‘Jews don’t become nurses,” Meryl Collyns (then Greenblum) was told, when she expressed interest in nursing school as she was completing high school in Queens in the early 1970s.
But she persisted and upon graduation got a job at Roosevelt Hospital, where she has worked for more than 30 years and now serves as director of nursing for maternal child health. When she began, she was one of three Jewish nurses in the hospital and recalls that her manager, a Seventh Day Adventist, was sympathetic to her scheduling needs around the Sabbath and holidays.
These days, Jewish nurses have a greater presence at many hospitals in the New York area — as well as in public health facilities, visiting home services, nursing schools
Jewish Theological Seminary
and other venues — although they are still a small minority, and nursing is still not a typical profession for Jewish women. In conversations, Jewish nurses of different ages and backgrounds express passion for their work, and, in this time of an international nursing shortage, encourage others to join them.
There’s no data as to how many Jewish women work as nurses, although there are probably more in New York City than other places — and there are also Jewish men working in the field. The tradition of Jewish nurses goes back to the Bible — with Deborah serving as a nurse to Rebecca in Genesis, and Shifra and Puah practicing as midwives in Exodus — and more recently, to Lillian Wald, who pioneered the profession of public health nurse. She began her training as a nurse in 1889 and later established a visiting nurse service on the Lower East Side to serve immigrants, and founded the Henry Street Settlement House.
In an interview, Evelyn Rose Benson points out that the nurses who volunteered to serve with the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War were mostly Jewish, from the United States and other countries. Benson, an 83-year-old retired public health nurse, who taught at several nursing schools and served as assistant dean at the School of Nursing at La Salle University in Philadelphia, is the author of “As We See Ourselves: Jewish Women in Nursing” (2001).
Benson also explains that, traditionally, nursing textbooks would speak of the Christian roots of the profession, describing the work as an expression of Christian love and charity. Through her teaching and writing, she has called attention to Jewish sources, like rabbinic commentaries on demonstrating compassion and the tradition of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.
Several of the women interviewed for this article said they knew they wanted to be nurses from the time they were young girls, and pursued that dream. Some began as candy stripers in high school; some defied family objections. Others, who were known as good science students, were encouraged by teachers to become nurses. A few were inspired by growing up with a family member who needed medical attention. And some Jewish nurses came to the field as a second career. Many have gone on to obtain advanced nursing degrees.
“To me, nursing was one place where you could do chesed, loving kindess, every day,” said Avital Rosenbaum, a 24-year-old nurse — one year out of nursing school — working in the field of acute rehabilitation at Rusk Institute/New York University Medical Center. “I always wanted to do something with people. I’m not the kind of person who could sit in a cubicle.”
“I definitely stand out,” Rosenbaum offers, pointing out her Jewish-sounding name, and the fact that she has fashioned her scrubs into a skirt rather than pants, for reasons of religious modesty. She says that she gets a lot of friendly questions from staff and patients.
For Orthodox nurses, arranging time off for Shabbat and holidays can be a challenge and even a deal breaker for certain jobs, but Rosenbaum hasn’t had any problem. “I’m really dedicated, I want to make this work,” she says, noting that she’s willing to work every Sunday night, to make up for the fact that she can’t work every other weekend like other nurses in the rotation.
One emergency room nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, raised the question — that she has asked rabbis — why nurses aren’t given a dispensation to work on Shabbat as doctors and ambulance workers often are. “We do very important work in critical care. I’m saving more lives than the doctors,” said the nurse, who is no longer Orthodox.
Harriet Feldman, dean and professor at the Lienhard School of Nursing, Pace University, reports that lately the school attracts a good number of Orthodox women and men. Karen Bacon, dean of Stern College for Women, notes that in recent years she has seen a lot of interest among students in nursing. In last year’s graduating class, the same number of students, 20, went on to nursing school as medical school. In New York City, starting salaries for nurses are about $65,000 to $70,000.
Several nurses with advanced degrees sigh when asked whether they had ever thought of attending medical school; it’s a question they’re asked frequently.
“It’s a different profession,” says Sandra Lewenson, a professor at the Lienhard School of Nursing, who just completed a book on public health nursing. “We’re not in competition. If you don’t have good nursing care, you’ll notice it. Medical care provides a diagnosis and cure. Nursing looks at the whole person.”
Tova Cohen, a 19-year-old student at Stern College, is thinking about a career in nursing or medicine, and leaning toward nursing. The daughter of a nurse (mother) and doctor (father), she’s drawn to helping people, and likes the idea that “nurses can provide the extra care that a doctor might not have time for.”
Few could recall any anti-Semitic incidents in their careers, other than some misinformed comments. Collyns, 53, remembers, early on, someone saying something about “a Jewish girl like you getting your hands dirty,” but recognized that she was being tested, like everyone else who was new.
She says that patients are often surprised to encounter a Jewish nurse. “I like the patient contact,” she says. “I like to show that we nurses are smart, that we know what we’re talking about. We’re patient advocates, not hostesses. When there’s a problem, we’re the first to assist.”
Shelly Dubin was 32 and teaching high school English when she decided to return to school and study nursing 30 years ago. “My mother asked at the time, ‘Why do you want to shlep bedpans?’ — that was the perception of nursing.”
While the few Jewish women she knew in school went into areas like psychiatry and outpatient work, she was always interested in working with patients bedside. She loved working in neurointensive care at Columbia Presbyterian. “It was intellectually stimulating — you have the ability to use your knowledge and skills to assess patients, recognize changes and intervene effectively.” Now, as a nurse practitioner in the division of geriatric medicine and aging at Columbia, she again does evaluative work and finds the field very satisfying.
A number of nurses chose positions outside of hospitals in order to find autonomy. Maureen Ash, 48, works as a school nurse in New Jersey, where she does health education and prevention in addition to dealing with students individually. Lewenson of Pace says that she went into public health nursing because she liked having an independent role, thinking through problems on her own. Several women echoed Dean Feldman, who said, “In nursing, no two days are alike.”
Jody Pollack Roth, a nurse in the orthopaedic oncology department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Hospital who works with the chief of orthopaedic surgery, feels inspired by her patients, many of whom have devastating illness and yet “find strength within themselves.” She appreciates the “incredible power to touch another life. When a patient is struggling, you can really change the moment.” At times, she cries with patients and and also rejoices with them. While she’s not Orthodox, she takes comfort in her relationship with God, whom she talks to nightly.
Recently, Roth, 57, became involved with the Hadassah Nurses Council, an international partnership with nurses at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem working to enhance the nursing profession in the U.S. and in Israel. The New York chapter, which Roth co-chairs, has about 70 members; more than 3,000 nurses around the U.S. are involved in Hadassah’s Nurses Council (although not all members are Jewish — the only requirement is that they are Zionists).
Pearl Cohen (mother of Tova), 48, has worked as a nurse in a cardiac surgery ICU, had her own practice as a nurse-practitioner and now works as a manager for a home care company. She says that she has been able to reinvent herself several times over the course of her career, to accommodate a family lifestyle and her own interests.
She connects the growing number of Jewish women entering the field with the higher amount of respect accorded nurses, as their roles have expanded. “Nurses used to be viewed as the helper of the doctor. Now, nurses are doing complex procedures, providing a lot of education to patients, and functioning at a high level, complementing the physician.”