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Jewish Alliance for Women in Science

Helping Women Enter Careers Related to Science and Medicine

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Visit Mentors' Round Table to read our interviews of women in the fields of science and health. These are women of varying levels of experience and backgrounds, brought to the table to answer your questions about everything from work-life balance to financial management. Read on, be inspired, and leave them (and us!) a comment!

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April 2010

Dr. Elizabeth (Elisheva) Kaufman

based on a Mishpacha magazine article written by Shira Yehudit Djililmand

Dr. Elisheva Kaufman has a heart big enough to care for two families — her own family, and the animals she cares for in her position as veterinarian at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo. Family First joins Elisheva as she recounts how she chose her profession, provides a virtual tour of the zoo where she works, and explains how her job is a springboard for constant inspiration and gratitude.

Born in Manhattan to fourth-generation American Jews from a mixture of Reform and Conservative backgrounds, Elisheva’s childhood experience of Judaism was more cultural than religious. “When I was growing up, being Jewish meant lox and bagels on Sunday mornings followed by all ten sections of the New York Times. My grandmother, who was one of the most important people in my life, gave me Bible Stories for Jewish Children, and I kept up a running conversation with G-d, but it never occurred to me then that there might be any obligations.” Frum, female, and zookeeper don’t seem like the most typical combination of words. But Elisheva Kaufman’s story is a fascinating, if extraordinary, example of a woman who embraces Torah and keeps her own family first, even as she pursued her childhood affinity for nurturing animals.

When Elisheva was just a baby, her parents moved to Port Washington, Long Island where the nearby beaches and freedom allowed her to indulge her already-developing love of animals. “From age six I announced I wanted to be a vet. Why? I just loved animals. People would buy me dolls and I would pull them apart instead of dressing them up. Our house was always full of dogs and cats and all kinds of stray animals — wounded rabbits, birds, etc. — that I happened to pick up. My mother was very indulgent; the first thing she did was teach me how to pronounce the word veterinarian, and then she said, okay, let’s do it. So during high school I volunteered for a local vet, and my parents were always very supportive.”

After graduating high school, Elisheva wanted to get “as far away from New York as she could” and, after five years, completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Combining Training and Torah

Getting into veterinary school in America is not easy, as there are only twenty-seven institutions in the whole country. And although today around 80 percent of veterinary students are women, when Elisheva began her training, the figure was only around 25 percent.

The veterinary course usually takes four years, but for Elisheva it took five because, as she said, “I decided to get frum and get married!” How she got frum and got married is a whole story in itself, and a wonderful example of Hashgachah pratis. The first time she applied to the veterinary school at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, due to a bureaucratic technicality, she was turned down. But little did she know what Hashem had in mind for her. She landed a job as a cook on a research ship for the Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, working with coral reefs in the Caribbean, and then, incredibly, found herself on a plane to build a Living Coral Reef exhibit at the St. Louis Zoo, where she worked for two years. Meanwhile, Yosef Kaufman, of Kay Bee Toys (Kaufman Brothers), had been recalled to the family business after studying in Aish HaTorah and was sent to St. Louis. And there in St. Louis, the pair were introduced. Yosef was already well on the path to Torah observance, but Elisheva wasn’t so sure. “He told me, ‘When I get married, I’m going to be frum.’ I told him, ‘Great, I hope you’ll be happy — what does frum mean?"

But Elisheva did gradually begin to take on mitzvos, until she realized Fort Collins was no place for a frum Jew. “I was beginning to get interested in Yiddishkeit, but there was no frum community in Colorado — just a lot of cows! My husband-to-be wanted to live in a frum community, and so, miraculously, I got transferred to Tufts University, Boston. “This was my first professional outing as an Orthodox woman. I was visibly expectant with a scarf on my head. I was nervous about how people would accept me. But since vet school was what I had wanted my entire life, I plowed ahead. For six weeks no one spoke to me. Many years later, I learned that the vet students thought I was a medical student, the medical students thought I was a vet student, and everyone thought I was undergoing chemotherapy because of the scarf and wasn’t that a shame because I was expecting a baby. It took a while to sort things out.”

For the newly frum Elisheva, veterinary training had its fair share of halachic questions, and before she started, she travelled to Rabbi Moshe Heinemann in Baltimore. “I walked in and told him I was in vet school and had some halachic questions and he asked me, ‘Tell me, what is the normal body temperature of sheep?’ I guess he had some questions for me! He made it clear what I could and couldn’t do; for example, there are certain surgical procedures that are forbidden in the Torah. He also gave me a teshuvah regarding special clothing often required when dealing with large animals.”

