US Air Force judge advocate Rena Winick Weinstein wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with her life when she graduated high school.
As an Orthodox Jew, Weinstein was certain of one thing: She wanted to go to college in a place that would support her religious lifestyle — and help her find her professional path. So she enrolled at the Lander College for Women, a part of the Touro University System, designed to help observant Jews get an education without compromising their religious values.
Weinstein, now 25, ended up finding the spark for her unconventional career at Touro: She became interested in national security after taking a college counterterrorism course. She dabbled in a variety of pursuits after graduating, including selling real estate and learning Arabic, before deciding to study law at Georgetown University. She eventually landed a job in the US Air Force as an attorney known as a JAG, or judge advocate general.
“It was very helpful for me, now that I’m in an environment where there’s very little religion, to have that foundation of strong academics and a strong religious environment while in college,” Weinstein said, reflecting on her experience. “That was the cushion that allowed me to branch off into the secular world.”
These days Weinstein, who recently married, works at a fighter jet base in England, where she’s chief of international and operational law, dealing with issues ranging from NATO readiness to military court martials.
“I’ve always been patriotic, so I felt it was important to show appreciation for the gifts we’ve received as Jews in America by joining the military,” said Weinstein, who previously spent a year and a half at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas with the 22 nd Air Refueling Wing. “I wanted to do more than sitting around at a think tank, talking about patriotism and values.”
Founded in 1971 to provide an environment where Orthodox Jews in New York could get a college education without foregoing their religious commitments, Touro is now a sprawling university system with over 19,000 students from many faith traditions spanning 35 different schools and spread out over four countries.
Yet Touro remains a place that not only accommodates Orthodox Jewish observance but embraces it. Classes are suspended on Jewish holidays, every campus offers kosher food and other special features are available, such as Sabbath-observant residency programs for medical students.
“Throughout its 52-year history, Touro has been committed to making sure students succeed at the highest level professionally while upholding their Jewish values,” said Touro’s president, Dr. Alan Kadish, who has led Touro for the last 14 years, following the tenure of founding president Bernard Lander. “Working to create a better world and society is part of our mission.”
A variety of Touro alumni now working in high-powered fields said that going to a school that cultivated their professional skills and supported their religiosity gave them the early-career nurturing they needed to succeed as Orthodox Jews in the professional world.
Regina Davydova, who was born in Uzbekistan and immigrated to New York when she was 8, became interested in pursuing a career in medicine when she was a teenager. But as an Orthodox Jew, Davydova worried about how she would balance a demanding career with her religious observance and desire to raise a family.
She enrolled in the physician’s assistant program at Touro’s School of Health Sciences, which she said help set her up for success: She got a job at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center following graduation, only two weeks after getting married. Sixteen years on, Davydova, now 38, is the chief PA of the hospital’s plastic surgery division — and has a thriving Orthodox family.
“It’s incredible how we can rearrange skin and tissue to reconstruct any defects, and make the patient feel and look whole again,” Davydova said of her job. “It’s not just aesthetics, like most people think. We also do a lot of reconstruction in breast cancer or head and neck cancers.”
Like Davydova, Jason Appleson also chose a college based in large part on where he’d feel comfortable as an Orthodox Jew. At Touro’s Lander College for Men, the dual curriculum allows both for yeshiva study and obtaining professional and academic degrees.
“I liked the yeshiva-style program at Lander, the close-knit learning and the small size of the school,” said Appleson, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in finance.
“When it came to looking for jobs, I got a lot of attention,” he added. “At Lander, it was more about, ‘Let’s connect you with real people.’ Ultimately, that’s how I got my first job at Alliance Bernstein, through networking.”
After a stint at Alliance Bernstein, Appleson joined the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, followed by nine years at Chicago-based PT Asset Management. Now 38 and married with three children, Appleson is a managing director at Prudential Global Investment Management in Newark, New Jersey, where he leads the municipal bond team.
He credits his education at Lander College not just with giving him the skills he needed to succeed, but also the supportive religious environment he needed to thrive.
“One of the most difficult things if you go to a non-Jewish school is that no one’s working around your schedule,” said Appleson, a native of Nashville. “At Lander, you can celebrate Jewish holidays comfortably. Religion is not just a culture, it’s a lifestyle. I didn’t have to worry about kashrut or Shabbat.”
Touro’s president said Shabbat observance isn’t a disadvantage, but an asset both in school and in professional life.
“By and large, people can succeed as observant Jews in almost any area, but the problem of time management is mitigated by the restorative effects of Shabbos and holidays,” Kadish said. “It does mean that in certain professions you might be working on Sundays when you otherwise might not be. But I firmly believe the reset really helps.”
Florida native Israel Ackerman went to the Lander College for Men, availing himself of the night classes and flexible schedule so he could complete the rigorous pre-med science program while spending his mornings studying in yeshiva. Then he went to Touro’s medical school, New York Medical College, in Valhalla, New York.
“Specifically in the field of medicine, it can be a struggle to find institutions where you can observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays during busy hospital rotations,” Ackerman said.
After graduating, he did his fellowship in ophthalmology at the University of Texas-Southwestern and now works in Dallas as an eye surgeon.
Moshe Serwatien, a student at New York Medical College who did his undergraduate studies at Lander, said the intensity at Lander both of the pre-med academics and his own yeshiva studies prepared him well for the demands of medical school. Faculty at Touro also helped him with the medical school application process.
“My rabbis at Lander held me to a very high level of academic excellence and intellectual standards, so I was quite prepared for the rigors of medical school,” Serwatien said.
Ultimately, many alumni say, the seeds for their professional success were planted at Touro.
“My time at Lander,” said Appleson, the bond manager, “prepared me to work with some of the best and brightest in the industry.”
BY LARRY LUXNER
This story was sponsored by the Touro College and University System, which supports Jewish continuity and community while serving a diverse population of over 19,000 students across 30 schools. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.