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Activist on Skates

December 12, 2013 | by Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Champion of academics, athletics and the arts, Loren Galler Rabinowitz is focused on her role as a third-generation Holocaust survivor.

If she had graduated magna cum laude from Harvard – that would be impressive enough, “dayeinu.”

If she’d competed in the World Figure Skating Championships – dayeinu.

If she’d won two state piano championships – dayeinu.

If she’s a regular guest on CBS Newsdayeinu.

If she had authored a book of poetry under the tutelage of a Pulitzer-Prize winner – dayeinu.

At age 27, Loren Galler Rabinowitz takes the ideal of well-roundedness to the extreme. While the rest of us mortals struggle for excellence in a single endeavor, Loren’s success almost seems unfair.

Yet with a wholesome dose of humility, grace and down-to-earth charm, Loren – who loves baking apple cake using her grandmother’s recipe – is more likely to inspire, than to arouse envy.

And through it all, Loren is so very Jewish. Her speech is peppered with Yiddishisms and old world inflections. As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, she uses the public limelight as a platform to promote Holocaust education. She is traditional and striving Jewishly – caring deeply about Israel, keeping kosher, and an avid reader of

We caught up with Loren in Manhattan, where she was coming off a full day of studies at Columbia medical school, and an appearance earlier that day on CBS News. Aside from your myriad other activities, your current rotations in internal medicine have you getting up in the wee hours of the morning to observe major surgeries. Do you find the schedule demanding?

Loren: I like to be busy. In high school I would get up at 4:30 am and train for four hours before school. Then after school I would go back to the ice rink for more training. In college I also got up early to give youth skating lessons and tutor high school students. So for me, this medical school schedule is a bit of a slow-down! You are gifted with so many natural talents, which you have channeled into helping others. Where does this value stem from?

Loren: The secret of every Jew’s success is a Jewish mother. My mother runs a clinic in Barbados for malnourished children, and I’ve always spent a lot of time there. Barbados is a wonderful melding of cultures, and it was great for me to be exposed early on to a totally different way of life – especially to people who materially have so much less than what we’re used to in America. It made me painfully aware of being very fortunate, and wanting to help those less fortunate. Let’s go back in time. Where are your family roots?

Loren: My grandparents were childhood sweethearts in a small shtetl in southeastern Poland. There was no electricity or running water. When the Germans came in 1942 they were separated. My grandfather was sent to dig ditches at the front, and eventually survived by joining the Russian army.

My grandmother’s story is more harrowing. When she was 16, she and her seven siblings were packed into a cattle car destined for the Belzec death camp. A few of the children, including my petite grandmother, were able to fit through a small window in the train. Before she jumped, her father held her hand and said: “When you were born, the Belzer Rebbe was living in our house and he blessed you. I believe you will be the one to survive. Do not forget us.”

When my grandmother and her two younger siblings were pushed out the window, the SS guards positioned on top of the train shot at them. The bullets missed my grandmother but she had to bury her little brother and sister right there in the snow.

She then walked along the frozen train tracks back to her town, only to find there were no Jews left. People were already ransacking her family’s home. Nobody wanted to help her; they were afraid for their own lives. She kept walking and eventually found a family whose little daughter had recently died of tuberculosis. They gave my grandmother – who had blonde hair and green eyes – the identification papers of the dead girl. So she spent the duration of the war hiding with this family?

By the end of the war, my grandmother weighed 45 pounds.

Loren: No, it wasn’t that easy. The Nazis went around scooping up Polish teenagers and bringing them back to Germany to perform manual labor. My grandmother was sent for slave labor on a German farm where she nearly starved to death. Miraculously, my grandfather managed to locate her after the war. She weighed 45 pounds. They traveled to Sweden, got married and had three children, including my mom.

Years later when I found myself standing in Auschwitz in the freezing cold, I could deeply appreciate how things might have turned out differently for our family. All us grandchildren are named after those who were murdered. We were never allowed to forget. How did they get to America?

Loren: My grandmother always dreamed of living in Israel, and some of our cousins ended up there. But when my mom was 9 her family got a visa to come to the U.S. They started off in New York where my grandfather tried to find work. One day he went to the newsstand to buy a copy of the New York Times, but mistakenly picked up a copy of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He got a job and they ended up spending the majority of their adult lives in New Orleans. For European Jewish immigrants, that sounds totally out of their element.

