Medicine and Morals: A Medical School That Can Make a Jewish Heart Proud

Edward Halperin
CEO and world-renowned physician scientist Dr. Edward Halperin wrote the textbook on pediatric radiation oncology, but he hasn’t lost touch with why he went into medicine in the first place — to connect with and heal young patients.

By GUR ARYEH HERZIG

Meet Dr. Edward Halperin, chancellor and chief executive officer of Touro’s New York Medical College — medical historian, pediatric radiation oncologist and idealist, who expects much more from his students than expertise in medicine.

When Orthodox Jews in New York say “Maimonides,” they are usually not referring to the Rambam, and when they talk about traveling to “Mount Sinai,” the topic is not Kabbalas HaTorah. Hospitals with Jewish names abound not only in New York, but in many locations throughout the United States and Canada.

Dr. Edward Halperin, besides being an expert in pediatric radiation oncology, is an eclectic scholar — conversant in many diverse areas of knowledge — with a penchant for delving into the historical background of all his topics of interest. As a doctor, he is fascinated by the history of Jewish hospitals and medical school entry in America and has studied it in depth. In a research paper entitled “The Rise and Fall of the American Jewish Hospital,” he highlights the phenomenon that no less than 113 so-called Jewish hospitals appeared and disappeared in America over the last 170 years. Today, there are few remaining.

Unlike Christians, Jews never viewed the establishment of hospitals as a religious mandate. Instead, it was a defensive response to hospitals adorned with crucifixes and teeming with clergy trying to “save” their vulnerable patients. Jewish philanthropists in the nineteenth century responded to the challenge by building Jewish health facilities. Hence, the rise of the Jewish hospital in an age of religious prejudice and its subsequent decline in an age of secular tolerance.

Anti-Semitic Quotas in American Medical Schools

In their heyday, Jewish hospitals sought to attract capable Jewish physicians and residents. They encountered a major problem — there were precious few to attract. Americans today may find it hard to believe, but as recently as 50 years ago, most Jewish applicants to our country’s medical schools were rejected simply because they were Jews. In “The Jewish Problem in U.S. Medical Education,” Dr. Edward Halperin explores the phenomenon of strictly enforced quotas in medical education, when the door was slammed in the faces of thousands of eminently qualified Jewish Americans seeking careers in medicine.

Although more than 50% of applicants were Jews, most medical schools, with a few minor exceptions, made sure that Jews would never comprise more than 4-10% of the student body. As recently as 1946, Ernest Hopkins, president of Dartmouth College and one of the shameless defenders of anti-Semitic quotas, said: “Any college which is going to base its admissions wholly on scholastic standing will find itself with an infinitesimal proportion of anything but Jews.”

Catholics and Protestant denominations always had their own medical schools. Yet, up until the middle of the twentieth century, none of the wealthy Jewish philanthropists thought of creating a Jewish medical school to address the problem of anti-Jewish quotas. It was not until 1951 that Yeshiva University established the Albert Einstein School of Medicine which, for many decades, was the only Jewish medical school outside of Israel. (YU’s financial crisis a few years ago forced it to divest itself of Einstein.)

Touro University California – College of Osteopathic Medicine was founded in 1997. Unlike Yeshiva University, Touro’s foray into medicine took place when discrimination was a thing of the past. It was just another step in the mission initiated by Touro’s prescient founder — Dr. Bernard Lander, z”l — to provide a diversity of first-rate educational opportunities under authentic Jewish auspices.

Touro’s expansion into medicine did not stop there. Today, there are five medical schools belonging to Touro — three in New York State, one in California and one in Nevada — as well as a school of health sciences that includes nursing, physician assistant studies as well as physical, occupational and speech therapy training. Two years ago, Touro opened a dental school as well.

It is hard to believe, but a full 4% of all graduating medical students in the United States this year will be from Touro-affiliated medical schools. The impact Touro has had in the world of American medical education in only 20 years is truly extraordinary, especially when considering the blatant discrimination would-be Jewish medical students faced not long ago.

The acquisition of Touro’s flagship New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York, took place when the Catholic Church was in the midst of divesting its hospitals and medical schools to raise cash. Touro purchased this prestigious 150-year-old medical school from the Archdiocese of New York in 2011.

