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The Story of JOWMA, the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association
I grew up in a clinic.
My mom (a pediatrician) and my uncle (a cardiologist) both had offices in the basement of our two-family home in Brooklyn. When the first floor tenants moved out, my dad (a vascular surgeon) opened an ambulatory surgery center in that apartment. Looking back, my childhood home was practically a clinic.
My parents are baby boomers, born as first-generation Americans. Three out of my four grandparents were Holocaust survivors. They came to America with nothing. Their entire lives were wiped out by the Nazis. Yet, instead of dwelling on what they had lost- which was everything- they instead looked ahead. They invested in their children with an intense work ethic. They rebuilt their families and Jewish communities with zeal and commitment.
The Orthodox Jewish community, which I am part of, adheres to strict religious customs based on our ancient religion which is thousands of years old. Our community prioritizes tradition, family, and community. Young women and men usually marry between the ages of 18-24 years old and raise large families right away. Pursuing medicine requires tremendous time, effort, and commitment. For a 17 year old young woman in high school who wants to get married young, have children, continue to uphold her traditions (like observing Shabbos and keeping Kosher), and become a physician- it’s hard to imagine a life path that could carry both dreams. There is also an element of insularity, more acute as relates to women, that fosters suspicion of secular liberal institutions and pursuits. Engendered from genuine religious persuasion, this dynamic adds an element of social pressure, as well, for women to pursue at most a job, but not a career.
To this day, my mom doesn’t fully understand why her father- a Polish Jew who came to the U.S. alone after every single member of his family was murdered by the Nazis- wanted her to become a physician. Her older brother was already a physician. Yet her father pushed her and insisted that it was worth the long haul. My mom knew that her parents valued education on a visceral level; they believed that Jews with skills in the concentration camps were more likely to survive.
There were few women in my mom’s medical school class, and she was the only Orthodox woman student. My parents got married during their residencies and raised us five children in the Brooklyn, NY Orthodox community. When I started college and considered pursuing a career in medicine, my main concern was: can I still get married, have a family, and become a physician? My own mother was able to accomplish this goal. Twenty years later, despite the increasing percentage of women in medical school, it was still very unusual for an Orthodox Jewish woman to become a physician.
With my parents’ support, I decided to pursue medicine despite my concerns. I got married in my first year of medical school while my husband was applying. We had two children during medical school, a third in residency, and a fourth after we finished our training. Training is hard enough as it is, but adding on more responsibilities makes it even harder. And yet, I’m so grateful to have made the choices I have made. Yes, the medical establishment questioned our commitment to medicine on a daily basis, and the world questioned my commitment to motherhood, too. I’ve learned that people question you most when you’re on the journey. Now that I’m done- I finished my training as a radiation oncologist in 2016- they’ve mostly stopped questioning. I’ve mentored many young women from the Orthodox community who want to become physicians. While I don’t sugarcoat the difficult journey, I’m honored to support students who are really committed. My motto is: “it’s never a good time to have a baby,” so don’t wait for the sole purpose of career planning.
In 2019, a first year medical student, Eliana Fine, reached out to me on Instagram. “I’ve never met a religious woman physician before,” she said. We went out to dinner and I invited her to join the “frum female physicians” Facebook group, started by my friend Dr. Sherrie Neustein Orzell. (“Frum” means “Orthodox” in yiddish). Eliana wanted to host an event and bring attendings, students, and premed students together to facilitate networking and mentoring. “Would I help her?,” she asked. I said yes, and that evening, JOWMA was born.
JOWMA stands for Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association. We started by building a website and creating an Eventbrite page for our first event, which we planned for six weeks later. We sold all 100 tickets in three days. During those six weeks, we started a Whats App group and added all of our new members. It was truly instantaneous magic. All of a sudden, we had a chat group of like-minded women, who shared so many unique and important things, like background, community, commitment to medicine, life goals, a desire to give back, and so much more.
Within our newfound network, our members started to discuss important community health topics, including the recent measles outbreak. We published a letter in a popular community blog urging people who were not vaccinated to get the measles vaccine. We also reached out to NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to see if we could partner to provide education around the vaccine. The JOWMA Preventative Health Committee was born, which took on this project and also many others since then, including an infoline, podcast, webinars, in person community events, and so much more.
During the pandemic, JOWMA was able to apply for grants to support our work. With a grant from the EGL Charitable Foundation, we hired staff and expanded our community programs. We now host programs (both online and in person) on a variety of topics including women’s health, teen health, mental health, preventative health and more. Our mission is two-fold: to provide free health education to the entire Orthodox Jewish community, and to support a network of current and future Jewish women physicians. These two missions are closely intertwined. We have over 500 members including Jewish female attendings and trainees from nearly every field of medicine and pre-med students.
JOWMA is supported by dedicated staff who engage the community we serve every day, through webinars, social media, school programs and events. We partner with community organizations, foundation, government, and the medical establishment to promote better health. We are a trusted public health organization that serves as a resource and liaison between healthcare stakeholders and the Orthodox Jewish community.
Our “Premed Society” is run entirely by volunteers who provide free peer-to-peer mentoring, including guidance for pre-med courses, personal statements, interview prep, career guidance, and more. We also have active Whats App groups for our members on different topics- we have separate groups for support, medicine, cooking, shopping, and more.
Our members want to give back to the next generation of physicians. We know how hard it is to pursue a medical career. We also know the unique challenges we face as Jewish women, who have family and communal priorities even while we invest in our medical careers. For those of us who are already practicing, JOWMA offers a unique peer group that understands the challenges of modern medicine and can help each other navigate our careers. In terms of the community, JOWMA is a platform where our members can share their expertise by participating in educational programs and have leadership positions. Many of our physicians participate in JOWMA committees that meet regularly to set priorities for webinars and events for the community. These selfless physicians are filling a growing need to combat misinformation; they are uniquely positioned to do so because they are experts in their fields and also community members themselves, who know the knowledge gaps that need to be bridged.
Becoming a physician is no easy feat. Practicing medicine today has many challenges, including loss of autonomy, moral injury, corporate medicine, insurance companies and more. What drives us to continue practicing? Would anyone recommend this profession to the next generation? The answer is yes, for someone who absolutely 100% wants to do it with all their heart and soul. That’s what JOWMA represents. A group of women who are so committed to their profession, to their community, and to their faith, that simply practicing medicine is not enough. They want to do more. They want to give back to their community by providing health education and health information. They want to support and mentor the next generation of physicians.
In an era where medicine is plagued by burnout and moral injury, I’m inspired to know and support the women of JOWMA. To us, medicine is a true calling.
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Dr Miriam “Mimi” Knoll is co-founder and CEO of JOWMA, Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association. She is a practicing radiation oncologist and mom. You can find her on Twitter @MKnoll_MD and instagram @Dr.Mimi.K. To learn more about JOWMA, visit JOWMA.org or email us at info@JOWMA.org. The JOWMA podcast is available on all major podcast platforms.