Dr. Alexandra Friedman, a chassidish mother of ten in Monsey, graduated top of her class while never losing sight of what mattered most
A conversation with Dr. Alexandra Friedman feels like a regular schmooze with a busy mother juggling the dual responsibilities of a large family and work outside the home.
The difference between this conversation and a regular one is that Dr. Friedman was joining me via Zoom from her home in Florida, where her family just relocated as she begins her residency in pediatric medicine. This is after she graduated at the top of her class from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, winning the Judith Wible M.D. Scholarship for Visionary Women in Medicine. She accomplished all this as a mother of ten children, three of whom were born while she was in medical school, including a set of twins.
While she reminisces about some of the more memorable moments of her recent accomplishments, she smiles easily and often, exuding a sense of calm as she brushes the bangs of her short blonde sheitel out of her eyes.
“Because it was Touro, they had a kosher kitchen area for us,” she recalls. “That was very helpful because I’d spend eight hours a day there.”
“And it’s not like you could just pop back home and make yourself something to eat,” I add.
“Right. On exam days I’d leave my house at three in the morning, and some exams wouldn’t be done until 6 p.m., so I wouldn’t get home until seven. I’d have to pack breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, because I was pregnant with twins at that time. I’d come in with my schoolbag and like two food bags.”
We’re both laughing at this point.
“Yeah, it was pretty intense, but it was really good to have that environment.”
An Early Inclination
Dr. Friedman’s love of science started young. Her seventh-grade biology teacher had previously taught at a community college, and he essentially took his college-level curriculum and taught it to his seventh-grade students. While it was initially overwhelming, she found the material enjoyable, and the class opened her eyes to cell biology.
“It was very interesting,” she recollects. “The whole world that’s inside of our bodies is truly miraculous. The complexity, the specificity of every protein, each molecule, and how it all comes together within the cell. It’s beautiful.”
She went on to major in pre-med at William and Mary College in Virginia and participated in a yearlong research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health with Dr. Esther Sternberg, an internationally recognized researcher known for her discoveries in the field of mind-body interaction in illness and healing. Dr. Sternberg became a mentor to Dr. Friedman, a relationship that continues to this day.
Dr. Friedman’s next step was attending medical school in Kansas City. At the same time, she was also exploring Judaism on a deeper level. “From a young age I was always wondering ‘Who made the world?’ ‘What is the world?’ ” she says. As a young adult, these questions became more focused. “In looking toward getting married and raising a family, I wanted to give my children something. I wanted to raise them with values, knowing the purpose of life.”
She explored the different religious communities in Kansas City, and when she started learning Torah, she recognized the emes immediately. But her developing interest in Yiddishkeit seemed incompatible with her medical school enrollment; she felt she couldn’t invest heavily in both. Conflicted, she turned to Rabbi Sholom Wineberg, director of the Chabad House in Overland Park, for advice. He told her, “If you’re meant to be a doctor, Hashem will figure out a way for you to be a doctor in a frum environment.”
So Dr. Friedman quit medical school and moved to Brooklyn to attend seminary and learn more about Yiddishkeit. There, through a mutual acquaintance, she was introduced to her husband, a ger tzedek from California. “He was at a Shabbos meal with someone, and then I was at a Shabbos table with that same person, and the match was made,” reminisces Dr. Friedman. They married, starting off in Brooklyn, and eventually moving to Monsey.
Her love for science was still there, but she was very happy with her life, living in a chassidish community, developing her connection with Hashem, and staying home to raise her growing family.
So what changed?
Taking the Leap
“At a certain point, your house is running, and you have more free time to do whatever it is you’re going to do. At that point, between the parnassah needs of a growing family, baruch Hashem, and feeling like I had some spare time, I decided this would be the best way to move forward,” Dr. Friedman says matter-of-factly.
But first she wanted to make sure that venturing out into the working world was doable. She reached out to some older friends, women who also had large families, some who worked and some who didn’t, and asked for their thoughts.
“I got a lot of encouragement from women who were further along in raising their families than I was,” says Dr. Friedman. “They said ‘This is a stage when some of your children are older, you kind of have your house running smoothly, and a lot of women at this point go back to a previous job or pick up something new.’ ”
Her husband was on board from the beginning. While they were dating, Dr. Freidman had expressed her desire to be a stay-at-home mother. Her approach was that if they needed more parnassah later on, they’d figure something out. When the time came to think about working, Mr. Friedman was fully supportive of her going to medical school, just as he was totally supportive when she wanted to stay at home.
