The following story originally appeared in the spring 2022 issue of the W&M Alumni Magazine. – Ed.
A poster on the wall of the biology lab at William & Mary caught the attention of Alexandra Knudson Friedman ’01: “Does stress make you sick?”
It was late in the evening, and Friedman, then a senior pre-med student, was cleaning up after working on a research project for her honors thesis. The poster announced a talk by Dr. Esther Sternberg, author of “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.” Even though she was extremely busy, Friedman made time to attend the lecture.
“Medicine was interesting to me, but I was also always thinking what’s beyond what we can see,” she says. “I was always very interested in spirituality and spiritual concepts.”
A desire to understand the science behind connections of the human spirit, mind and body inspired Friedman to begin attending medical school. Longing for a deeper spiritual life led her to take a different path, where she explored Orthodox Judaism, attended a women’s seminary and became part of a Hasidic community. She married a widowed man with two daughters and became the mother of eight more children.
It is not often that those two paths merge together, especially for a woman. Hasidic women typically do not attend college, let alone medical school. The obstacles are many: Women in Orthodox Jewish communities generally marry young and have multiple children in their care. There are strict rules about interacting with the opposite sex, access to electronic devices and the internet is limited, and in many Hasidic communities, women don’t drive, making transportation to classes difficult.
Nevertheless, Friedman returned to medical school, and on May 27, 2021, two decades after her commencement at William & Mary, she graduated from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Middletown, New York, at the top of her class. She pursued her medical degree during a pandemic and while giving birth to three of her children, including twin girls. In an interview with The New York Times, she recalled studying for a board exam between contractions when she was in labor for 12 hours with the twins.
Given all the barriers to becoming a doctor, how did she do it? Friedman, who is now in a medical residency program at a children’s hospital near West Palm Beach, Florida, begins her answer by describing the rigorous pre-med curriculum at William & Mary.
“As an undergraduate, I learned how to study thoroughly, anticipate the types of questions that would be asked and to think beyond what might initially be presented,” she says. “So when I came to medical school, I was able to take in all the information quickly and study a lot of material in a short time.”
Alongside the challenges to completing medical school as a woman with a large family in a Hasidic community, Friedman sees significant advantages.
“It gave me perspective,” she says. “Medical school is very intense, and one bad test can feel like the end of your life.”
As she learned in the lecture by Sternberg — who later became a mentor as well as a research collaborator — too much stress can be damaging to a person’s health. On the other hand, a moderate level of stress results in more productivity than no stress at all.
“If I hadn’t had my family, I might have been too stressed,” Friedman says. “When I would come home from school, the children would run up and give me hugs. It was a whole other world, and I think it was beneficial always having a support system. The religious community was a support system as well.”
Having an understanding partner was especially important. When Friedman received the Touro Middleton campus Dean’s Award, given to the student with the highest academic standing, her husband, Yosef, was recognized with the Donna Jones Moritsugu Memorial Award, presented to a spouse of a graduating student for offering unwavering support.
The award announcement noted that Yosef, an aide for elderly patients and people with special needs, worked nights so that Alexandra could attend classes and clinicals during the day. Before she obtained their rabbi’s permission to drive herself, Yosef would make the hourlong trip to take her from their home in Monsey, New York, to Touro College in Middletown. Later, he would drive her to the outskirts of their community — out of respect for Hasidic tradition — and then walk back while she took the car.
Alexandra Friedman says that both she and Yosef grew up in families with secular Jewish and non-Jewish roots. An art major at University of California Berkeley before becoming part of an Orthodox Jewish community, Yosef learned of her interest in medical school soon after they met in New York through a mutual acquaintance — an unofficial matchmaker or shadchan.
“I had quit medical school, but even at that time, he said, ‘I think you’re going to go back,’” Friedman says. “I said, ‘I don’t think so, I just want to raise my family.’ But he was right. He was not only supportive, but encouraging. He thought it was important for me to finish what I had started when it was the right time.”
Another key advocate was her spiritual advisor, the late Rabbi Aharon Kohn. When Friedman sought his guidance about the need for her to earn an income to help support her growing family, the rabbi encouraged her to think about returning to her medical studies.
“He said, ‘It’s not traditional, but God gave you the path that God gave you, and you’re probably meant to have this in your life as long as you can do it in a kosher way,’” Friedman says.
After she enrolled in medical school, there were times when she doubted whether she should continue. “I would even call him and say, ‘I think it’s too hard on my family,’ and he would say, ‘No, just finish another semester.’”
During their last conversation — before Kohn died of COVID-19 in June 2020 at age 69 — Friedman talked to him about what specialty she should practice.
“He said to do what I’m interested in and just make sure I don’t quit — no matter what I do, don’t quit,” she says.
Friedman chose to specialize in pediatrics, where she saw an opportunity to serve the Orthodox Jewish community and draw on her life experience as the mother of 10 children ranging in age from 15 months to 22 years. In March, she was completing a rotation in the neonatal intensive care unit of a children’s hospital near West Palm Beach, Florida.
“It is rare to have a Hasidic doctor, and especially a female Hasidic doctor,” she says.
“There’s a big push right now to make sure that there’s diversity in medicine, because with different cultural nuances and traditions, people like to have a doctor who fully understands them.”
Friedman describes herself as a private person, but she says she is willing to tell her story out of gratitude. She is grateful for a medical school that was able to accommodate her religious observances, for the strong educational foundation she received at William & Mary and for mentors such as Sternberg and Lizabeth Allison, a chancellor professor and chair of the W&M biology department.
Allison, the advisor for Friedman’s honors thesis on thyroid hormone receptors (and a 2022 Plumeri Award recipient), recalls conversations in which her former student shared dreams of balancing her passion for biomedical research with her deep spiritual nature and her desire to raise a large family.
“There may have been times when she wondered if she could do it all, but I never doubted that she would find her path and achieve her dreams,” Allison says. “Alexandra is incredibly bright, focused, determined and filled with joie de vivre.”
Friedman hopes to offer encouragement to others who might have similar aspirations.
“I want to show people that despite all types of perceived obstacles, if you have found your purpose, you should not stop pursuing it, even though it might not work out exactly as you plan,” she says. “Just keep one foot in front of the other and surround yourself with supportive people.”