Today, more than two-thirds of medical schools in the U.S. offer courses on religion, spirituality and medicine. Tomorrow’s doctors are taught to value the prayer circle, to halt the pre-op schedule for Native American healing rituals. But who is tending to the spiritual needs of the medical students?
Convincing med students – already squeezed past breaking point with lectures, labs, clinical duties piled upon endless hospital hours – to consider the spiritual side of their calling requires more than an invitation to a Shabbat dinner.
At the Chabad near the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, the dialogue between healer and rabbi begins with a lump of charcoal.
On a warm summer night, savory smoke billows from the charcoal grill, overpowering the formaldehyde odor that clings to the medical students’ khakis. The strip of grass behind student housing swarms with hungry future Jewish m.d.’s waiting for burgers to char from muscle to meal at Chabad’s Meet and Meat, every Tuesday that weather permits.
As they fuel up on protein, take a breather from their intense studies, they get to know Rabbi Zalman and Tamar Teitelbaum of Chabad of the Medical Community. Informal chats lead to Shabbat meals and lunchtime learning sessions. They provide a safe place for the doctors to evaluate the day’s life and death decisions through the lens of Jewish spirituality.
Every week as the Teitelbaums flip 36 pounds of hamburger patties, 24 pounds of hot dogs, 10 pounds of chicken wings, they watch the students evolve from college kids to serious medical folk.
Inevitably, when students watch a patient’s life slip away, discussions at Rabbi Teitelbaum’s weekly “Lunch and Shmooze” deepen.
“They are not just getting an education in medical school. They have a responsibility for a human life, and they need someone to talk to,” said Rabbi Teitelbaum.
Stefan Muehlbauer, an M.D.-Ph.D. student, puts his anthrax research project on hold to attend as many Meet and Meat evenings as he can. Getting to know Rabbi Teitelbaum over casual chats with burgers in hand, opened the door for other more substantial talks.
“I have definitely consulted with him on emotional, ethical considerations,” he said. “It’s nice to have a rabbi around for that kind of support.”
Heart to hearts over the meaning of suffering, the ethical limits of modern medicine, comes along with the Teitelbaums’ other role: helping Jews meet other Jews.
“You’d think that with all these brilliant Jewish students in one school, it would be an orchard blooming with Jewish families,” he said.
Most are too busy cramming to meet anyone outside their study groups. Long nights on call at the hospital with days off spent recouping lost sleep are not conducive to striking up relationships with new people.
“Few of them know students outside their year. The right person for them could be just two years behind them, and they’d never know it.”
Both the weekly BBQ and Shabbat meals aim to remedy the loneliness factor. “Friday night dinners at the Teitelbaums house brings people from every single walk of campus life together,” said Muehlbauer.
One such Friday night, Dr. Dan Machleder sat across the Teitelbaums’ table from Sarah Quaytman, a Ph.D. candidate. Both brilliant, from similar backgrounds, the two had never had a chance to talk. Until then.
They will be married in the fall.