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Observant couples abide by Jewish law, even during childbirth. Philly hospitals are supporting them.

What if a hospital patient can’t use the call button to summon a nurse? That’s a Sabbath dilemma for medical staff caring for Orthodox Jews.

Volunteers Duggie Ungar (second from right) and Susan Wohlgelernter (right) met with hospital staff in the Obstetrics department at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia to discuss best practices for working with Orthodox Jewish patients who follow Jewish Law.
Volunteers Duggie Ungar (second from right) and Susan Wohlgelernter (right) met with hospital staff in the Obstetrics department at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia to discuss best practices for working with Orthodox Jewish patients who follow Jewish Law.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Since joining Einstein Medical Center 18 months ago, Cheryl Yondorf has delivered three babies of observant Jewish families.

After each birth, nurses eager to provide culturally sensitive care questioned the obstetrician-gynecologist: Why didn’t the husband touch his wife during labor? Why did he stand where he couldn’t even see the actual birth?

Recently, 14 members of Einstein’s obstetrical staff got answers to those questions and many more during a training seminar that Yondorf arranged.

“Nurses reached out to me and said, ‘We want to be helpful to your observant patients,’ ” said Yondorf, who is an Orthodox Jew. “It’s not that patients came to me and said, ‘The nurses were rude.’ ”

The session was led by Dubbie Ungar and Susan Wohlgelernter, both volunteers from Bikkur Cholim of Philadelphia, a branch of a national movement that helps observant Jewish families when loved ones are in the hospital. Bikkur cholim is Hebrew for “visiting the sick.”

The volunteers have held similar maternity training sessions at Jefferson University Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

But Einstein’s main campus in North Philadelphia — where Wohlgelernter delivered her son 31 years ago — was particularly significant. Einstein was founded in 1865 as “The Jewish Hospital,” a place where Jewish veterans of the Civil War could get care and Jewish physicians found welcome rather than discrimination.

“Jewish patients are very happy that we’re getting back to our roots,” said Sheri Minkoff, Einstein’s liaison to the Jewish community. She noted that the hospital plans to hold training sessions for all departments and is now raising funds to install a kosher pantry.

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As word of Yondorf’s hiring has spread in the Jewish community, four dozen observant women have started going to her for care.

They follow Jewish law, or Halakha, a set of rules and practices that affect every aspect of their lives, from worship and prayer to eating and grooming.

In a hospital, the law can be overridden by the need for emergency or life-saving care or the judgment of medical professionals.

“Life always comes before Jewish law,” Wohlgelernter said.

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But assuming a birth goes smoothly, observant patients will follow customs that may mystify or even annoy the uninformed.

“I think one of the hardest things is just having people recognize that certain requests you make are not crazy,” said Yondorf, the OB-GYN.

Hospital care guidelines for Jewish patients have recently been written by the Chicago Mitzvah Campaign, led by Rabbi Aron Wolf. Each Einstein seminar participant got a copy of the glossy 14-page booklet.

It explains that modesty and physical contact between the sexes is of paramount concern. Women may want to wear two hospital gowns and a head covering, and they may not want to shake a male doctor’s hand. Because a husband and wife must abstain from physical contact if the woman is bleeding from the uterus, he may behave in ways that seem aloof during the birth.

“If the husband isn’t giving his wife comfort the way you’d like, it’s because he can’t,” Wohlgelernter explained.

Another big issue is the Sabbath, from Friday at sundown until Saturday nightfall. Because the Lord rested from labor on the Sabbath, observant Jews refrain from labors, including writing, riding in a car, using the telephone, and turning electrical appliances on or off — even lights, automatic-flush toilets, elevators, and call buttons.

“There are 39 categories of things we can’t do,” said Ungar, the volunteer. “We’re not even allowed to open the refrigerator if the light goes on.”

Several nurses nodded knowingly and said they’ve learned to check on observant patients more frequently to adjust lights and ask if they have any requests.

David Jaspan, Einstein’s chair of obstetrics and gynecology, added: “We would rarely have to discharge a patient on the Sabbath. We should be mindful of that.”

The closing discussion involved the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. If a newborn boy is in the NICU eight days after birth, can the family hold the customary circumcision ceremony, or bris, which is performed by a ritual practitioner called a mohel?

It can be arranged, said Maryann Malloy, the unit’s nurse manager. “We recently had a NICU bris,” she proudly noted.