Jewish mother of 10 becomes doctor
Years ago, Alexandra Friedman saw a T-shirt with a message she never forgot: “Become the doctor your mother always wanted you to marry.”
This seemed like an impossible goal for a Hasidic woman from Monsey, NY, a predominantly Orthodox Jewish enclave about 30 minutes north of the city that is home to some of the strictest Orthodox communities.
Many women marry young, and their lives revolve around caring for children, the Yiddish language, and adhering to inflexible lifestyle and dress rules to adhere to Hasidic traditions.
Friedman and her husband, Yosef, have 10 children, ranging in age from an 8-month-old son to a 21-year-old daughter.
But in May, Friedman became an anomaly in Monsey by graduating from medicine and earning a residency in pediatrics. Her degree makes her one of the few Hasidic female doctors in the country, said Dr. Miriam Knoll, president of the Orthodox Jewish Women’s Medical Association.
“It’s unusual for medical students to have children, let alone 10 children,” Knoll said. “So to come from a conservative background and have so many children, you are fighting an uphill battle, a battle that takes extraordinary motivation and commitment.”
When Friedman first started thinking about medical school five years ago, even his best friends were in doubt. One, a mother of 14, believed Friedman’s already busy schedule as wife and mother would never allow her to handle the rigors of medical school. Another urged her to become a store cashier instead.
Friedman believed that pursuing medicine would increase his spirituality, not decrease it.
“In Judaism there is a belief that if you are not using the gifts given to you by God, you are not truly honoring God,” she said.
MOTHER AND ACADEMIC
Even struggling with the arduous academic demands over the past four years, she has taken on the domestic responsibilities expected of an ultra-Orthodox mother. She continued to care for her children and refrained from studying on Jewish holidays and on the Sabbath day every Friday evening until Saturday evening.
None of her obligations seemed to hurt her grades or prevent her from graduating on time within four years, and she even gave birth during her studies to three children: her 8-month-old baby, Aharon; and her 3-year-old twins, Mimi and Layla.
She received her first academic degree from the 135 students in her class at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Middletown, NY
Friedman was not always a Hasidic. As the daughter of a US Army general, she was part of a secular Jewish family that moved around the country a lot.
She considered herself a feminist – and still does – and earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. In her twenties, she started medical school but dropped out and developed an interest in Orthodox Judaism, following its strict guidelines and avoiding many distractions from the outside world.
In 2008, after moving to a Hasidic section of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to study at a Hasidic seminary, she met Yosef Friedman, a widower with two daughters from her previous marriage. They got married and eventually settled in Monsey.
After having several children, her mind turned to her medical training.
“Being religious was kind of a full-time job, but once I understood motherhood and Orthodox life, that desire returned,” said Friedman, who approached his religious mentor, Rabbi Aharon Kohn, and asked him into it still imperfect Yiddish for guidance.
The two realized medical school would be doubly difficult for a Monsey mother. Monsey’s Hasidim largely deal with legal matters among themselves, shop in Jewish stores, and send their children to religious schools.
In addition, there would inevitably be conflicts between academic requirements and Hasidic guidelines. Friedman would need to use the Internet and interact with students, teachers, and doctors. What if emergency medical treatment lasted until Shabbos? And since Hasidic women are discouraged from driving, how would she get there?
MEANT TO BE
He finally agreed, even after Friedman wondered if his friend was right to be a cashier instead.
“He said absolutely no – he wanted me to be of service to my community,” said Friedman, who interviewed for admission to medical school four days after giving birth to the couple’s seventh child.
Friedman’s new path raised eyebrows in his tight-knit Hasidic Jewish community.
“People were like, ‘What? Are you going to medical school? And I was like, “The rabbi said it was fine,” “she recalls as she recently sat in her lovely two-story house in a leafy part of Monsey.
She was seated near shelves carrying a shofar and a menorah. Children’s toys were strewn on the floor. The family was packing for their next move to Boca Raton, Florida to begin their residency.
Yosef Friedman, 50, who collects minimum wage as an aide to disabled patients, said the family had lived paycheck to paycheck to afford medical school and relied on various scholarships. Sometimes student loan money helped pay the rent.
“Every obstacle seems to be eliminated,” said Friedman, who received a Dean’s Award from Touro for his support. “It makes me realize that it was just meant to be. It’s what she’s meant to do.”
He started working at night to take care of the children during the day.
RELIEF OFFERED TO THE FAMILY
Far from being a distraction, Alexandra Friedman said her busy family life provided balance and stress relief from the strained demands of studying for juries and exams.
Instead of going to the library with her classmates, she was studying at home with her children around her. They interrogated her with flash cards and adorned her anatomy and surgery textbooks with brightly colored stickers. They watched her practice her sutures before going to bed.
She studied for the microbiology part of the jury exam during labor for 12 hours with her binoculars.
“It kept me away from contractions,” she said.
Rabbi Moshe Krupka, executive vice president of Touro’s college and university system, called Friedman a “poster child” for Touro’s emphasis on supporting the special needs of students from diverse backgrounds.
But Friedman’s biggest supporter was Kohn.
In June 2020, he died of covid-19 at age 69.
In September, when his youngest child was born, Friedman paid tribute to the rabbi who encouraged his dream of medical school by giving his son his name: Aharon.
“The last thing he said to me,” she said, “was, ‘Don’t stop’.”
oDr. Alexandra Friedman’s children adorned her anatomy and surgery textbooks with brightly colored stickers, in Monsey, NY on June 7, 2021. Friedman navigated strict cultural norms to become one of the few female doctors Hasidic of the country. (Sara Naomi Lewkowicz / The New York Times)