JSU students gather for Purim with Rabbi Sholom Lew prior to COVID-19.

Medical school is notoriously rigorous, and activities other than studying tend to take a back seat. Ariel Droger and Samantha Shear, second-year medical students at Midwestern University in Glendale, want to make the Jewish Student Union a space for Jewish students to connect with their Jewish identity — even when that sometimes seems impossible.

Droger and Shear understand first-hand their program’s time demands. Droger explained the pace doesn’t leave students much free time to focus on other aspects of their lives.

“Sometimes you don’t feel you have time to be human, even,” he said.

Midwestern’s JSU has waxed and waned since its founding in 2004. In the fall of 2019, JSU’s co-presidents, Droger and Shear, reignited the group to cope with what can be an overwhelming and isolating experience.

“We want to be a resource if people want to tap into it,” Shear said. “We want JSU to be a place far from home they can fall back on.”

Judith DeLorme-Loftus, Midwestern’s manager of student counseling, has been the faculty advisor of the group since 2004. She has asked herself why some years students come to events and some years they don’t, but thinks it’s just a matter of student time constraints.

“I keep showing up,” she said.

So does Shear, who sees how even small things can help students “zoom out and see the bigger picture,” she said.

“We did Shabbos morning bagels during exam week once, and people on their way to the library stopped in and talked to their friends for a few minutes and then could go study,” she said. “While some would say that’s not really practicing Shabbat, I think if people can even do that, it can help people

manage better.”

Chabad of the West Valley Director Rabbi Sholom Lew provides assistance to the group.

“We’re very, very supportive,” Lew said. “Whatever they want us to do and need us to do in trying to put together a much-needed service … we’ve been

very supportive.”

Over the years he watched the small group struggle to gain traction but sees renewed energy and dedication from Droger and Shear. “It’s actually been refreshing for me to see that — how they have come together to try to promote a flavor of Judaism,” he said.

“It’s sometimes very difficult to put that together, and our job is to facilitate and allow them to organically grow this, but at the same time to be there to address anything they might need,” he added.

“I’m putting my effort into JSU when I can,” Shear said. “This year we are learning how to balance it better with our schedules.”

One of this year’s first events was a Zoom call with Alexzandra Hollingworth, chair of surgery and anesthesia at Midwestern.

“When you’re going through this journey, you’ve got to keep everything in perspective,” Hollingworth told the students.

She recounted years of working in a practice where she had to set her Judaism to the side. “Thinking I have to study every second and can’t pray was tough,” she told the call’s participants. She talked to them about prioritizing prayer, even with the demands of being a trauma surgeon.

“I haven’t been as vocal in the past about my religious needs, but it’s something I’ve learned to do as I got older,” she said. “It’s something people in surgery don’t often take breaks for.”

She also told students about facing anti-Semitism from patients and colleagues, dealing with trauma patients who are often close to death, and how the hospital changed when COVID-19 came. “Trauma went down and COVID went up,” she said, admitting she faced some of the lowest moments of her professional career, feeling helpless in the face of patients dying from the coronavirus.

In addition, she couldn’t go to synagogue anymore, and losing the spiritual component added to her stress. “The journey has been difficult, and there are parts where I’ve been disconnected,” she told them. “Getting back to shul after COVID has been one of the best parts of my life.”

That kind of straight talk from health care professionals is the type of event the reconstituted JSU plans to continue along with holiday get-togethers and Shabbat dinners. Nineteen students participated in the call, and the

feedback was positive, Shear said.

“We try to plan events strategically, because people are really stressed out by their exams and they’re going to stray,” she acknowledged.

Hollingworth’s remarks about integrating important aspects of one’s life rather than balancing them hit a chord with Shear. Her Judaism isn’t something she’s balancing, she said, but rather is a place where she can pause and take a breath in an otherwise hectic schedule.

“I don’t really feel that it’s a balance necessarily,” Shear said, “because that image makes it look like a scale with work on one side and life on the other, and it just doesn’t feel like that. I feel it’s more of an integration — it’s in every facet of my life.” JN

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