The transition was smooth. The cafeteria was kashered, mezuzos were affixed on all the doors and an eruv was erected. The search for a head of the newly acquired medical college then began. There was considerable interest by many eminently qualified academics to preside over this esteemed institution. Within a year, Dr. Edward Halperin was chosen and inaugurated as chancellor and chief executive officer of Touro’s New York Medical College.

‘I Will Be a Judge’

If you would have asked the teenage Edward Halperin growing up in Somerville, New Jersey, what he thought his career path would be, he would have confidently answered: “I will be a judge.” His father was a pharmacist and his mother was an eighth-grade teacher, but his greatest role model was his uncle, Nathan Jacobs, a senior judge in the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Following in his footsteps was young Edward with his dream, but it never came to fruition.

After receiving his B.S. in Economics from the renowned Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Edward’s next step should have been to enroll in a fine law school. Instead, while still at Wharton, he decided on a career in medicine. That pivotal decision was not an easy one and was born of inner conflict. Cognitively, his direction should have been the alabaster halls of justice, but his compassionate heart longed to bring comfort and healing to the sick. By the time he graduated, his heart won over his mind.

Edward attended Yale University Medical School, where he received his M.D. Cum Laude. During his time at Yale he met Sharon Rosenblatt, a physical therapy student, the daughter of survivors, and an active worker in the creation of a Holocaust memorial in New Haven. Married since 1982, the couple has been blessed with three daughters and two grandchildren. Sharon is active as a Holocaust educator. Dr. Halperin credits her with being his moral compass and best friend. One of their daughters is a pediatric physical therapist, one an executive at one of the nation’s largest retailers, and the third a college professor.

After Yale he was off to Stanford for his internship, to Harvard for his residency and later, he took a faculty position at North Carolina’s Duke University. During his 23 years at Duke, he rose to become professor and chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology, vice dean of the School of Medicine and associate vice chancellor. He was also elected president of the Orthodox Jewish kehillah of Durham–Chapel Hill.

After his time at Duke University, Dr. Halperin went on to the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He was there for five years, from 2006 to 2011, as dean of the School of Medicine, Ford Foundation Professor of Medical Education and Professor of Radiation Oncology, Pediatrics, and History.

Yes, history. Dr. Halperin always had a keen interest in digging into the past of any subject he studied. Hence, many of the over 200 academic papers he has published address the historical context of a medical development or phenomenon.

Although his goal of becoming a judge in a court of law was never realized, his passion for justice remained undiminished. While serving as a vice dean in Duke’s medical school, he made an unusual move. He enrolled as a graduate student at Duke, eventually earning an M.A. in Liberal Studies with his dissertation concerning suspicion-less drug testing of interns and residents.

Because, for Dr. Edward Halperin, “tzedek tzedek tirdof — justice, justice shall you pursue” (Devarim 16:20) is more than a mitzvah; it defines his personal credo. He is passionate about infusing fairness and integrity into each of his endeavors and projects. Although the college caters to observant Jewish students, even having recently instituted several shomer-Shabbos residency programs, the numerous non-Jewish students of every nationality and background are integrated into the fabric of the school.

Edward Halperin
In discussion with medical students.

Portraits, Puppets and Pride

Dr. Halperin feels genuinely honored to head an American medical college that, throughout its 157 years of existence, was never tainted by the scourge of anti-Semitism — it always resisted instituting a quota system.

His connection to this institution extends to its very structure. When he arrived, he found an old neglected edifice. Under his careful guidance, the old building with its architectural details was carefully reconditioned. Portraits and works of art were recovered from the attic, dusted off, restored and, today, adorn the walls once again. The affection he has for NYMC has had a ripple effect throughout the faculty and student body there. Speaking to them, there is a consensus that school spirit and pride have increased substantially during the stewardship of Dr. Halperin.

Entering his office, besides the usual books and plaques one would expect to find in the office of a college chancellor, one sees something unusual: a collection of adorable hand puppets. No, Dr. Halperin is not also a kindergarten teacher. These puppets reveal to us a man whose great personal achievements never affected his warm Yiddishe hartz.

Radiation oncology is a dauntingly complex field requiring a solid background in physics as well as several disciplines of medicine. When radiation oncologists treat young patients, they become taxed emotionally as well as intellectually, especially for anyone with an ounce of compassion. Treating innocent children suffering the horrors of cancer and its painful therapies can take an emotional toll on the most hardened practitioner.

