In the Public Eye

Student-Run Medical Ethics Conference Explores Jewish Perspectives on Public Health

Bright and early on the Sunday morning of November 6, an eager crowd braved New York City Marathon traffic to attend the Yeshiva University Student Medical Ethics Society’s (MES) sixth annual conference in Lamport Auditorium on the Wilf Campus.

Daniel Elefant and Rachel Blinick, co-presidents of YU's Student Medical Ethics Society. offer in
Daniel Elefant and Rachel Blinick, co-presidents of YU's Student Medical Ethics Society.

As one of the largest and most celebrated student-run initiatives of the year, the conference, titled “In the Public Eye: Jewish Perspectives on Public Health,” brings luminaries of the medical and halachic [Jewish law] realms together to share their insights on pressing health related topics of the day.

“It is our obligation to study and continue to understand the development of humanity through the lens of medicine and halacha,” said MES President Rachel Blinick. “It is our hope that this conference will help impact our participants to become active members of the Jewish community, informing healthier lives for us and our children.”

Furthering this point, Daniel Elefant, co-president of MES, described the importance of this year’s topic. “A discourse on public health begs the questions of who is responsible, what are we accountable for, and how far can we extend those responsibilities within our community, our country and around the world? Today we have been given tremendous tools and opportunities to help in the battle against many public health issues,” he said.

Following introductions by the co-presidents; Rabbi Dovid Fuld, who sponsored the conference along with his wife, Anita; and conference chairman Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman, the conference proceeded to the first of three plenary discussions focusing on the health and halachic issues surrounding obesity and smoking tobacco. The other two plenaries dealt with vaccinations and perspectives on Jewish responsibility towards public health around the world.

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In the opening plenary, the crowd listened to John Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School, recount his experiences combating the tobacco industry in the legal realm. He described how his actions led to the proliferation of anti-smoking advertisements, the banning of smoking in many public places and a raised awareness of the dangers of second hand smoke. Although he is not a medical professional, he stressed to the audience how anyone can spread healthy living regardless of their job.

Following this speech, Rabbi Asher Bush, chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America’s Va’ad Halacha Committee, discussed how and why he had his organization rule that smoking cigarettes is strictly prohibited according to Jewish law, offering many traditional sources to bolster his position.

Other topics covered in depth throughout the day included the importance of breast cancer screening, the permissibility of alternative medicine and contemporary controversies surrounding circumcision.

Speakers at the conference consisted of roshei yeshiva from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), personalities within the YU community, rabbinic specialists on medical issues and experts in medicine and other health related industries. All of the presenters shared their wisdom in the plenary sessions or the breakout sessions throughout the day.

The diverse crowd at the event consisted of students, alumni and inquisitive members of the community. Yona Saperstein ’10YC, a medical student who also hopes to attain rabbinic ordination at RIETS said, “I do not come to YU as often as I would like, so I used this fascinating conference on issues I am interested in as an excuse to visit.”

Ruth Fried, chair of the science department at the Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls, was in attendance with a few of her 11th-grade biology students.  “We attend every medical ethics conference,” she said. “I think it is one of the best-run programs YU has, and I love how it exposes my students to the whole University and the wonderful initiatives of the student body.”

One of Fried’s students, Golda Aharon, shared her excitement to observe the conference. “We try to always be continuous learners and we try to experience science outside the classroom,” said Aharon. “This conference is a great way to do that.”

The next Medical Ethics Society event, “Panel for Pink: A Discussion on Breast Cancer,” will take place on November 28 on the Beren Campus.


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