Complementary medicine... in the spirit of Judaism

“Rabbis that I know,” she elaborated, “have no problem with massage and reflexology, [and using] vitamins and herbs for health. That’s what doctors always did.

ITZIK COHEN, ND, director of the naturopath program, teaches a second-year nutrition class. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
ITZIK COHEN, ND, director of the naturopath program, teaches a second-year nutrition class.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
At first blush, it might seem counterintuitive that Jerusalem is home to a unique institution that specializes in combining the spiritual values of Judaism with complementary medicine.
Located next to the central bus station on Jaffa Street, Shelem College trains practitioners in a wide variety of complementary medicine modalities, sometimes referred to as the healing arts.
Shelem’s founder
Miri Hoffman, the founder of Shelem College, is an 11th-generation Israeli. Her Lithuanian family members were among the founders of the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem in the mid-19th century and among those who established Petah Tikva and Hadera.
“Eretz Yisrael was the common denominator of all the family,” Hoffman said.
Family health conditions, first her mother’s, then her own and eventually when her daughter “was mistreated at a hospital,” led her to create Shelem College. “Those were the roots planted in the back of my mind. That was the turning point of my life. I knew there has to be another way.
“I saw many people who were dishonest in the field. I saw clinical people take advantage of people fighting for their lives,” she reported.
In those days, it was not uncommon for someone to take a six-week course and then open a clinic. Hoffman wanted to improve the chances for patients to heal.
Having learned about the world of holistic medicine through her research, Hoffman “decided that there is an opportunity to give people an honest chance of broadening their horizons for living a healthier life.
“Holistic philosophy looks at mind and body,” she explained. “In the whole world of holistic healing, people are also using the spiritual dimension. I decided that I was going to open a place to train honest therapists, to give people a real honest education in holistic medicine from a Jewish viewpoint.”
To Hoffman as a religious Jewish woman, the marriage of Jewish spiritual teachings and holistic medicine seemed natural.
“We have a great, rich background that the whole intellectual world uses, so why run to other worldviews?” she argued.
Her friends were not exactly supportive. “My closest friends said, ‘You’re such a smart lady. What possessed you to go into a crazy obsession?’ This was the early 1990s. You had to be a meshuggener to try to create something then; it was more or less losing your marbles.”
Despite the lack of social support, Hoffman started Shelem College with 16 students. Her goal was to enroll 200 students at the end of the first year. Today, more than 1,200 students a year study in Shelem’s various programs in both English and Hebrew.
The 1,200 students are screened and chosen from among the 6,000 to 8,000 that Hoffman interviews each year. As a result of its spiritual dimension, many would-be students “are not connected to reality” and have to be screened out, Hoffman asserted.
“I sign every diploma, so I declare they are responsible and worthy enough to be a caregiver. It’s my responsibility. I will not accept everyone. I have high standards.”
Shelem College, which operates as a nonprofit organization, is equally careful about the faculty it employs.
“No one can teach without 10 years of clinical experience.” Hoffman stated. “Holistic medicine has limited texts. The clinical dimension is your real teacher. The field of life helps you bring out your experience.”
Both students and faculty at Shelem “are givers, looking for a way to contribute to society. There is an avenue to help and change the quality of people’s lives.”
The college’s philosophy is to work in cooperation with Western medicine, not in opposition to it.
“We never make promises that are not 100% connected to real life,” she said.
Combining Jewish thought with healing arts
Hoffman is critical of practitioners who claim a connection to Moses ben Maimon, the Jewish sage known as the Rambam. The Rambam was a great Jewish philosopher and an expert in Jewish law. He was also a physician in the 12th century.
“Anyone who advertises that they are coming from the Rambam’s perspective is lying, because there is no real organized medical theory from the Rambam,” Hoffman stated unequivocally.
Shelem College does comfortably draw from Chinese medicine.
“In China, the doctors were the wise people. They were not the priests,” she explained.
“In contrast, in India, the doctor and the priest and the way of worship was one. [Thus, we have a] much harder time incorporating Indian medicine in Shelem’s curriculum.” With Indian medicine, it’s much more difficult to discern “what’s a healing technique separate from religion.”
At Shelem, they do teach yoga, “but stress is on the practical part, not the theory part. We can’t teach Ayurveda yoga, because it includes religious motives grounded in real idol worship,” she clarified.
Programs and students
While Shelem College operates under haredi auspices and all classes are separate for men and women, the student population is diverse. Approximately 65% of students, both religious and not religious, come from outside of Jerusalem. At least one student regularly flew in from Eilat.
“Students come to learn at Shelem because the level is very high and our reputation is international,” Hoffman boasted.
