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Keeping Your Head and Bases Covered

“Take it off?! Wearing my kippah literally saved my life!”


y medical student, Dov, was happy to be back for a day in the clinic with me. He was nearing the beginning of his fourth year and was getting ready to apply for positions both in America and here in Israel.

Dov asked me for a letter, which I was happy to write. He was certainly a good student — diligent and professional — and was dedicated to providing high-quality medical care. Here was a young fellow with a decent shot at matching with a top program.

After we finished our morning’s cases, Dov went off for a coffee while I wrote up the notes. He came back a few minutes later with a big stain on his chest and a frown to match it. “Some angry guy bumped into me and ruined my new shirt after spilling my cappuccino.”

“Cheer up, Dov,” I said as we took a break in between patients to write his letter of recommendation. “You can’t have everything go your way, but at least you’ll get a good recommendation from me. A question for you, though: Do you really want to leave Eretz Yisrael to go back to America for your residency?”

“Not really,” Dov admitted, as he sat at my side to see what I was writing for him. “It’s definitely better to be religious here in Israel. More minyanim, more kosher food, more spirituality…”

“Don’t forget that there are fully-frum hospitals here like Shaare Zedek and Laniado that are amazing places to work, and where you’d have no problems explaining your need to take a 20-minute break every day for Minchah — your boss would be at the minyan, too.”

“I wouldn’t have to take my kippah off either if I stayed here for residency.”

I’m not one to be shocked easily, but that was a comment I definitely did not see coming.

Dov apparently noticed my surprise. “Well, I wouldn’t have to take my kippah off if I stayed in Israel,” Dov repeated a bit more cautiously. “You know that most of the docs back in the States don’t wear kippahs in the hospital. Except for a few really frum ones, I guess.”

Actually, Dov was both right and wrong. He was right because there were many solid frum guys who took off their kippot for various reasons in the hospital. But he was also clearly wrong: A handful of guys, including myself and my good buddy Dr. Mike Klompas, proudly wore our yarmulkes in the halls of Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard Medical School.

Dov didn’t like the awkward silence. “So from the look on your face, I’m guessing you didn’t think there was a good enough heter for taking off your kippah during residency at the hospital?”

“Take it off? Dov, are you kidding me? Wearing my kippah literally saved my life! Residency was so tough and having my kippah and tzitzis to remind me that the Eibeshter was always with me kept me both alive and sane. Knowing that I was a uniformed representative of the Jewish People was the only way to keep things in perspective and stay calm in the ER at 4 a.m., surrounded by hordes of agitated patients, their angry family members, and an equally-frustrated nursing staff.”

“So I guess that means you didn’t get a heter…”

“You can get a heter for anything if you try hard enough, Dov,” I said — and then paused for a moment to emphasize that I thought this was a serious discussion. “Rabbi Naftoly Bier of the Boston Kollel told me to wear a kippah because I’d have the unique opportunity make a huge kiddush Hashem as a proud Yid with a beard and a big black yarmulke in the hallowed halls of Harvard Medical School. But it was also a big brachah because it helped me keep Shabbos throughout all of the challenges of residency.”

“How’s that?” Dov asked, his curiosity piqued.

“Even though I worked Sundays, July 4th, Thanksgiving, December 25th, and January 1st, not all of my colleagues were too keen on the fact that ‘Dr. Freedman never has to do rounds on Friday nights or Saturdays.’ They could never see beyond the idea that it was all an excuse to bail out. But when one of them would pipe up and say ‘It’s not fair, Mary Kate is Catholic and she has to work on Sundays, which is her holy day,’ I was tremendously grateful to have the zechus to point to my kippah and big old beard — no one wants to mess with a guy who has a huge, unruly beard — and tell them, ‘When Mary Kate wears a special Catholic hat and gives up watching football games every Sunday, we’ll have what to talk about.’ My colleagues all knew that was the truth. No one ever had any complaints about my work ethic.”

“Gotcha,” said Dov, feeling more confident and empowered. “Tell me, you had that same giant beard the whole time?”

“Well, it wasn’t always this majestic, but yeah, I always had a big beard. Helped me stay sane. But it’s also part of our whole story as Jews. Don’t forget that Chazal say that along with keeping our names and our language, dressing like Jews is what helped us to merit being redeemed from Mitzrayim.”

“So to summarize: keeping my kippah on during residency will protect me and help me to merit my own personal Yetzias Mitzrayim?” Dov asked incredulously.

“Dov, if you think that taking off your kippah will give you a bigger shemirah, you’re the one who will have to live with that cheshbon.”

“Good point,” he conceded. “So then what do I do?”

“You stay here for residency and join the handful of good religious psychiatrists who are willing to give up the excellent paychecks and academic glory of galus for the sake of bringing geulah.”

“By wearing a kippah?” Dov looked confused.

“No, Dov! By being a good frum doc here in Israel where you can help dozens of Yidden each day to successfully recover from mental illness! If that isn’t taking a personal achrayus in geulah, I don’t know what is. Plus if you stay here you can get your matzah for cheaper, be in Jerusalem on Pesach, and get to see what mimunah looks like Motzaei Chag.”

Dov smiled. “I like the idea of being here for mimunah but I might still go back to America. Either way you convinced me — wherever I go, I’ll definitely try to wear my kippah.”

“Good for you, Dov,” I said with a big grin as I printed out his letter, signed it, and handed it to him for safekeeping.

As he walked out the door I called out, “And just remember, Dov — kippah or not — you’ve still got to get a new clean shirt for Pesach because your current one has a big coffee stain. Or better yet, you could get married and wear a kittel to the Seder! How was that last shidduch, by the way?”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 703. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem.  Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com

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