Loren: Actually it was fortuitous. Living in the Deep South in the 1960s, during a period of marginalization of African-Americans, my grandmother saw similarities to what she experienced in the years leading up to the Holocaust. Jewish children were first forced to sit in the back of the classroom, then weren’t allowed to attend public schools at all – and nobody did anything to stop it.

My grandmother refused to let the same injustice happen in her own backyard.

She refused to let the same thing happen in her own backyard. This 4-foot-10 lady with a European accent would travel to high schools in Mississippi and Oklahoma, getting up on stage to tell her own experiences being marginalized as a child. She spoke out against the injustice of separate schools, benches and water fountains for black people. It was her way of fighting back after not being able to during the war itself.

My grandparents taught to bravely speak out for what is right, and how to persevere through the most impossible of circumstances. Telling their stories was wonderfully cathartic for them. They have since passed away, but we estimate that over the decades they spoke to 600,000 schoolchildren. You continue to speak about the Holocaust at schools and organizational events. What is the primary message you try to convey?

Loren: Ours is the last generation to witness those who actually went through the horrors of the Holocaust. In one sense it’s easy to identify with the victim – the stories are so touching and powerful. Yet it’s much more difficult to understand the perpetrator. Nazi leaders were highly educated – doctors, lawyers, PhDs – living in a technologically advanced society. How did Eastern Europe reach the point where people were killing their neighbors, robbing them, or turning them over to become chimney smoke? That was not the result of one sociopath. It was the result of millions of decisions by individuals and an entire society.

The best hope for not repeating what happened in Europe is to reach out to others who are different from us – to be thoughtful and generous and open-minded. Every human being has enormous capacity for good, and enormous capacity for not-so-good. We’ve all committed acts of unkindness, and we need to think about how our behavior impacts others.

My grandmother visited schools because she knew that to instill good values, it has to be taught at the earliest age. If a 5-year-old is taught to hate, it’s very difficult to undo that. But if you can reach children early on, you can make a huge difference. You served as Miss Massachusetts and competed in the Miss America beauty pageant, something that traditional Judaism would oppose. 

Loren: I kind of fell into it, actually. The Miss America organization is the world’s largest provider of educational scholarships for women, about $50 million annually. There is no prize money; it’s all in the form of educational scholarships. I met someone who told me that by entering a local contest I would become eligible for a scholarship. I wanted to go to medical school and thought this would help alleviate some of the burden.

So I entered a local pageant and to my surprise I won. Then I went to the next level, and to my surprise I won. I am a real klutz and tripped across the stage in my evening gown several times. In the end I found that what comes across is not just what you look like, but if you have something important to contribute, and can do it with passion. I wanted to be in a service position for that year and Miss Massachusetts gave me the opportunity to be very busy with volunteer work, up to 70 hours a week. Ice skating is not typically associated as a Jewish occupation. How did you get involved?

Loren: My mom is a very busy physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. From the time I can remember, she would be up at 5 a.m. to skate for fun and exercise. As a young girl I realized that accompanying her to the rink was a great way to spend private time with her. So how could I help but fall in love with what we were doing.

Even as I grew up and began skating competitively, that private time continued. My mom always traveled with me to major competitions – to China, Spain, Bulgaria, Russia, Norway, the Czech Republic, Japan. Those were wonderful adventures that we got to share together. It was also a great Jewish education because we would visit the shul in Beijing or the old synagogue in Prague to learn about those Jewish communities. When did you find time for schoolwork?

I could not go to skating practice unless there was an ‘A’ on every paper.

Loren: My ice skates were off-limits until all my homework was finished and there was an ‘A’ on every paper. Otherwise I could not go to skating practice. That was a very good motivating factor. There was no room for any ‘B-plus’! You are also trained as a classical pianist.

Loren: My family is very musically oriented. My father’s cousin is Leonard Bernstein, and my two younger sisters are both virtuoso composers of symphonies who have played at Carnegie Hall several times. I started playing piano at age one. I had too much shpilkes (restlessness) to practice, but after a long session of ice skating I would be tired enough where my mother could sit me down at the piano.. Did you feel pressure being raised in such a high-achieving atmosphere?

Loren: Except with school, where there were clear expectations of getting good grades, I never really felt pressure. My parents sort of gave us paintbrushes and a blank canvas to explore and grow. Playing piano was space and time that was just mine – sitting for hours and making music. It was such a different creative outlet than the physicality of skating. You never realized your dream of competing in the Olympic Games. How did you deal with that disappointment?

