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We See You

Enter JOWMA. The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA) was founded by women for women.

Courtesy of Bat-Sheva Lerner Maslow, MD
Courtesy of Bat-Sheva Lerner Maslow, MD

We see you.

The one in the white coat, nervously glancing at your watch. It’s Friday, the sun is going down. But you’re in a place where day is no different than night and the days of the week blur together against the backdrop of constant motion. No one else understands that in a few minutes you’ll quietly accept the Shabbat and then keep on caring for your patients as if nothing changed. Yet, you know that outside the hospital walls your family and community are accepting upon themselves a day of rest. There are Shabbat meals, festive gatherings, and synagogue services where they will bemoan your absence. Despite the noble work you’re doing, it pains you not be with them. You work through the night, checking on your patients, following orders, like any other night, but inside you know it’s different. You gaze at your colleagues scurrying around free from this weight on your shoulders and secretly wish you could be more like them.

You, fidgeting in your seat. We see you.

You’re at a wedding, surrounded by family and friends. A celebration that you’re thrilled to joining. But your head isn’t here. It’s with the patient’s family you left behind when you threw on your dress and heels. It is with the patient who passed away yesterday despite your best efforts, and it’s in the OR with the dying patient whose life you saved with your surgical skills. No one here understands that when you leave work, all those patients come with you. They remark at how amazed they are at what you do. They say they “don’t know how you do it!”

No one here understands that when you leave work, all those patients come with you. They remark at how amazed they are at what you do. They say they “don’t know how you do it!”

The also say you look tired, and they know this is true because you nod off during the ceremony and leave the reception early to get to bed. They quietly wonder why you couldn’t be more like all the other women, and secretly you sometimes wish you could be like them too.

Religious women in medicine find themselves travelling in two separate spheres, professional and communal, often feeling like outsiders in both. The challenge of synthesizing the desires and obligations of a religiously observant life with the demands and aspirations of a medical career can be overwhelming at times. Those of us in our early to mid careers had the benefit of relying upon on the strength of the women who came before us, those who truly forged their way through unchartered territories. Still many of us have developed unique roles without ever personally knowing other women who had done the same. Many of us grappled with subtle (and sometimes less subtle) messaging that as a female, the commitment to a Torah lifestyle and the commitment to a career in medicine could not coexist. And despite all that we have accomplished, too many young girls still hear those voices too.

Enter JOWMA. The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association (JOWMA) was founded by women for women. Our mission is two-pronged. First, to champion and cultivate all Jewish female physicians at every stage in their careers, and second, to capitalize on our unique positions in order to give back to the Jewish community.

The backbone of JOWMA is its members. For the first time, there is now a “third sphere,” where we can learn from one another and grow as both physicians and community members. The need for this network was so deep that tickets to JOWMA’s inaugural event, held this past May, sold out within days! The event was a rousing success. Over a hundred female orthodox physicians and physicians-to-be joined in the first ever gathering of its kind. The highlight of the evening was a panel session entitled “Navigating a medical career as an Orthodox Jewish Woman,” where members of the board of directors candidly shared challenges and successes. In the lively Q&A that followed, members of the audience reaffirmed the value of this new network. In response, JOWMA is developing a robust “mentorship program.” As the hallmark of JOWMA membership, those early in their careers can be paired with a more senior mentor with expertise in a shared area of interest. A young woman in New York in a residency program with limited exposure to academic medicine connected with an academic physician in the mid-west for career advice – their only common link? JOWMA. The mentor-mentee relationships spread far beyond career advancement. Personal, family, social, financial, and cultural issues have all be fertile ground for our mentorship program. The program is making connections between women across ages, specialties, social circles, even cities, who otherwise might have never crossed paths.

The program is making connections between women across ages, specialties, social circles, even cities, who otherwise might have never crossed paths.

My father often says “put a bunch of smart women in a room together and amazing things can happen.” The JOWMA Vaccine Initiative is the brainchild of smart, passionate, dedicated physicians who have a keen understanding of the needs and limitations of Jewish communities. As part of JOWMA’s commitment to community outreach, we partnered with the New York City Department of Health to help curb the current measles outbreak, by establishing a free and confidential hotline for families to schedule in-home vaccinations. Anti-vaxxers designed their propaganda in a culturally specific way to explicitly target the Orthodox Jewish community, particularly mothers. As religious Jewish physicians and physician trainees, many of whom are also mothers, we feel responsible to utilize our unique position to address these issues in a culturally sensitive and hopefully effective way.

As religious Jewish physicians and physician trainees, many of whom are also mothers, we feel responsible to utilize our unique position to address these issues in a culturally sensitive and hopefully effective way.

The women of JOWMA are passionate, thoughtful, and full of tenacity. The WhatsApp chats contain a bevy of ideas for new programs and events. There is much more to be done. Community health webinars and new networking events are in the works. Most importantly, we have started planning for the landmark “First Annual JOWMA Symposium”, where members from around the country (possibly the world) will gather to stimulate and celebrate the advancement of orthodox female physicians.

The meteoric rise of JOWMA is a testament the importance of filling this void. We are here so that the achievements of Jewish female physicians, and those who desire to become one, are encouraged and celebrated. So that the Jewish female physicians of today and tomorrow are empowered to lead the way towards healthier communities.

So that the Jewish female physicians of today and tomorrow are empowered to lead the way towards healthier communities.

Communities of the world – we see you too. And soon you’ll be seeing us too.

Bat-Sheva L. Maslow, MD is a founding board member and Chief Marketing Officer at JOWMA, the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association. She is double board certified in Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility. She practices at Extend Fertility in New York City.

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