Applying Jewish law to modern medical ethics

“What do the Jewish sources say about who gets priority treatment during this time if there are more people than places and some need to be turned away?" Alan Jotkowitz asks.

Alan Jotkowitz (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alan Jotkowitz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alan Jotkowitz, professor of medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, is that rare man who pursued his passions, stayed true to his dreams and feels gratitude for where he is today, personally and professionally.
Growing up in an Orthodox home in Teaneck, New Jersey, he went to a Jewish day school. This was followed by a gap year that turned into three at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut and on to Yeshiva University in New York. While studying there he met and married his wife, Deborah. Together they went to Yale School of Medicine. Alan studied internal medicine, while Deborah chose dermatology.
“Both of us loved Israel and it was always our plan to make aliyah,” says Jotkowitz.
He completed his residency in internal medicine at Yale New Haven Hospital, and was an attending physician and assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “We both needed to work for five years to pay off our student loans before moving to Israel,” he says with a smile.
On August 21, 2001, the Jotkowitzes made aliyah with three young children and settled in Beit Shemesh. “It was the fulfillment of our dream,” he says. Their fourth child was born in Israel.
With their talent and careful planning, both Alan and Deborah had verbal offers before their aliyah for positions in Israel’s burgeoning medical field. Alan went to Ben-Gurion University’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Soroka-University Medical Center’s Internal Medicine Division, while Deborah was recruited by Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem. Nineteen years later, both of them have significantly progressed in their areas of expertise and are still happily working at these first places of employment.
“I have been blessed professionally,” says Jotkowitz. “There has been so much growth in research and the medical field since we came. Working in Israel is on par with major medical and academic institutions in the United States.”
Jotkowitz now holds a number of positions, including director of the Medical School for International Health and Medicine (MSIH) and director of the Jakobovits Center for Jewish Medical Ethics in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
“In addition to a standard four-year medical curriculum, MSIH trains doctors to work in global health and cross-cultural medicine,” he explains. “The students spend three years in Israel, do a fourth-year elective at highly selective medical centers in the US and Canada and then study for two months in places such as India, Peru and countries across Africa.
“We are celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the school and we have over 500 alumni. They are doing incredible and important work and many act as ambassadors for Israel and BGU when they return to their home countries.”
Like universities worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to pivot to online learning. “This has been an extremely challenging time for everyone,” says Jotkowitz. “But we were able to rapidly integrate remote learning into our program and have become a leader in online medical education.”
Alongside his work at MSIH, Jotkowitz is also a scholar in the field of Jewish medical ethics. Following in the footsteps of Lord Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, chief rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1967-1991, his primary academic research interest is in demonstrating the relevance of traditional Jewish thinking in medical ethics to modern moral dilemmas. Jotkowitz has major interests in the “methodology of Jewish medical ethics, defining the ethical principles that form the basis of Jewish medical ethics and comparison of these principles to other theological constructs.”
One of the most recent examples of this is the situation in hospitals during the COVID-19 outbreak.
 “What do the Jewish sources say about who gets priority treatment during this time if there are more people than places and some need to be turned away? Medical personnel the world over are dealing with this dilemma,” he explains.
Jotkowitz is well-known internationally. He has published more than 100 peer-reviewed papers in prestigious journals such as The American Journal of Medicine, European Journal of Medicine, Journal of Medical Ethics, The American Journal of Bioethics, Modern Judaism, Tradition and others. He also served as the associate editor of European Journal of Internal Medicine for many years. With all of these accomplishments, he remains committed to MSIH and BGU.
Over the years, the Jotkowitzes’ immediate family followed them to Israel, including Alan’s mother and sister. Their grown children, now 30, 25, 22 and 18, are all thriving, and they have three Israeli-born grandchildren. Life doesn’t get any better than this.