Orthodox Jewish Occupational Therapy Chavrusa

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The Orthodox OT Boom
January 20, 2006

Tamar Fromm had planned to spend Shabbat in her hotel room. Friday night dinner would entail little more than a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich. An Orthodox Jew, Fromm, who keeps kosher, brought sandwich ingredients from home in New York to Long Beach, Calif., where she was attending the annual conference of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

By Friday afternoon, however, Fromm, an occupational therapist who treats people with multiple sclerosis, had met several other observant Jews attending the conference in May.  Fromm, 25, scrapped her plans for a sandwich dinner, in favor of a makeshift celebration with about ten Shabbat-observant OTs. They lit candles on the hotel pool deck, and then gathered in a conference room for dinner. There was schnitzel from a local kosher restaurant, salad prepared by one conference-goer, and a jar of gefilte fish picked up by another.

The dinner launched Orthodox Jewish Occupational Therapy Chavrusa (www.ojotc.org). The caucus advocates on behalf of observant Jews working in occupational therapy, a field that in the past decade has become increasingly populated by Orthodox women. Though this particular group has long been a presence in the profession, Orthodox women now account for more than a third of students pursuing master’s degrees in OT at several New York-area universities, including Columbia University, State University of New York-Downstate, and Touro College, according to anecdotal evidence.Occupational therapists teach fine motor and independent living skills to children and adults. An OT might show a wheelchair-bound sixth-grader how to maneuver the lunch line in the middle school cafeteria; coach a developmentally delayed adult on workplace-appropriate social skills; or help maximize hand use and teach personal grooming techniques to an elderly stroke victim who has lost the use of her right arm.

Fromm surmises that the flexibility many OT jobs afford accounts in part for its popularity among Orthodox women looking to balance a career with domestic responsibilities.

In recent years, physical and speech therapies, likewise considered to be family-friendly occupations, have also seen an influx of professionals who are Orthodox women.

“Part of my decision to go into OT was about being a woman, and wanting to be around for my children one day, God-willing,” said Fromm, who received her masters degree in the specialty from Columbia University, where she said Orthodox women comprised about a third of her class.

“If you’re a lawyer with a six-figure salary, you can’t leave the office at five o’clock, and you probably can’t leave at seven o’clock. … OT provides a great second income, but not a great primary income. It’s enough not enough to pay yeshiva tuition and raise a family,” she said.

Though six-figure incomes for OTs are not standard — they make an average of $48,000, according to a 2000 AOTA study — anecdotal evidence shows their earnings are on the rise, with some recent graduates commanding starting salaries topping $60,000.

The spike in pay is due to increased demand for OT professionals as the American populace ages, and as more children are being categorized as learning disabled and targeted for out-of-classroom remediation. The New York City Department of Education offers scholarships to pursue OT studies, in exchange for an 18-month commitment to work in public schools, underscoring the shortage of therapists.

Jim Hinojosa, who chairs the Department of Occupational Therapy at New York University, where he estimated that at least 20 percent of OT students are observant Jewish women. 

“It’s a female-dominated field that gives people lots of options to work while taking care of a family in a traditional way,” Hinojosa said, noting that an upwards of 90 percent of OTs are women. “I think the [career] choice is related more to gender and family, than it is to Orthodoxy.”

There’s a lot of available part-time OT work, said Estelle Breines, president of the New Jersey Occupational Therapy Association and the former director of the Long Island- and Manhattan-based OT programs at Tuoro College, where she said up to two-thirds of her students were Orthodox Jewish women.

“If someone wanted to take off a year to have a baby or care for an elderly parent, there’s less of a penalty in occupational therapy than there would be in other professions,” Breines said.

She added, “One thing about the Orthodox community is that they communicate a great deal with one another. If someone has figured out that this is a good career for young women, the word is out.”


But the livelihood is attractive to Orthodox women for more than merely
practical considerations like flexible hours and rising salaries.

“The ethical principals that drive Judaism are compatible with the profession,”
Breines said. “Some of the notions of tzedakah are strongly grounded in
enablement, and occupational therapists enable people to participate in this
society.”

One recent graduate of Stern College, who was active in the school’s
Occupational Therapy Club, agreed, adding, “I think the reason a lot of Jewish
girls go into it because they were brought up in homes where chesed was
important and they want to give back to their community and to the general
community.”

