YU Medical-Ethics Conference Links Past To Future

By Rochelle Maruch Miller

On a recent Sunday morning, a capacity crowd filled Yeshiva University’s Furst Hall to attend “Out of the Ashes: Jewish approaches to medical dilemmas born out of the Holocaust”–the 7th Annual Fuld Family Medical Ethics Conference. Sponsored through the generous support of Rabbi Dovid and Mrs. Anita Fuld, the conference is an annual highlight for YU’s Medical Ethics Society (MES), a student-run organization developed and under the guidance of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future and the Office of Student Life.

Both Mordechai Smith and Yosefa Schoor, co-presidents of MES, are grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. As well, both students plan to attend medical school. “Naturally that had a huge impact on our selection of this topic for our conference,” said Mordechai. “It’s a certain sense of responsibility to take what happened and inform our own future. It is our responsibility to ensure that our world continues to be one founded on ethics, morals, and halachaH. Our hope is that this conference will play a role in this process. We have created a forum that will uniquely discuss the scientific, ethical, and medical repercussions of the Holocaust to ensure that this generation is informed and sensitive to how the Holocaust impacts us today.”

“I’ve always had difficulty confronting the Holocaust,” said Yosefa. “My grandmother is a survivor and it’s so profoundly affected my mother. She’s the type who collects any and all information about the Holocaust and plays it back to me. It’s her way to fight back–but it’s left me overwhelmed. This conference was my way, almost subconsciously, to confront in me what threatened to become a deafening silence. It was a tangible way to grasp what happened to my family and gave my unspeakable fears a productive, forward-thinking outlet.”

In his introduction to the event, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, David Mitzner Dean of the Center for the Jewish Future, described the Medical Ethics Society as “a real force on the YU campus dealing with important social and religious issues,” and the conference as “just one example of the power of our students, who within a dual curriculum find the time to run amazing initiatives.”

The event featured a distinguished list of all-star presenters. Dr. Michael Grodin, director of the Project on Medicine and the Holocaust at the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, opened the conference by delivering the keynote address: “Medical Ethics in the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Nazi doctors, racial hygiene, murder, and genocide.” “There are a surprising number of modern-day ethics dilemmas sourcing back to the Holocaust: Physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, physicians’ aid in capital punishment, physician involvement in torture, genetic engineering, and state-prescribed reproductive policies, to name a few hot-button issues,” Dr. Grodin told the audience. “The painful history of the Holocaust demands we view these questions with the knowledge that dehumanization and treating the state instead of the patient begins with small steps.” He described the idea how state-sponsored eugenics (the policy of only allowing “fit” citizens to reproduce) and sterilization had roots in early 20th-century America. Dr. Grodin discussed how this history impacted contemporary medicine and bioethics as well as the importance of the study of medicine and the Holocaust for Jewish medical ethics.

Offering context and background in discussing these issues, Dr. Grodin detailed how the Nazi policy quickly deteriorated from eugenics to euthanasia, the brutal murder of non-Aryans, and experimentation within concentration camps by Nazi physicians. This experimentation included testing the effects of high-altitude hypothermia, typhus, seawater consumption, and simulated war sounds, all intended to torture and torment those precious souls whose suffering was beyond description.

Dr. Grodin’s keynote address set the tone for the plenary session that followed: Human Experimentation, presented by Rabbi Moshe Tendler, Ph.D., senior rosh yeshiva at the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary, where he is the Rabbi Isaac and Bella Tendler Professor of Jewish Medical Ethics and a professor of biology. Rabbi Tendler is the leading expert on medical ethics as it pertains to Jewish law. He is the author of Practical Medical Halakha, a textbook of Jewish response to medical issues; Pardes Rimonim, a book about taharas ha’mishpachah; and Care of the Critically Ill: A Responsa, Rav Moshe Feinstein, Volume 1. Rabbi Tendler has written extensively on euthanasia, infertility, end-of-life issues, organ donations, and b’ris milah. Rabbi Tendler chaired the bioethical commission of the Rabbinical Council of America and the Medical Ethics Task Force of UJA-Federation of Greater New York. For almost a decade he chaired the medical ethics committee of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and edited their “Compendium of Jewish Medical Ethics” for Federation hospitals. Rabbi Tendler is mara d’asra of the Community Synagogue in Monsey, N.Y.

The plenary session also featured Irene Hizme, who along with her twin brother, Rene, survived the experimentation of Josef Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau as six-year-old twins. Dr. Edward Burns, executive dean of Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, moderated this session. The audience listened, engrossed in Ms. Hizme’s every word; indeed, the silence was palpable, save for an occasional sob that cut like a knife as she recalled the horrific experiences she and her brother–and so many other innocents–were forced to endure over and over again.

“At age six we had no comprehension of what was happening. We had no frame of reference. This is the way we thought life was. This was our life,” said Ms. Hizme as she recalled a life cruelly divested of loving parents and a childhood, in its stead facing the constant terror of injections and inhumane experimentation.

“You might think it was good to be a twin in Auschwitz,” she added. “You avoided an immediate death–but our days were filled with fear and trepidation of visits to Mengele. We were tired. We were hungry. We were cold. We watched shootings. We watched brutal beatings. These were all part of the heinous crimes perpetrated against us.” Indeed, so deeply was she traumatized by that dark era of her life that she is still terrified to visit a doctor or hospital.

Exhausted after sharing her personal story with her audience, she whispered, “My story is a tie between past and future.” She also beseeched the pre-med students in the room to never abandon humanism and to remember that within each person they will treat there is a soul.

Linking the past to the future was the mission of the conference, which explored the contemporary relevance and halachic significance of ethical challenges that arose during the Holocaust as well as issues that surfaced later as products of the Holocaust.

“As a survivor and a medical professional, Irene has the unique insights of one who was abused by medicine but chose to honor its ethics later in life,” said Yosefa Schoor. “Irene’s involvement is one of the most important elements of our conference–a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust and a veteran medical researcher speaking to the next generation of medical professionals, relaying a unique understanding of the imperative necessity for ethics across all medical disciplines.”

The conference’s afternoon schedule included a variety of outstanding speakers and sessions: “Medical Halakhic Dilemmas Faced During the Holocaust,” with Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, conference chairman, mentor of the MES, and associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Einstein; “The Nuremburg Laws and Code in the Light of 21st-Century Medical Ethics,” with Dr. Harry Ostrer, professor of pathology, genetics, and pediatrics at Einstein; “Trauma and Resilience in the Second and Third Generation After the Holocaust,” with Dr. David Pelcovitz, Gwendolyn and Joseph Straus Chair in Psychology and Jewish Education at Yeshiva University’s Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration; “The Halakhic Status of People with Special Needs: A response to Nazi euthenasia,” with Rabbi Michael Taubes, head of school at Yeshiva University High School for Boys; “Nazi Medicine: The role in the gassing process and the ongoing implication of their pseudo-scientific work” with Dr. Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Exploration of the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust; and “The Status of Concentration Camps in Halakha” with Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, Joseph and Gwendolyn Straus Professor of Talmud and Adjunct Professor of Bible at Yeshiva College.

“Yeshiva University is the very embodiment of Torah U’Madda, the fusion of high-level Jewish and secular studies. The Medical Ethics Society is composed of exceptional men and women who exemplify these ideals and whose profound love of learning and dedication to Jewish education and activism is a source of great pride for the Yeshiva University community,” says Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, conference chairman, mentor of the MES program and associate professor of Emergency Medicine at Einstein. v


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