Making the switch from stay-at-home mom to working mom was one thing, going to medical school was uncharted territory in her community. She consulted with her rav, Rabbi Aharon Kohn ztz”l, and with his blessing, set her sights on Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine. Conveniently, in 2014, Touro had opened a medical school campus in Middletown, New York, less than an hour from her home in Monsey.
Dr. Friedman didn’t just jump right in to applying to medical school. First, she wanted to see if she could still be a student after so many years of not using her mind in that way. She reached out to Dr. Sternberg, who had moved to Tucson, Arizona, and was conducting medical research there. Dr. Sternberg was very supportive of Dr. Friedman’s plan to return to school, and invited her to come out and work in her laboratory for a year. As Hashgachah would have it, there was a chassidish bungalow colony there, providing Dr. Friedman and her family with company while she dipped her toes back into the world of medical study.
“That was a very interesting year.” Dr. Friedman smiles at the memory. They lived in an apartment near the bungalow colony, and when chassidim came there for vacation, the Friedmans would join the community for Shabbos. “Everyone there was on vacation, and we were living our lives, so it was kind of funny because they were very relaxed and were going to all these tourist attractions we’d never seen,” she says.
The return to the world of medical research was promising. “What I found is that once I got into that mindset of school, it was like my brain turned back on,” she says.
Dr. Friedman then applied to a unique master’s program at Touro College that serves as a pipeline program for admission into its medical school. Students who complete the program with a GPA of at least 3.5 and pass a comprehensive exam are invited into the D.O. program. Dr. Friedman excelled and was soon set to start medical school in Middletown.
Coming from a community where women don’t drive, this commute could have been a roadblock, but the Friedmans didn’t view it that way. At first, her husband drove her both ways (Dr. Friedman wasn’t the only one to win awards from Touro; her husband received the Donna Jones Moritsugu memorial award for the most supportive spouse). Eventually, her rav said she could drive herself.
While Dr. Friedman had been in a college environment before and had an idea what to expect, it was still an adjustment to move from her insular Monsey community to the diverse environment of graduate studies at Touro. The majority of students weren’t Jewish, never mind chassidish, and the campus is mixed-gender. But Dr. Friedman found students she could connect with on a human level. Even though their backgrounds and ages were completely different, “If we were the same type of student, that’s how we got along. We chose to sit together and study together because we had similar study habits,” she says.
There were also women from other religions with whom she had a little more commonality, like restrictions on interactions with men. “We were grateful to have each other to be partners in certain laboratories,” she says of instances when physical touch with other students was required.
Attending a shomer Shabbos college like Touro made so many issues less complicated. Even when she started her clinical rotations in her third and fourth year of medical school, everyone she encountered was familiar with the specific needs of a frum medical student, and she didn’t have to deal with any pressure about her observance.
Back at the Ranch
The Friedmans had seven children when Dr. Friedman began medical school; her interview for medical school took place just four days after she had given birth to her seventh child.
How did her family adjust to this entirely different schedule and life? “I made bedtime a priority,” she explains. “Reading and singing my kids to bed was always something I really enjoyed, so under all circumstances, I’d take a break from studying for bedtime.” Being there for all her children’s performances was also a must, even if it meant taking time off from class. Things like putting the kids on the bus in the morning was no longer feasible, so her husband did that instead.
It was important to the Friedmans that there was always a parent around for the children. For a while Mr. Friedman, who works as an aide for adults with disabilities, worked nights so he could be with the children during the day.
Nursing was also a priority for Dr. Friedman. It was a part of motherhood that she especially enjoyed, and she didn’t want to give it up. “I told my husband, ‘I’m only doing this if I can nurse my babies.’ ”
She had a six-week-old when she began medical school, and her husband would bring the baby to Middletown and drive around while Dr. Friedman was in class, returning to campus in time for Dr. Friedman to nurse during the ten-minute break in between classes. She’d feed her baby in the car and have her classmates take notes for the first five minutes of class that she’d miss.
Meals became simpler once she started working. “We didn’t have the money for takeout,” she chuckles wryly, “so we had to do home-cooked meals anyway.”
