6 Amazing Jewish Nurses.
These Jewish nurses made the world a better place.
Jewish women have a long and distinguished history in nursing, from ancient times to today. Here are six notable Jewish nurses and the amazing contributions they made helping others.
Shifra and Puah
Each Passover, we tell the story of the Jewish people’s escape from crushing slavery in Egypt. Jews were once tolerated as welcome guests in the land of Egypt but in time a new Pharaoh took power, enslaving the Jews, and seeking to stamp out their unique way of life forever.
Jews defied Pharaoh’s expectations and continued to build Jewish families, so Pharaoh devised an even more draconian way to end Jewish life: he decreed that all Jewish baby boys be thrown into the Nile River as soon as they were born and drowned. Pharaoh was revered by Egyptians as a living god; his word was absolute law. Yet despite the terrible dangers in defying his orders, Shifra and Puah resisted.
The Medrash recounts that when a Jewish woman was ready to give birth, Shifra and Puah would rush to her side to help with the delivery, keeping the birth of a new Jewish baby boy a secret. When they were questioned by Egyptian officials about their clandestine activities, Shifra and Puah hid their activities, keeping the identities of the baby boys they’d delivered a secret.
Jewish tradition explains that Shifra and Puah were in fact Yocheved and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses. The Jewish sage Rashi explains that “Shifra” meant “improver” and referred to the fact that Moses’s mother Yocheved would help clean up and tend to the Jewish babies once they were born. “Puah” referred to the cooing noises (which sounded like Puah) that Miriam made to help soothe the newborns in their first moments of life (Rashi, Exodus 1:15).
Jewish women sometimes worked as medical advisors in Medieval Europe. One of these early nurses or healers was Marat Yuskah, a Jewish woman who lived in the thirteenth century in flourishing Jewish communities of northern Germany. She was a specialist in eye problems; her detailed description of the way she prepared medicine to cure bloodshot eyes has survived, giving us a key insight into what medicine looked like in the Middle Ages.
“Take calamine that is similar to a white stone(s)...and burn them. Remove it with tongs and put it into a jar of strong vinegar…” her prescription describes. Though this medical advice runs counter to today’s medical knowledge, Marat Yuskah’s prescription was used for many years as a way to treat red eyes and clouded corneas.
Phoebe Yates Levy Pember
While the great battlefield nurse Florence Nightingale is often considered the founder of modern nursing, after caring for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, less than a decade later Phoebe Yates Levy Pember – a Jewish woman from Charleston, South Carolina – also helped to establish modern nursing when she oversaw care for wounded Civil War soldiers in what was the largest military hospital in the world.
Born in 1823, three years after Florence Nightingale, Phoebe Yates Levy Pember grew up in an affluent Jewish family in South Carolina and Georgia. In 1862, when the American Civil War broke out, she became Chief Matron at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. She worked there for the entirety of the Civil War, overseeing care for over 76,000 Confederate soldiers and revolutionizing the way soldiers were cared for.
While army surgeons treated soldiers’ wounds, Phoebe was in charge of ensuring their comfort, tending to their emotional needs, and overseeing purchasing supplies, cooking thousands of meals each day, and running a massive military hospital. She spent countless hours with her patients, playing cards with recovering soldiers, sitting with the ill and wounded with them when they were in pain, writing letters for wounded men to loved ones back home, and praying with the men in her care.
Phoebe wrote about her experiences as a wartime nurse in her memoirs A Southern Woman’s Story, published in 1879. She describes her first day on the job, when she was confronted with gravely sick men and had to hastily arrange meals with only a small, ill-equipped kitchen. It seems she drew on her Jewish culinary roots, harking back to the Jewish comfort food of her youth. “A stove was unearthed, very small, very rusty, and fit only for a family of six. There were then about six hundred men upon the matron’s diet list, the illest ones to be supplied with food from my kitchen… Just then my mind could hardly grope through the darkness that clouded it, as to what were my special duties, but one mental spectrum always presented itself - chicken soup.”
In addition to caring for the men in her hospital, Phoebe always had to be on the lookout for thieves seeking to make off with hospital supplies. She kept a gun in her office, which she used on more than one occasion to scare off would be attackers. In one passage of her memoirs, she described how a thief “advanced towards (the supplies), and so did I… I interposed between him and object of contention. The fierce temper blazed up in his face, and catching me roughly by the shoulder, he called me a name that a decent woman seldom hears…” Phoebe describes showing her gun: “You had better leave I said composedly..for if one bullet is lost, there are five more ready, and the room is too small for even a woman to miss six times.” The thief quickly fled.
Hannah Sandusky was born in 1827 in Kovno, Lithuania, into a medical family; her mother worked as a midwife and Hannah followed in her footsteps. She married Louis Sandusky and moved to Pittsburgh in 1861, where she volunteered as a nurse and midwife with the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society. A devout and righteous woman, Hannah lived a life of service: she never charged for helping with births, and also sought out other ways to come to people’s aid. In addition to nursing, she volunteered sewing shrouds for the local Jewish burial society, and also worked as a matchmaker. The mother of seven children, Hannah was also active in Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagodol in Pittsburgh, which she and her husband helped found.