Was there any antagonism from staff or students over your religious practice, I asked Elisheva? “What surprised me most during my five years at Tufts were the many people telling me how much they respected my melding of Jewish and professional life. Even the dean helped. When I told him, ‘I can’t work or take exams on Sabbath or the holidays,’he typed out, ‘Elizabeth Kaufman will be making requests for religious reasons. Please comply with everything she asks.’ He handed me the paper, saying, ‘Don’t abuse this.’ To reciprocate, I worked every Sunday and non-Jewish holiday, and I always tried to be polite and friendly. Because, let’s face it, I looked weird: the only one in a dress on night duty during large animal rotations, the only one expecting with a scarf on her head.”

In 1988, after Elisheva finished her internship in Wildlife and Exotic Medicine at Tufts, she and her husband decided that as Jews, they wanted to bring up their children in Eretz Yisrael and made aliyah to Har Nof, Jerusalem. The following spring, she began teaching Wildlife and Exotic Pet Medicine at the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine at Hebrew University. Five years later, Elisheva started working for the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo on a project-by-project basis. Her first job was to raise money to build a real hospital/quarantine area. Once that was done, she began working on nutrition and then moved on to other projects. Today, Elisheva has a very varied set of responsibilities at the zoo.

 A Day in the Life of a Zoo Vet

What kind of tasks do those responsibilities include? “My day starts with wake-up at six thirty and davening before getting everyone else up and off for their day. I get to the zoo around nine, where I take care of the morning treatments of animals that are in the hospital for whatever reason. There might be some X-rays or blood work or drugs to be weighed. Then it’s whatever needs to be done out in the zoo or on the computer or just catching up on the mountains of paperwork we are behind on. Each morning my boss, Nili, will tell me what she needs done right away, and everything else gets pushed around accordingly.”

Primarily, Elisheva is responsible for the preventative programming at the zoo, which involves regular check-ups for all the animals for intestinal worms, vaccinations, etc.; she runs the blood laboratory, and deals with nutrition, making sure every animal gets exactly the food it needs. Such a varied set of responsibilities means no day is ever the same. “I love that every day is different. Today, for example, we had a female lion that needed surgery to remove an infected internal organ. I was responsible for the anesthesia — the surgery took three hours, and it was up to me to keep her alive all that time.”

What’s Elisheva’s favorite part of the job? “Hand-raising baby carnivores. We hand-raised a baby leopard and tiger at home. The leopard would creep into my daughter’s bed at night to sleep; they were the best of buddies.” One of the mother leopards at the zoo rejected her cub, and the cub, called “Roo,” was taken home every night by another zoo employee. When she left on vacation, Elisheva took him home over Succos. Then for the next three-and-a-half months, he was at the zoo during the day and came home at night, after which time he moved back to the zoo permanently. “My husband thought it was important for people to see him,” she remembers, “as you could really see the truth of the pasuk ‘az k’namer’— this guy was a real leopard: bold, brazen, a real fighter, really a leopard! When Roo left, my husband said, ‘Nu, now I want a tiger!’ and I told him, no chance, and then what happened? A female Sumatran tiger, a bit young for motherhood, abandoned her cubs after ten days. One of the cubs, came home with us and he stayed till he was about ten weeks old. He was a lot of fun; tigers are very sociable at that age.” And the worst part of Elisheva’s job as a vet? “When something dies and you don’t want it to die — that hurts. I have to put animals to sleep, mostly wild animals who get injured. The zoo is part of the animal triage for the whole country, and so we get gazelles from Jerusalem who got hit by traffic, baby kestrels who fell from their nests, all kinds of animals, and for some of them, there’s nothing that can be done but putting them to sleep humanely.”

Reactions from Family, Friends, and the Frum World

Being a vet, especially a zoo vet, is not the most common profession for a frum woman. What kind of reactions does Elisheva get when she tells people what she does? “Most people say something like, ‘You’re what?!’ ‘You work with animals?’ ‘Ugh, that’s disgusting!’ Some people think it’s really cool, and some people are really grossed out.” On the whole, Elisheva says, “The frum world does think it’s pretty strange. There is definitely a bias against animals — people just can’t believe I would choose to do such a job.”

And what about her family? What do they think of their mom’s job? “You’d have to ask my kids what they think. It’s pretty much all I have ever done and they’re used to it. My oldest son came with me one day when we were doing X-rays on our big male Syrian Brown Bear. He helped move the bear onto the stretcher and carry it and position it for X-rays, etc. When it was all over, I asked him how he liked it. ‘I’m covered with bear hair; it was dirty and bloody and I stink,’ he answered. ‘But did you enjoy it?’ I asked. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘It was great!’ ”

Life Outside the Zoo

Elisheva’s job at the zoo may be important to her, but as she emphasizes, it’s only a part of what she is and what she does. Every summer, for the past fifteen years, she has also been running the Zakheim Zoo program at Rabbi Ronnie Greenwald’s famous Camp Sternberg, where she employs Animal Assisted

Therapy (AAT) “as an aid to help kids who might be having a difficult time adjusting or coping with their bunk, sometimes kids from homes where something else is going on. We work together with a social worker and use ‘zoo time’ as an incentive for good behavior. They need to ‘earn’ zoo time. It’s a growing experience for my teenaged staff, who learn how to help the girls, and great for the kids. Zoo is also part of the regular activities for the younger campers. Additionally, there is a ZIT (zookeepers in training) program for the older campers who may want to work in the zoo in the future. One of the campers, and then staff, will eventually become Head Zookeeper, and she is responsible for the day-to-day running. I just oversee the zoo and also give classes, learn with some of the junior staff people, and help with administrative stuff.” Elisheva’s involvement in Camp Sternberg is obviously an important part of her life. “One of the greatest honors of my life is to be associated with the Camp Sternberg staff and Rabbi Greenwald — the camp is part of my life. It’s important to me because it can change kids’ lives for the better.”