Not an insignificant number of students enroll in order to help people like themselves. Hoffman noted that women who have had very unpleasant birth experiences sometimes enroll in the doula program as a result. “They want to be there to help others,” she explained. Similarly, “People who have had health challenges are motivated to learn to help others with similar challenges.”
According to Hoffman, Shelem does very little recruiting. “Word of mouth is the best advertising,” she said. “I’d much rather spend money on the quality of the teachers.”
Shelem employs approximately 50 faculty members in various disciplines.
“Teachers are financially treated well, so it compares with what they make clinically,” she said.
The heart of Shelem College’s curriculum is its four-year program in naturopathy, comprised of training in a dazzling array of healing arts, including nutrition, herbology, iridology (determining a patient’s state of health through the eye), a range of touch therapies, including shiatsu, tu ina (a Chinese form of orthopedic treatment) and reflexology, energy healing, graphology, aromatherapy and Bach flower remedies.
Naturopath students also study psychology, psychopathology and a number of traditional premed courses such as chemistry and anatomy.
For those who aren’t interested in the full naturopathy program, each of these healing arts can be studied on its own. An increasing number of these modalities are offered in English.
English program
Zelda Chazan lives near the border of Geula and Mekor Baruch in Jerusalem. She is the director of the English program at Shelem and one of Hoffman’s team of eight key administrators.
“You can be a great giver and help people a lot. Not everyone is cut out go to medical or nursing school. Holistic medicine offers a variety of ways to help alleviate people’s discomfort and have a much happier way of life. Helping people to live a better life is a great way to make honest money,” Chazan explained.
Like many of the current faculty, Chazan was first a student at Shelem. She studied massage 18 years ago and approximately 10 years after that, joined the faculty as a massage instructor.
A few years ago, she reluctantly agreed to answer emails and phone inquiries in English. She was so successful at that administrative role that there is now a whole English department at Shelem, and Chazan serves as its head.
Not all of the modalities in Shelem’s curriculum are yet offered in English, but the program is growing rapidly. New components are being added every year in order to accommodate the students enrolled in the comprehensive naturopathy program.
Chazan touts the naturopathy program as a place where a religious English-speaker “can learn a trade in four years, part-time, and come out with something that’s acceptable” in Israel’s health funds and hospitals. Naturopaths can also choose to work privately.
According to Chazan, naturopaths “help a person with health and well-being, physically and emotionally.” They are taught “many different avenues to help a person, to get to the core of the problem, not just treat symptoms.”
Other programs available in English include nutrition and the doula program. “Our doula program teaches everything you need to know as a labor coach and prenatal instructor. It is recognized by [Israeli health funds], which pay 80% [of the doula’s fee] for Shelem-trained doulas.”
In general, Chazan asserted that “holistic medicine is becoming more accepted in [Israel’s health funds]. Hadassah and Shaare Zedek medical centers have clinics for cancer patients to get holistic treatments.”
Encouraging English-speaking olim to study at Shelem, she said, “The world is open. A person can create a market for themselves.”
In contrast to the Hebrew division, the 120 students in the English department are predominantly religious. They range in age from late teens to 77. Chazan said that the programs are open to everyone, and they have even had wives of diplomats studying, but that Shelem was “built to fit the needs of the religious world.”
Men and women study separately at Shelem. Men’s classes are Sunday and Thursday afternoon and evening. The rest of the time, the classes are for women, who comprise 70% of the school. When it comes to practice, Chazan said that it’s “up to the individual whether they see patients of opposite gender.”
Given that 90% of the students in the English program identify as religious, Chazan is sensitive about the issues surrounding combining Torah with holistic medicine.
“Rabbis that I know,” she elaborated, “have no problem with massage and reflexology, [and using] vitamins and herbs for health. That’s what doctors always did.
“The only time there is conflict is if energy is being used and taken from the dark side.” The energy healing technique called reiki, for example, is not taught at Shelem.
For certain olim, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry grants NIS 7,000 toward a Shelem College course in massage, reflexology or nutrition. Chazan will work with people to develop an affordable payment schedule. There is also the option to take a loan with minimal interest from a local bank.
She’s understandably proud of the environment she helped to create in the English program. “Students appreciate that they have someone to talk to. They feel that it’s a heimish, supportive environment. People make friends and find themselves in a safe, protective environment. There’s an address in the school for their administrative and personal concerns.”
According to Chazan, Shelem offers a “tremendous service for the Anglo world, where they can find their niche and treat patients in health funds or in private practice in Israel.”
