through medical school. She is married and raising all those children and attending medical school! And she had the highest average in the whole class. She just powered through it.”

In fact, at the end of her first year, in 2017, Dr. Friedman won the Judith Wible M.D. Scholarship for Visionary Women in Medicine. It came with a $10,000 award. She also won awards for excellence in histology, physiology, neuroanatomy, and medical ethics. She won first-place awards for presentations in neuroscience, pathology, and molecular and cell biology. And her husband, Yosef, won the Donna Jones Moritsugu memorial award for the most supportive spouse.

“Alexandra obviously is very committed,” Dr. Steier said. “She knew what she wanted, she was focused, and the strength and the resilience that she developed managing all those things, to be able to multitask, showcases her commitment, her focus, and her resilience.”

Given how much in demand someone with her cultural sensitivity to Orthodox patients will be, “she will be the most popular physician ever,” he continued.

Looking back at it, “we couldn’t have written a better story,” Dr. Steier said. “We sort of did write the story. But the full reality of it is hard to capture.”

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