Dr. Halperin was well aware of this when he chose his specialty of pediatric radiation oncology 40 years ago. After all, this is why he turned to medicine in the first place: to bring comfort and healing to the sick, and to make the greatest possible difference in the lives of those stricken with illness. He knew that helping these very sick children was his true calling.

Even today, with his myriad responsibilities and prestigious titles, he insists on continuing his medical practice. Two days each week, he takes his puppets along to the hospital to entertain these suffering children, getting them to giggle while designing protocols of radiation therapy to combat the insidious tumors threatening their young lives. The puppets break the ice. The doctor becomes an entertainer and the children laugh at his antics. His cheerful disposition and gentle humor instill in the youngsters and their parents a healthy dose of hope and optimism.

Pondering the suffering youngsters, he always tells himself: “If the greatest thinkers in thousands of years could not explain why tragedy can strike the innocent and righteous, I doubt that Edward Halperin can figure it out. I made a decision that children with cancer should be where I invested my energy, fighting the good fight and leaving the unanswerable unanswered.”

Post-Holocaust Medical Ethics

If there is also a great unanswerable of our entire generation, it is surely the Holocaust. Here, too, Dr. Halperin is “leaving the unanswerable unanswered and fighting the good fight.”

This fall, the Museum of Jewish Heritage hosted a seminar by New York Medical College with Dr. Halperin as the keynote speaker. It was titled: “Eichmann, Arendt and the Banality of Evil.” One is struck by the incongruity of a medical college presenting a topic that would seem to be squarely in the realm of the social sciences. This dialectic is, however, what Touro is all about. Moreover, for Dr. Edward Halperin, this confluence of morality and medicine is a defining principle for his school.

Medical Ethics is a required course for first-year medical students at New York Medical College. Dr. Halperin designated Dr. Ira Bedzow, an expert in the field of Medical Ethics, to present these important topics in close coordination with Dr. Halperin himself. It was these two scholars who presented at the seminar, together with a panel of second-year New York Medical College medical students.

As the title suggests, the seminar discussed the “banality of evil” — when utter wickedness becomes something trite and ordinary. On one hand, Eichmann is quoted as saying: “I would never violate an oath”; this, for him, was more sacred than the lives of millions. On the other hand, there is the shocking fact that physicians —who took the Hippocratic Oath pledging to sanctify life — were at the forefront of professionals joining the Nazi party.

Even though Eichmann, the mass murderer, would not violate an oath, German doctors had no problem doing so. With the enthusiastic backing of German physicians, the evil ideology of Nazism was presented as a public health issue. This becomes even more disturbing when it was common knowledge at the beginning of the twentieth century that German medical ethics were the gold standard — considered to be the most upstanding and noble in the world.

Post-Holocaust medical ethics require a heightened sense of vigilance by practitioners of medicine. It was pointed out at the seminar that one of the most meaningful lessons of the Holocaust for physicians is the vital importance of constant rejuvenation. Times change, trends change and values change. Medical ethics dare not be subject to the whims of time and place. Periodic review, reflection and introspection — cheshbon hanefesh — should be as important for a physician as keeping up with the latest medical discoveries.

The shadow of the Holocaust forces us to examine contemporary dilemmas. For example, the question of whether physicians should participate in torture of prisoners in Guantanamo should be examined through analysis of the actions of Nazi-era doctors. Another question, among others, is whether there is any justification for using infectious disease as a tool of combat. First-year medical students at New York Medical College are required to struggle with these challenges.

There are serious issues that the world of medicine must contend with today: Genetic engineering, physician-assisted suicide, patient advocacy, health care as a business vs. professional integrity, among many others. It is not only physicians who have to make life-or-death decisions, it is the profession itself. Few schools will produce graduates as well equipped to take on these challenges and make the needed critical decisions as those of Touro’s New York Medical College.

Had Dr. Edward Halperin achieved his childhood dream of becoming a judge, America would surely have had an outstanding judge, perhaps even a justice of the Supreme Court. As it turned out, he has surpassed his boyhood dreams. As chancellor and chief executive officer of Touro’s New York Medical College, Dr. Halperin is bestowing upon the world hundreds of outstanding “judges” each year. He has given society thousands of young men and women, proud Touro graduates, who will become excellent doctors trained to exercise the greatest degree of professional moral judgment.

  1. Academic Medicine Vol. 87/5 May 2012
  2. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences Vol. 56 April 2001