Doctors Continue to Reign


Despite California’s kooky reputation, alternative health is slower to catch on in the frum community compared to the rest of SoCal

Rachel Wizenfeld

The alternative health movement has yet to catch on in a significant way to the mainstream frum community here.

Despite the West Coast’s kooky reputation, Orthodox Jews in LA on the whole seem to prefer traditional, Western medicine, based on reports from natural health practitioners who say attracting clients in the frum community can be quite difficult.

While a growing group of younger, independent-minded Jews are giving alternative medicine a try, their numbers remain small and relatively close-knit.

Whether it’s homeopathy, acupuncture, spinal manipulation or herbs, alternative medicine refers to treatments or medical systems that are more natural, holistic in nature and more reliant on the body’s natural ability to heal itself, as opposed to needing outside interventions such as medication or invasive procedures.

Proponents say it heals the body without causing unneeded side effects or damage. But opponents caution that alternative medicine can actually be harmful to health, discouraging people from using scientifically-proven treatments while encouraging the use of untested, unreliable methods.

It’s a growing movement nationwide. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults use health care approaches outside of mainstream Western medicine for specific conditions or overall wellbeing, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH). And 17.7 percent of adults used a natural, non-vitamin product to enhance their health in the past year, according to a 2007 NIH study.

But in hospital-heavy LA, while Orthodox Jews may be happy to try yoga or even chiropractic, overall the community here is wary to stray from Western medicine.

Dr. Joshua Leibow, ND, is a naturopath who practices locally and in Santa Monica. When he moved to LA to start a practice a little over a year ago, he says he was excited to build a niche in the frum community. But he’s found that the community here isn’t looking for his services. Partly because he doesn’t take insurance and so seeing him becomes a significant expense compared with a traditional doctor, but he thinks it’s also due to a discomfort with alternative medicine.

“I think it’s partly the Jewish doctor syndrome,” he says, as well as it being a matter of priorities. “Raising a Jewish family is very expensive, and if people are paying for insurance and going to Kaiser for their basic medical needs, they don’t have an interest in going above and beyond.

As a naturopath specializing in homeopathy, Dr. Leibow attended a five-year graduate program akin to a traditional medical school, and is licensed to diagnose conditions and order lab tests and imaging. But he was also trained in holistic modalities such as energy treatments, craniosacral therapy, homeopathy, chiropractic techniques and more.

He says his approach is particularly useful in treating chronic conditions such as digestive issues and emotional issues like anxiety, depression, and ADD, in which people have been recommended medication but would like to get off, or it isn’t working for them.