A typical dinner would be a salad, chicken, and rice. “My kids love rice and soy sauce, and cut-up cucumbers. Some others love salad, so that was easy. I’d buy pre-checked bags of lettuce and just throw it in a bowl with oil, vinegar, and lemon juice. And chicken in the oven isn’t that hard — my kids like plain chicken, they don’t even like any sauce.” She smiles as she says, “Making the rice was probably the hardest thing because you have to actually measure the water.”
Before medical school, Shabbos meals would include traditional foods plus some extras, but after school started, Dr. Friedman focused on the basics. Every Friday night would include tomato dip, gefilte fish, salmon, chicken soup with lokshen, chicken, farfelle, potato kugel, and compote. Shabbos day would be cholent, lettuce salad, egg with onion, and liver with radish. Dessert would be cookies or another simple treat. On Shabbos Mevarchim or Rosh Chodesh she’d add knaidlach to the soup and an apple kugel.
“There’s a Yiddish sefer about why you eat each food — and everything has a reason — and every once in a while, I’d have my kids read that again to remind them why we’re eating these different foods.”
She did most of the Shabbos cooking on Thursday. “I don’t like leaving things last minute to Friday because I’m always stressed that something’s going to go wrong and I’m going to be rushing,” Dr. Friedman explains. Every other week they’d make a six-pound batch of challah. She’d put up the soup on Friday morning, and if she wasn’t around, one of her daughters would do it. Her daughters also helped out where they could.
“They started wanting to make potato kugel, actually,” recalls Dr. Friedman. “Some like it more blended and some like it sliced, so each would make it the way she liked it, and they’d look forward to making it their way.”
In It Together
Dr. Friedman was pleasantly surprised at how encouraging and supportive her children were. They viewed their mother becoming a doctor as a way of helping other people and were excited to have a part in that mitzvah.
She continually checked her family’s pulse, to make sure everyone was still on board with her schedule. “I always told them, ‘The second you feel this is too much for you, please let me know, and I’ll do what I can to make it better.’ They always knew they could put a stop to it anytime they wanted.”
And instead of detracting from family time, Dr. Friedman’s busy schedule heightened her family’s appreciation of the time they did have together. “Because the time was more focused and somewhat limited, I took advantage of it. We really, really appreciated Chol Hamoed, and we really, really appreciated Chanukah. Jewish holidays were pretty much the only time I had off, so they were a really big deal.”
Dr. Friedman became pregnant with twins during her second year of medical school, and yes, she nursed them as well. “I did my whole third year while nursing twins, so that was a real balancing act,” she recalls. The first month it took about 30 minutes to feed them, but once they were six weeks old, she’d nurse them together for 10 to 15 minutes, between her other obligations.
As the twins grew and became more mobile, the Friedmans got creative with how to keep them safely entertained and contained at home. They attached a couple of circular baby gates together to create a baby-proof play area in their living room. “We’d put down foam mats with toys and we’d rotate the toys so they wouldn’t get bored.”
Dr. Friedman credits her family with keeping her balanced throughout medical school. “When I was at school, I was a student, fully a student. And when I was at home, I was at home. It was a beautiful balance. It kept me from getting too focused on school.”
“We’re here not just for ourselves, we’re all connected, so helping others is helping ourselves. We all have the same responsibility; we’re in this mission together. I think my kids just really understood that from day one. And they know that my husband and I do everything with rabbinical guidance.” For the children, with their simple emunah, if the Rav had said to do it, it must be a good thing.
Is This Possible?
Her children’s emunah proved to be a great source of encouragement during some of the more difficult parts of medical school. Exam period was a grueling, relentless cycle of studying every minute she could, waking up in the wee hours of the morning, driving an hour to school, taking the exam, being totally wiped out from the test, then driving an hour back home, attempting to take an hour nap, and then starting the whole cycle again for another exam the next day.
This brutal schedule went on for two weeks.
“After each exam I’d think to myself, ‘I can’t possibly do this again,” recalls Dr. Friedman. “I was just so exhausted. Sometimes I’d come out and I’d read to or play with my kids and I’d say, ‘Oh, I have a test,’ and they’d say ‘Oh, it’s okay Mommy, you’re going to do great. You always do great!’ ”
With such arduous schedules and pressure, it’s not uncommon for medical students to neglect their own health. But Dr. Friedman was very aware of this pitfall and was determined not to fall into an unhealthy cycle.
“I’d do as much as I could,” she says, “and then I’d make sure to get at least a little bit of sleep, and then I’d daven. ‘Hashem, I’ve done the best that I can, and I’m going to sleep now, and I hope I’ll remember everything.’ I knew I’d reviewed all the material, just not as much as I wanted to. Baruch Hashem, the information was always there when I needed to access it.”
