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Haredi men nurse interest in the health sciences

Jerusalem College of Technology launches first program in Israel to train Orthodox men to become medical nurses

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Nurses at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem talking to a patient, December 20, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Nurses at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem talking to a patient, December 20, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A new academic nursing program for religious Jewish men will launch this fall in Jerusalem in an effort to bring more Haredim in to the Israeli workforce, and to address a serious shortage in qualified nurses,

The Jerusalem College of Technology program will be the first to train Orthodox men to enter the female-dominated field, and it will do so in accordance with halacha, or Jewish law.

Israel lags behind many Western countries when it comes to number of nurses per capita. Israel has 49.7 nurses for every 10,000 residents. France has 93 nurses per 10,000 people; Britain, 94.7; United States, 98.2; and Germany, 113.8. Israel’s situation is more similar to those found in countries such as Oman, Egypt and Malaysia.

And traditionally, far more women go into nursing than men — but that is changing.

“Only 20 percent of nurses in Israel are men, but the stigma associated with men becoming nurses is diminishing,” said Dr. Chaya Greenberger, dean of the JCT Health and Life Sciences Department.

“Nurses have more responsibility today. Nursing is a desirable, honorable profession, and we wanted to give an opportunity to religious men to join it,” she said.

According to Greenberger, the four-year Bachelor in Science in Nursing program, which is geared toward men from both the ultra-Orthodox and national religious sectors, is attracting applicants in their late 20s and 30s, many of whom had prior interest in the medical field.

Dr. Chaya Greenberger, Dean of Health and Life Sciences at JCT. (Courtesy)
Dr. Chaya Greenberger, Dean of Health and Life Sciences at JCT. (Courtesy)

Shaul (who does not want his last name revealed), an Orthodox yeshiva student from Jerusalem, has applied to be accepted to the nursing program. In addition to studying Talmud and checking tefillin and mezuzas, he has been riding along in an ambulance as a volunteer once a week for the past two years.

“I would have liked to have gone to medical school, but it’s not really a realistic option for me now, given that I won’t be staying in the kollel [yeshiva for married students with a stipend provided] for the rest of my life and I have a wife and young son to support,” Shaul, 34, said.

He has found volunteering with the ambulance service fulfilling and expects to enjoy nursing.

“It’s the closest thing to being a doctor, and it’s at the top of my list in terms of suitable occupations, given my interest and skills in the life sciences.”

Like JCT’s nursing program for women, this new program for men will be closely supervised by the Schlesinger Institute for Medical-Halachic Research at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, with rabbis (led by physician-rabbi Mordechai Halperin) supervising and advising on Jewish law issues. ​

“Ethical issues will be attended to the way they should be,” said Greenberger. “But we are not reinventing the wheel with this program. We have the same rabbinic supervision in place for our 600-student nursing program for women.”

In accordance with JCT’s practices, only male teachers will lecture to the male students in the classroom. On the other hand, administrative staff and clinical staff, as well as the program’s director, will be women.

The separation of the sexes practiced by Orthodox Jews is obviously an issue, but according to Greenberger, it is possible to train religious Jews to provide nursing services to patients of the opposite gender.

Students in JCT's nursing program for men will receive the same Jewish law-compliant training as students in the women's program. (Courtesy)
Students in JCT’s nursing program for men will receive the same Jewish law-compliant training as students in the women’s program. (Courtesy)

“There is no difference in training a male nursing student than a female one when it comes to shomer negia (the prohibition against men touching women and vice versa),” Greenberger said.

However, while the male students will have to learn how diseases and conditions present differently in men and women and will generally train in all different hospital departments, they will be exempt from studying nursing as it pertains to labor and delivery.

“Training is one thing, but of course, once someone is a nurse, if it is a matter of pikuah nefesh [life or death], then you do it,” Greenberger said about touching a person of the opposite sex.

“It’s not just the male-female thing” that rabbis would need to weigh in on, Greenberger said. “There’s that, but there are also issues relating to abortion, feeding tubes, ending life support and everything in between that have to be considered in terms of Jewish law.”

Greenberger expects to enroll 50 students in the first cohort of the program to train male nurses.

Students who have Israeli high school matriculation certificates, or American high school diplomas as in Shaul’s case, will likely begin their studies in January. Students accepted to the program, but without these qualifications, will begin a preparatory program sooner.

Greenberger is confident that JCT can teach men to be nurses without violating halacha.

“Of course, there is no question that some rabbis would tell young religious men to go find another profession, but there is a real need for male nurses to tend to religious men,” she said.

“I know my interest in becoming a nurse will raise some eyebrows,” said Shaul, who is not deterred.

“There is a huge shortage of nurses, especially religious male nurses who can treat patients according to their religious comfort level.”

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