But while chiropractic and acupuncture are more tested and accepted modalities, and – more importantly – covered by insurance, naturopaths are still trying to get situated in LA.
An early mentor warned Leibow: “Don’t work with the Jews – they don’t want to pay,” and indeed Leibow now has clients exclusively outside of the Orthodox Jewish community, not by choice but by necessity.
One longtime resident of Hancock Park admits that this is the prevalent attitude here. While this woman herself is drawn towards holistic medicine and nutrition, she says she’ll have friends with chronic problems, like back aches, who just keep taking medication after medication, and whose doctors have run out of suggestions, but still won’t consider an alternative.
Yosef Haridim, a homeopath for 21 years who works out of a storefront on Pico Boulevard, says he’s found that people who are drawn to alternative medicine are more spiritually-minded in general, as opposed to those who are more academic.
But while he originally saw more clients from the Persian and Chabad communities, now he sees a broader cross-section of the community, people who have “the extra sense that this will help them,” in contrast to those who think medicine will take care of all their ills.
Haridim treats a lot of chronic illnesses, such as arthritis, Crohn’s disease, infertility, ear infections in children and the like.
He also finds that while people are reluctant to try alternative medicine for themselves, they’re often drawn to explore new treatments if their children need help for recurring conditions, like ear infections.
Tania Jedian, a certified homeopath and life coach who practices locally, estimates that 65% of her clients come for help with their children, whether they have viruses where medications and antibiotics aren’t effective, or parents think their children were damaged by vaccines. She also offers “vaccine alternatives,” in which parents can boost their children’s immune systems naturally.
A charged issue across the spectrum, Jedian finds that many in the Chabad community are reluctant to vaccinate, despite scientific evidence that it prevents disease, due to concerns that vaccination can exacerbate or cause chronic conditions such as digestive issues, ADD or other issues.
But while the Chabad community may be more open to alternative health, she’s found the rest of the community still prefers having doctors and nurses treat their medical conditions. They’ll come to her for essential oil use as opposed to homeopathy, which they are more skeptical of, she says.
Brenda Goldstein, a Valley Village resident who was trained in homeopathy by Tania Jedian, says that when she worked at Bais Tzivia, the elementary school in Hancock Park also known as “the Cheder,” she found that quite a few chassidish families there regularly went to a homeopath. The same is true in New York, where Dr. Leibow says he heard of a few chassidish homeopaths who treat their communities. “Homeopathy is a cheap and affordable medicine, so in communities that are more poverty level and struggling, it’s much more prevalent.”
Jedian has taught homeopathy to many families here who are interested in alternative health, and is the resident homeopath at Berlin Wellness Group, run by husband and wife team Dr. Elliot and Dr. Alyssa Berlin. The group operates four SoCal locations which offer pregnancy-specific chiropractic, massage, acupuncture, individual and couples counseling, yoga, craniosacral therapy and lactation support.
Their clientele is 15-20% Jewish, and while both Berlins agree that California and LA lend themselves to more of an open, holistic environment, they say the frum community here is lagging behind in adopting more integrative approaches to medicine.
What often draws women to the Berlin Wellness Group is that many medications and procedures are off-limits during pregnancy. So if clients want treatment for back pain or colds, during pregnancy they are more open to trying natural treatments.
“People will say they don’t believe this stuff, but I need to feel better before I can take my medicine again,” says Dr. Elliot Berlin, who is also the prenatal chiropractor on staff.
Others come after having a birth experience that traumatized them, such as a c-section which felt unnecessary, a phenomenon that Berlin believes happens more frequently in the religious community due to women having babies much earlier and with less time to research their options.
“It’s devastating to me when a 19-year-old gets married, gets pregnant, and places all her trust in her doctor, and that’s how she starts her reproductive career,” he says. “These women don’t realize the consequences. There’s a 35% c-section rate; most of them are unnecessary, some are very necessary.”
Having a c-section may introduce a limit to the number of children a woman can have, as well as increase the risk for complications or infection.
“It’s rare that I see frum women who have really done their homework on their options” Berlin says. While he encounters a handful of people trying homebirth or using a midwife, they often keep it quiet due to stigma and not wanting to raise eyebrows. “The frum community here is very rooted in the medical community and very trusting of it,” he says.
At the same time, he does see a small trend in the direction towards a natural, holistic lifestyle, including interest in probiotics, concerns about different toxins and the benefits of certain foods such as organic.
This undercurrent of interest is something that Shaina Kamman, a local health and nutrition coach, has observed as well, calling it a grassroots movement.
“My personal opinion is that as the younger and BT (baal teshuva) generations begin to feel more empowered, they realize that maybe we could learn halacha and beautiful things about how to run a Jewish home from rabbis and classes, but for health they should trust themselves…I see a lot of creative young Jewish people having a lot more confidence in what they’re doing.”
Orthodox women will approach Kamman for nutrition questions, such as which oil is healthiest to cook with considering their different smoke points, but it’s more rare that they’ll sign on to become clients and make drastic changes in their lifestyle. “Their plates are already full,” Kamman says.
Others are more willing to take significant action. “There was a woman who came to me that wasn’t getting her period naturally for years and was being medicated; that’s what her OB could do for her. She started to work with me and after six weeks she got her period naturally. The food you eat and the way you live has a profound effect, but it’s the people that are real doers and pushing the envelope that are looking more for that.”
Some alternative approaches have roots in Easter traditions, which may elicit halachic concerns of avodah zara or general discomfort. That’s why one woman who practices Reiki, a Japanese hands-on technique to promote pain and stress reduction, was advised by a rabbi to change the name so people would be more likely to seek her services.
Yulia Edelshtain, a yoga teacher and doula who works primarily with the frum community here, says that when she first moved to the neighborhood and told members at her shul that she was a yoga teacher, they looked at her with shock. Across the street was a Kundalini yoga studio, a type of yoga where people wear turbans and are quite spiritual.
“I told them my yoga is scientific. It’s everything before the spiritual,” Edelshtain, popularly known as Coach Yulia, says. Yoga has become quite accepted in the religious community, partly she believes because she and other yoga instructors have been successful in positioning it as a blend of relaxation and exercise – something to counterbalance the nonstop lives of religious women.
“I tell women, if we don’t take care of ourselves, how are we going to take care of our families?”
In addition, she sees yoga as a form of preventative maintenance, keeping people healthy before they get sick, something she sees the Orthodox community as being quite interested in.
But until that interest spills over into things like acupuncture and holistic health treatments, alternative medicine, in the frum community at least, seems relegated to the sidelines.