One of the commonly held stereotypes of the haredi community is of automatons who march in lockstep to the directives of their rabbinical leaders. That stereotype has its parallel in the haredi community itself: history is too often taught exclusively through biographies of great Torah leaders, as if all communal change is exclusively a function of a top-down process.
That view, however, fails to catch the richness and vitality of haredi life, much of which is generated by initiatives from below. That vitality has been manifested in recent years in the creation of numerous haredi-founded and -run medical organizations, such as Yad Sarah and Ezer Mizion. Israel Prize winner Rabbi Elimelech Firer is the best known of a cadre of haredi medical referral experts.
Dr. Ivo Janko of Harvard Medical School described Firer’s Ezra Lamarpeh organization as providing “integrated services unparalleled in the world.”
Seven years ago, Rabbi Yitzchak Melber decided to emulate Firer’s expertise in the specific area of women’s health with the founding of Torat Hamishpacha.
At first glance, the 30-year-old Skver hassid would have seemed an unlikely candidate for accumulating vast medical knowledge. When he and his wife left the United States for Israel shortly after their wedding, he could barely sign his name in English.
But while studying practical rabbinics under one of Jerusalem’s leading poskim, the latter began charging Melber with ascertaining the latest medical information of relevance to halachic decisions.
Rabbi Menachem Bornstein of Machon Puah, a halachic fertility center, noticed that Melber had a special aptitude for medical issues and began taking him to medical conferences.
“THERE IS so much unnecessary suffering in silence,” Melber tells me, “simply because women and couples do not have access to the necessary information.”
Many fertility problems, for instance, that were once thought insuperable no longer are. New advances are being made all the time. As the most pro-natal country in the developed world, Israel is at the forefront of those advances.
The problem is that the information is vast and the pace of change is rapid. “The information I have today is valid for three months,” Prof. Chaim Yaffe of Shaare Zedek Medical Center told Melber; even medical practitioners may not have access to up-to-date information. Each problem involves its own subspecialty.
Melber attends dozens of medical conferences a year, sometimes as many as three in one week, to keep abreast of changes in the field. Then he disseminates that information as widely as possible to all those to whom members of the community may turn for guidance – e.g., rabbis, those who prepare brides and grooms for marriage, mikve attendants.
Torat Hamishpacha’s annual rabbinical conference in Israel attracts 500 rabbis to hear presentations from leading medical experts. Last month I attended a seven-hour conference for approximately 100 rabbinical students preparing to take up positions abroad. They heard from leading experts in male and female infertility, from a psychologist who runs support groups designed to reduce the emotional stress for men and women experiencing infertility, a presentation on various instruments and tests used in gynecological exams and their halachic implications, as well as a presentation from a leading posek on halachic approaches to IVF.
Torat Hamishpacha’s Tahareinu hotline (072-224-2424) fields over 3,000 inquiries a month from around the globe. Eight rabbis and 28 female volunteers staff the hotline. The latter receive 250 hours of training prior to starting and attend at least one continuing education presentation a month. I recently attended one such meeting between every department head at Shaare Zedek Medical Center’s obstetrics and gynecology department and the volunteers.
Each volunteer commits to receiving calls at least four hours a week; most work at least twice as many hours.
Because of the respect he commands in both the medical and rabbinic world, Melber serves as a vital bridge between the two. He is a member of the Health Ministry’s Commission on the Advancement of Women’s Health and has written halachic works on issues of women’s health, including infertility, contraception, and sexual dysfunction.
Too frequently doctors are unaware of the implications of an irregular menstrual cycle or staining, for instance, on the ability of a couple observing the laws of family purity to conceive or even to maintain regular intimate relations. Because of the “doctors’ lack of understanding of the life of a frum woman with regard to halacha, the solutions they offer [often] don’t solve the problems and the distress continues and impacts the life of the entire family,” one woman recently wrote Melber. The more doctors understand the halachic impact of certain conditions, the more likely they are to search for relevant medical solutions.
MELBER PROUDLY shows me a large pile of letters from those grateful for the services of Torat Hamishpacha. The first thing that strikes me is the length of these testimonials. These are not simple thank-you notes; many are of megila- like length. One constant refrain is the gratitude for the patience and support shown by those with whom they consulted.
It is rare for busy doctors, even the biggest experts, to take more than 10 or 15 minutes to explain the tests and procedures they are recommending. Rabbi Melber and his rabbinic staff patiently lay out all the various medical options, make the necessary doctors’ appointments, and most importantly, listen to the patients.
“We were no longer alone in this ordeal; we had a guiding hand to pull us through the dark days. It was so reassuring to be able to discuss every test and procedure with someone who truly cared and spoke our language,” one woman wrote to Torat Hamishpacha.
Recently the Tahareinu hotline began to receive an unusually large number of calls from Brooklyn. A woman who had been helped by the organization was distributing its flyers in every mikve.
She had turned to Melber for a menopause- related problem, and he sent her to a particular expert at Montefiore Hospital.
The doctor told her, “Whoever sent you knows a lot.”
But all the expertise in the world still needs to be offered with emotional support and patience, says Melber, to ensure an end to the suffering in silence. The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.