Hannah would sometimes help a local doctor with particularly difficult deliveries, and he later sent Hannah and her son to Germany so that Hannah’s son could consult a famous eye specialist for some medical problems that he had. While her son was undergoing medical treatment in Germany, Hannah Sandusky formally studied nursing and midwifery, becoming a qualified midwife. Upon her return to Pittsburgh, she set up practice in the Hill District of the city, tending to poor Jewish immigrants who were pouring into Pittsburgh from Eastern Europe, and also working with the Black community.
Known as “Bobba (Grandma) Hanna”, she became a beloved fixture in the neighborhood. She used to wear a black bonnet and cape, and always had a pocket full of candy for the local children. “My mother told me that when I saw Bobba Hannah I should run and make hot coffee because she was our honored guest,” explained former Pittsburgh resident Etta Meyers Katz, in an interview years later about Hannah Sandusky. Hannah only retired in 1909, at the age of 82, after having delivered 3,571 babies. https://www.jewishfamilieshistory.org/entry/sandusky-family/
Florence Greenberg is well known in Britain as a doyenne of British cookbook writers. Yet she also had an equally stellar, if little known, career as a nurse during World War I.
Born in 1882 in London, Florence Oppenheimer (as she was known then) was determined to be a nurse, yet her father refused to give his permission, thinking that the career wasn’t proper for a young lady. At the age of 29, Florence was worried that she would soon be too old to be accepted to nursing school, and made one more appeal, eventually gaining her father’s permission and enrolling in nursing school.
She graduated in 1911 and soon found herself drafted as a wartime nurse after the outbreak of World War I. Florence worked on several hospital ships tending British wounded off the coast of Egypt and Turkey. With shelling within earshot and the risk of being torpedoed by German U-boats a constant threat, Florence wrote to a friend that she finally understood what war really meant. 1,800 patients were cared for by a skeletal medical staff of just ten. Conditions on board were difficult, and friendships became intense. Florence received at least one marriage proposal from a doctor on board, but turned it down explaining that she was Jewish and could never consider marrying outside her faith.
Florence worked throughout the Middle East, including working as a military nurse in a British hospital in Cairo, and spending time in the Land of Israel, before returning to London. She received a citation for her wartime service from Winston Churchill, Britain’s Secretary of State for War.
Back in civilian life, in 1920 Florence married Leopold J. Greenberg, a 58-year-old widower who was the editor of the British Jewish newspaper the Jewish Chronicle. In addition to being a talented nurse, Florence was a fabulous cook and Leopold urged her to write a cooking column in the newspaper. Florence eventually wrote several influential cookbooks, including her classic Florence Greenberg’s Cookery Book, which was a beloved reference in countless British Jewish kitchens. She maintained her interest in nursing, as well, becoming a founding member of the London Jewish Hospital and aiding in the establishment of a nurses’ home annexed there.
Selma Mair transformed nursing in Jerusalem, introducing high medical standards to the nascent Jewish state and devoting her life to helping Jews and others in the Land of Israel. She was a devout Orthodox Jew who dedicated her life to helping others. Born in 1884 in Hanover, Germany, Selma’s life was touched by tragedy. Her mother died in childbirth when Selma was just five years old. This harrowing loss led Selma to want to help others and learn all she could about medicine. She was one of the first women in Germany to enroll in nursing school. In 1913, she and another nurse became the first Jewish nurses ever to become certified nurses in Germany.
At first Selma worked in the Salomon Heine Hospital in Hamburg, covering many different departments. She was a sought-after nursing professional and had her pick of jobs. In 1916, however, she decided to leave Germany forever when she was recruited by the great German Jewish doctor Dr. Moshe Wallach. An ardent Zionist, Dr. Wallach had founded Shaare Tzedek Hospital, an Orthodox Jewish hospital just outside the Old City in Jerusalem. Now, he was returning to Germany to find a professional who could assist him in bringing modern medicine to the Middle East. Dr. Wallach was impressed with Selma Mair, and hired her as Shaarei Tzedek’s head nurse and matron.
Immediately, Selma imposed rigorous order and high standards on Shaare Tzedek’s nursing. She trained generations of nurses and midwives. She also acted as the hospital’s director as it grew, and oversaw the building, equipment, and made sure that the hospital’s kitchens adhered to the highest kosher standards. When Dr. Wallach operated, it was Selma Mair who assisted him. Patients flocked to see her from across the city. On days when “Shvester Selma” (Nurse Selma) had office hours, the line of patients waiting for her care sometimes stretched around the block. Selma oversaw the care of scores of Jews who were injured during the Arab pogroms against the Jews of Hebron in 1929, and coordinated care for polio victims during periodic epidemics in Jerusalem.
In 1936, Selma helped found Shaare Tzedek’s nursing school, and taught all of the school's practical nursing classes. One of the express aims of the school was to provide a place for Jewish women to flee Nazi Germany and learn a trade in the Land of Israel. By giving them a place to study and live, Selma Mair and Shaarei Tzedek saved the lives of a generation of young Jewish nurses.
Though she never married, Selma Mair was a mother several times over through adoption. She kept working at Shaare Tzedek for sixty eight years, until her death at age 100. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/mair-selma
Today, these brave Jewish nurses are being joined by countless other nurses on the front lines of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are heroes, and we all owe them our thanks and support.