Loren: The Olympics was something I wanted more than anything else in the world. I was extremely disappointed and rather than feel sorry for myself I volunteered at a hospital, caring for others and observing how they dealt with loss. It was incredibly rewarding and helped me get through a tough time. What was your take-away from all those years invested on the ice?

Loren: The main thing is that you can’t be afraid to fail. Competing as a professional athlete, skating 10 hours a day, you’re pushed by your coaches so much further than what you think you’re capable of. You stop thinking in terms of limitations. If you don’t keep pushing yourself, you’ll never know the limit. From an early age, my family made it okay for me to fail. So I just assume that anything is possible, until I fail at it.

I’ve been coaching figure skating since I was a teenager, and I’ve seen kids who were failing school that are now graduating from Harvard. All it took was a little confidence, of somebody telling them: “You’re capable of much more than you think.” People often need a push in the right direction – not a big push, but a little push. What type of Jewish environment did you grow up in?

Loren: We’ always kept kosher. I’d always eaten at home my whole life including at college, so when I moved to New York for medical school I had to think about what it means to have a kosher kitchen. I remember when I was 12 years old, baking with my grandmother, and she said, “Human beings need to eat to survive. Keeping kosher is a way to remind you three times a day of where you come from.” That thought stuck with me.

I also have lots of cousins in Israel and can’t wait to get back there again. And I stay connected through There’s so much negativity in the mass media, it’s nice to have a place online that provides a positive Jewish respite from it all. Did your family celebrate Shabbat?

Loren: We had Shabbos dinner every Friday. For a family of two doctors and three kids who were always busy with extracurricular activities, it was a wonderful time for us to come together. Especially because my dad, who was constantly off saving lives as a cardiologist, was home before sundown every Friday. It was a very clear message that uninterrupted family time is a priority. Work is wonderful, but you have to schedule time for relationships and family.

I would walk with my dad to shul every Shabbos and through this we became very close. He was not on his cellphone or running to the hospital, so we had time for special conversations. Especially in this generation, where we’re expected to always be connected – on a cellphone or texting or emailing – it’s important to prioritize time to just “be.” There’s so little room for it in our lives. Shabbos is like a mandated break from these distractions. I’m grateful that my parents instilled this in us and I want to raise my future family this way. As a future doctor, in what way has your father inspired you?

Talmudic training is an important part of what makes my father an amazing physician.

Loren: His knowledge is encyclopedic. It's stunning. He was trained without a computer to look everything up, so he has it all in his head. He attended yeshiva growing up, and went to medical school at Yeshiva University. He was trained from an early age as a Talmudist – not only to retain tremendous amounts of information, but also to synthesize it all. That training is an important part of what makes him such an amazing physician. Everyone in his family became a rabbi, and the joke is that he’s the one Jewish boy who disappointed his mother by becoming a doctor! Has your adjustment to medical school been difficult?

Loren: So many of the skills I acquired while skating are transferable to my medical career. Sleep deprivation? Not a problem! Having an instructor yell at me? I’ve had 350-pound Russian ladies screaming expletives all day long. Lots of material to master? I learned to work with discipline and attention to detail, doing things over and over and over until it’s right. That whole time I was building skills that will now hopefully help me save lives. My skating career ended in disappointment, but my grandfather taught me that if you wait long enough, things always work out. I’m an incurable optimist. These days, how do you spend your free time?

Loren: Medical school is so overwhelming that there’s little time to do extracurricular anything! But I continue to travel and tell my grandparents’ story. I partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington to promote their traveling exhibit called “Deadly Medicine” which examines the role of Nazi physicians during the Holocaust and the implications for modern medical ethics. This hit home for me in multiple ways.

Carrying out my role as a third-generation survivor is something I cannot afford to take three years away from. My life seems incomplete unless I’m doing something good for someone else every single day. What’s in store for the future?

Loren: I’m interested in the doctor-patient relationship – how we can produce more doctors who are warm, trustworthy, sensitive, kind and compassionate. I’ve had enough injuries as an athlete to know what it’s like to be in an emergency room with a broken arm or a bleeding head. For a doctor, at the end of the day, there are no more tests and no more competitions to win. It’s just you figuring out how to help another person.

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