But Elisheva does not confine herself to work concerning animals. She has taught a variety of Jewish philosophy classes at various Jerusalem seminaries, and also lectured for various outreach organizations such as the Discovery program. She even finds a way to bring Yiddishkeit into the zoo. “A colleague of ours, Beverly Burge, with whom I shared an office for many years, passed away a year and a half ago, and I spoke at the opening of the Beverly Burge Laboratory on the one year anniversary of her death. Afterwards, the zookeepers asked me to give them a class on anything I wanted. These are a group of intelligent, secular Israelis, and wonderful people — how could I say no? I decided to teach things with more spiritual content and let the Torah speak for itself. The zoo was a large part of Beverly’s life, and the Beverly Burge Memorial Lecture is a very meaningful lecture to all of us. We’re all enjoying it — so far, anyway.” If all that wasn’t enough, Elisheva is kept busy with family and home projects, including caring for her elderly father who lives in Israel, and her in-laws who come for five months each year. And what does she do if she ever finds a spare minute? “When I’m done with all that, I love to read,” she says. “Everything.”

Family First

Despite Elisheva’s obvious love for the animals she works with, it’s clear what her first love is. “My priority is my family. I work at the zoo about four hours a day, and I’ve always worked part time, to make sure that I’d be home by one o’clock, when my youngest would get home from school.

She’s now fourteen, and so I’m only now talking about possibly increasing my hours. I get the flexibility to be with my family — and that’s worth it for me. If there is any family event, I simply reschedule my work. That’s one of the wonderful things about working at the zoo — everyone there just drops work if there’s a school event, a child’s birthday party in gan, or whatever. The zoo is very family oriented.”

After work, it’s strictly family time. Elisheva’s two oldest are married with children, but she still has an eighteen- and fourteen-year-old at home. “I head home for lunch and try to put my feetup for half an hour. Then it’s whatever my girls or I might need: shopping, doctors, gym, laundry, or just visiting grandchildren.”

Learning from the Animals

We are told that Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, learned from every creature. Even more so, you might think, a vet who works with animals all day must surely learn some valuable lessons from them. “Most of all,” says Elisheva, “I’ve learned patience and self-control. When I was younger, I used to break and train horses, which are very sensitive to emotion. You can’t lose it with them as they’re 1,600 pounds of solid hoof and teeth. In fact, I always remember the opening premise of a great book, Don’t Shoot the Dog: ‘No one should be allowed to raise children until they’ve taught a chicken to dance.’ The positive reinforcement techniques that we utilized with the animals helped me a lot when my kids were little.

“You never stop learning from animals, just by watching them. I don’t think I would recommend learning war tactics by watching ants, but people have been known to do so. You can learn patience by watching big cats deal with kittens or watching a Great Blue Heron stand stock still until a fish swims in range of his beak. You learn to be present in the moment because that is what animals are — they don’t obsess about what might be or beat themselves up about they should have said or done. They do their avodas Hashem without any rationalizations, ‘what if’ or ‘what about,’ or ‘I just can’t,’ or ‘it’s too hard.’ They sing their shirim to Hashem with complete focus. If we could only do that, Mashiach wouldn’t be able not to come.”

Animals not only teach us many middos, as we know from Perek Shirah, but can also inspire us in our avodas Hashem. As a nature lover myself, being surrounded by Hashem’s Creation in all its beauty inspires me to no end, and I asked Elisheva if she felt the same. “Look, I get to see the earth’s creatures every day. I see miracles every day; I see the amazing way that Hashem is present in every tiny part of this world. For example, why do there need to be so many types of otters? I’m just blown away by the intricacies of this Creation. It’s a constant for me; I go to work and there it all is — a lake, greenery, animals, blue sky. It’s just stunning. “The whole thing inspires me; in fact, the basis of everything I do is an appreciation of Hashem’s work and a desire to hold my place in that, to be what I’m supposed to be.”

And perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned here, as Elisheva learns from the animals: each of us has our own place in Hashem’s Creation, our own song to sing to Hashem, and if we can all find what that place is, Mashiach would indeed be compelled to come.

Credit for this page goes to a Mishpacha magazine article written by Shira Yehudit Djililmand