Despite her successes and the constant support of her family, there was a point at which it was just getting to be too much. Between the second and third year of medical school, Dr. Friedman started having second thoughts.
The first two years of medical school are mainly classroom and lab based, which meant a lot of studying, but could be worked around a family schedule. The third and fourth years of medical school involve a lot of clinical hours, and she wasn’t going to have as much control over her schedule.
“My family wasn’t complaining, but I was feeling guilty for being away from them,” she explains.
She returned to Rabbi Kohn. He knew she’d done well academically her first two years, and had given her multiple brachos over that time period. “I think I should quit,” she told him at that point. “I think it’s not worth it. I don’t want to be away from my family this much.”
He told her that he didn’t think she should quit, but she should ask two other rabbanim as well, and then go with the majority opinion. Dr. Friedman ended up asking three other rabbanim. “All of them said ‘don’t quit,’ ” she says with a smile.
Our Individual Paths
Dr. Friedman did receive some hesitant reactions to her plan to go to medical school. It wasn’t criticism, per se. “It was more like people were concerned: ‘How are you going to manage?’ and, ‘How do you manage?’ I think that’s everyone’s first question,” she laughs.
“But anyone who really knew me well, knew my personality, knew my family and how we work together…. They totally understood how it was working.”
She did still get some suggestions to look into a less demanding job, like being a cashier in a store, but Dr. Friedman dismissed that out of hand. Not only did it not make financial sense for the growing needs of her family, it also wouldn’t use the unique talents she knew she had.
Dr. Friedman thinks it’s perfectly reasonable for people to have been concerned. Going to medical school was a huge undertaking. But she’s also incredibly aware of how different things work for different people. It was a theme that came up in the interview many times.
“You never really know… for one person this might be a huge challenge, for someone else it might not be a challenge at all,” she says.
Her going to medical school worked for her family, and she’s sure there are other families it could work for, but she readily acknowledges that it’s not for everyone.
“We each have our individual paths in life. Baruch Hashem, we have the Torah that gives us these strict guidelines. But it’s also a living Torah, and has the Oral Torah for that reason, so that a rav gives a psak that’s unique to each person. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation.
“The Torah we live by gives us the opportunities to use our talents. You shouldn’t feel bad if you’re doing something different from what other people are doing or even doing something completely uncharted.”
Dr. Friedman also emphasizes that there can be different stages in your life for doing different things. Some people feel that if they haven’t hit a certain benchmark of professional success by the time they’re 25 or 30, the window of opportunity has closed. “It doesn’t have to be like that. Different phases in your life can be the right time to do certain things.”
Dr. Friedman’s achievements came to the attention of Dr. Kenneth Steier, the executive dean of Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, around the end of her second year, when she was winning award after award.
“I saw her getting all these awards, but I didn’t know the whole story,” he shares. “It’s a unique and special story none of us could have made up because no one would believe us.”
He comments on the incredible level of Dr. Friedman’s perseverance, grit, and endurance, and that her “calmness and maturity benefits everyone around her.”
From the outset, attending medical school was never about her. “There were a lot of reasons why I went to medical school, and the ‘me’ wasn’t much of it. It was much more about my family and Hashem and using my talents” says Dr. Friedman.
Her academic achievements are undeniably impressive, but her attitude and clear priorities frame it beautifully. She wasn’t studying hard to be at the top of her class. In fact, she wasn’t even aware of her class ranking. She wasn’t competing against her fellow students; she was just doing her best.
“It was a funny shock. I found out the week of graduation that I was number one in my class. I didn’t even know,” she says with a note of wonder in her voice. “I think my family is exactly why I didn’t know where I ranked in my class because, ultimately, my children’s success in school is more important than my own. I was more worried about the PTA conferences than my ranking.”
For many of her classmates, medical school was their whole life. “This was all they had. But I had Torah, I had my family, I had Yom Tov. I had this whole other world that was so important. So although I cared a lot about the tests, my life gave me such balance.”
Reflecting back on her first foray into medical school, on how she had quit, and how she came back many years later and was able to finish without compromising on her observance, she’s awestruck.
“To have come through to the other end now and having not only finished, but succeeded at the top of my class… it’s beautiful to see the work of Hashem. That’s what I see in it all.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 752)
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