In addition to her administrative work, Chazan has a clinical practice as a masseuse, reflexologist and aromatherapist. She is trained in the Tapas Acupressure Technique, which helps patients neutralize trauma. Chazan has a particular expertise working with brides who are anxious about marital intimacy.
Enrolling at Shelem was something reflexologist Susie Benzaquen from Kochav Ya’acov initially couldn’t count on. Just as she inquired about Shelem’s English reflexology program, her mother was diagnosed with cancer and another family member became severely mentally ill.
Through it all, Chazan was gently encouraging.
“I never really believed I was going to be a student,” Benzaquen admitted.
In the end, thanks to Chazan’s support, she did enroll.
“I really feel that it was therapeutic to me to be there,” Benzaquen said. “My life was running in 20 different directions. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I just turned everything else off. I was able to carve time out for myself. I justified that I was learning a skill to help support my family. It also gave me an intellectual outlet. The skills that I’ve learned have helped my family.”
Benzaquen is now a senior reflexologist. She holds certification in aromatherapy and is currently enrolled in Shelem’s doula program.
Former students become faculty
Yael Pilezki lives in the 54-family community of Achiya, near Shiloh. She is a mother of four children and a former Shelem College student turned faculty member.
Pilezki, a Hebrew-speaker, spent more than four years studying “almost everything in the curriculum.” Today she works as a reflexologist and masseuse through one of the health funds and has a private practice.
She speaks openly about how her training at Shelem led her to take control of her own health. When she first enrolled at Shelem, she weighed “more than 90 kg. In the most easy and great way, I went down to 55 kg.,” she said, by eating foods that fit her body. “I’ve had such real results,” she enthused.
At Shelem, Pilezki teaches a semester-long stand-alone course on the development of babies from birth to 16 months. She covers baby massage, baby yoga, essential oils, shiatsu and reflexology for babies.
The course attracts both mothers and practitioners. Mothers can work on their own babies. Whether they work with dolls or actual babies, Pilezki’s students have to practice at home. Their expertise enables them to diagnose developmental issues in babies up to 16 months. Currently, Pilezki’s course is taught only in Hebrew, though she hopes it will eventually be taught in English.
Addressing herself to the general environment at Shelem, Pilezki said that although there are many nonreligious students and some nonreligious staff, “Shelem College is strict that the teaching should not be about avoda zara [idolatry].” She said that the environment is “totally suited for the religious community” and emphasizes “healing without the foreign gods, in a Jewish kind of view.”
Former student and now faculty member Esther Weiser from Har Nof elaborated on Shelem’s core program, of which she is a graduate.
According to Weiser, a naturopath is “someone who has learned multiple healing modalities to help people heal.” Using touch therapies and diagnostic tools, a naturopath “deals with the whole person” and can even help prevent patients with a genetic predisposition from getting a disease. “Sometimes multiple symptoms are caused by the same root. We try to get to that root cause,” she explained.
“The healing arts are a very womanly kind of healing,” she noted.
Weiser decided to become a naturopath when her mother was very sick. “I don’t want to see people suffer unnecessarily.”
Elaborating on the connection between Judaism and complementary healing, Weiser said, “Herbs have been helping people for thousands of years. As long as there have been people on the planet and herbs on the planet, we’ve been using them.
“God gave us these plants and food and oils as a gift, a tool to heal ourselves. While you’re doing conventional medicine, you can also take herbs to help build energy and against nausea. Some people like a blend [of approaches], and that should be respected.
“I believe there’s a time and place for medicine and a time and place for prevention. That’s a huge field now. A lot of illnesses are not treated well by conventional medicine. With arthritis and Crohn’s [disease], someone can help you with other treatments that will tone down the nervous system and help you heal.
“It’s all science-based. Research has been done on herbal remedies. Vitamins have been significantly tested. There are definitely scientifically based reasons why it’s working,” she noted.
“I like to bring spirituality into class. For example, each herb has hundreds of chemical components to them. Some are bitter, some are sweet. Some herbs called adaptogens have an intelligence and help us adapt to chronic stress by lowering cortisol or increasing cortisol, depending on what the body needs. If that isn’t God, I don’t know what is!
“Our bodies are designed to accept plant material. They are part of our world. [They are] fantastic tools to help heal ourselves. This is such a spiritual learning for me,” she enthused.
“The state of our health is getting worse,” Weiser warned. “We can’t just think chemicals anymore.”
She’s made a career of “trying to deal with prevention and healing, before it gets to the point of no return.”
This integration is a core principle at Shelem. Hoffman’s hope and aspiration are that, through the healing skills of the thousands of practitioners the college has trained, “everyone will be able to get the best of integrative medicine – Western and holistic.
Every person deserves to get the best of all the care possible,” she emphasized.