The woman, who did not wish to be identified by name, is now pursuing a master’s in occupational therapy.

“Every once in a while, people will say to me, ‘Oh you’re going into OT,’” she
said, mimicking an unimpressed tone. “But it’s much harder than people think.
Maybe at first glance, it just looks like we’re doing basic activities, like
coloring with children, but it really requires a lot of knowledge about the
body, about movement.”

Janet Falk-Kessler, the director of Programs in Occupational Therapy at Columbia University, which offers a joint program with six schools including Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, said the career’s popularity among Orthodox women “makes sense.”

“From my understanding of Judaism, and being Jewish myself, I know the
importance of community service and healing professions,” said Falk-Kessler, who said the program attracts a significant Orthodox female contingent, but did not want to guess on numbers.

Other OTs working in academia were weary about speaking about it on record, saying that it could fuel the stereotype that OT is a profession for Orthodox Jewish women and could hurt their efforts to recruit a diverse student body.

Devorah Gerber, a 25-year-old Orthodox occupational therapist from Cedarhurst, L.I., acknowledged that the lifestyle and income OT jobs afford are appealing to “a lot of Orthodox women with large families,” but agreed that these were not reason enough to pursue an OT career.

“I don’t want people to go into this field because they think it’s an easy way
out,” she said, noting that her training included a rigorous two-and-a-half-year
master's program. “That would be unfortunate in a field where you can have such an impact on children and on families.”

Gerber received her master’s degree at Brooklyn’s SUNY-Downstate, where she guessed that about 40 percent of her classmates were Orthodox women.

Ruth Ann Meyers, who chairs the OT department at Jefferson College of Health Sciences, said she worries that too many people are choosing the profession for the lifestyle it affords.

“Thirty years ago, the first thing women would say is, ‘I want to help people,’”
she said. “Now it’s often, ‘I want a job.’ Occupational therapy can’t be done
just because someone wants a job, just because someone wants money. It requires you to be present emotionally.  I think that’s why there are so many Orthodox Jewish women in this profession. The have to juggle a lot of relationships, and can use their insights from these relationships to be good therapists.”

Meyers, who is not Jewish, first noticed the proliferation of Orthodox women in the occupation in the late 1990s, while heading up OT programs at New Jersey’s Richard Stockton College.

“Here were these bright and motivated women, who had so many things to juggle,” said Meyers. “They were managing all the requirements of an Orthodox life — raising a family, preparing for the holidays — all in the framework of a secular educational environment. It was quite daunting.”

Meyers became more familiar with Orthodox women’s balancing act after landing a job as the head of the OT department at Touro College, an Orthodox institution. Her experience there inspired her to embark this year on research project, called “The Education of Occupational Therapists: The Lived Experience of Orthodox Women.”

“I want to know what brought them into the field, what their educational
experience was like, and where they are employed,” said Meyers, who hopes the still fledgling project will shed light on how demographic groups choose their career trajectories.

When Peggy Gurock, an Orthodox Jew from Passaic, N.J. became an OT more than 30 years ago, it was not a popular career choice among her contemporaries.

“At the time, my mom asked me, ‘Why are you going into that cockamamie
profession?’” recalled Gurock, who heads up the AJOTC, which advocates for kosher meal plans and other accommodations for Orthodox Jews at OT workshops and conferences.

She said that over the past decade have Orthodox women become more aware of the virtues of an OT career: flexible employment, a booming job market, a certification that is recognized in Israel.

Given the choice, Malkie, a fervently Orthodox occupational therapist who asked to be identified by only her first name, said she would prefer to stay home with her six young children. But with skyrocketing housing costs and yeshiva tuition, her family needs two incomes to make ends meet.

Five years ago, Malkie, a former teacher at a Jewish school in Brooklyn,
enrolled in the two-and-half-year OT master’s program at SUNY-Downstate.
“I can take on as many cases as I need to, as many cases as I want to,” said
Malkie, who has a private OT practice.

She said she plans her day around her children’s schedule, working only while
they are in school.

“Occupational therapy is a very good choice because we get to use our expertise as mothers,” she said. “We have good instincts when it comes to children and, really, when it comes to adults, too. It really taps into our innate desire to nurture.”

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