Dead bodies in a sealed lab? Keeping things kosher at one local medical school

JWeekly, Thursday, November 7, 2013 
by Dan Pine, J. Staff

Like all medical schools, the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Touro University California has a gross anatomy lab. You know, cadavers, formaldehyde and dissecting tools.

But Touro’s lab has something no other West Coast lab can claim: a kosher seal of approval.

As a Jewish-sponsored institution, Touro follows Jewish law, one rule of which forbids Kohanim (Jews descended from priests) from coming into contact with the dead, even those in a lab meant for dissection by professors and medical students.

So TUC built a hermetically sealed gross anatomy lab, certified kosher.

Located on Mare Island near Vallejo, the campus is one of 20 Touro sites around the country. Founded in 1997, it is the only Jewish-owned university in Northern California, offering degrees in osteopathic medicine, pharmacology, physician assistant and public health.

Students who complete the osteopathic medicine program get a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree, or a D.O. which makes them doctors every bit as much as an M.D. Their work is a bit different, however, focusing on the interrelationship of nerves, muscles, bones and organs and often using hands-on treatment.

As part of its mission, Touro upholds Jewish values and many aspects of religious observance. That means a kosher kitchen, Shabbat meals and mezuzahs on the doors, including those of the anatomy lab. All this, even though the vast majority of Touro’s 260 medical students are not Jewish.

“It’s a beautiful way to teach who we are to a really multicultural environment,” says Bruce Silverman, for 15 years the director of the anatomy lab.

To make the lab kosher, an antechamber was built into the entrance. When the outer antechamber door opens, an inner door automatically locks. When the inner door unlocks, the outer door locks.

Why the fuss?

“A Kohen cannot come into a room where there is a dead body or he would become ritually impure,” Silverman explains. “With the lock system we essentially create the legal fiction that the lab itself is a separate building.  The antechamber acts as the barrier.”

Silverman recalls a couple of Jewish students who happened to be Kohanim. One was not observant and felt no obligation to adhere to religious proscriptions. The other received permission from his rabbi to come into the lab to observe only.

“He’s a doctor now,” Silverman notes of the latter, “an anesthesiologist who got a top job in the country. [The restriction] didn’t hinder his education.”

The talmudic logic behind the requirement is that tummah, or impurity, resides in the dead, something Kohanim must avoid. Tummah has been compared to “cooties.”

“Tummah is irrational,” says Elchonon Tenenbaum, the Touro staff rabbi, and also the rabbi and co-director of Chabad of Napa Valley. “It’s a certain spiritual sense of purity and impurity brought on with particular things, from cadavers all the way to impure animals like frogs and creepy-crawlies.”

Things got a little creepy-crawly for Silverman when he first came aboard at Touro in the late 1990s. A biologist by training, the New Jersey native had previously worked as a dolphin researcher at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo.

Silverman was recruited to join the upstart medical school, even though he had never worked in an anatomy lab or seen a dead body. Just before the school officially opened, he was responsible for moving the cadavers — temporarily stored on the school’s racquetball courts — up to the second floor lab.

“There was no power on,” he remembers. “It was dark. When we took the first body out, the tables didn’t fit through the doors or the elevators. We wound up carrying 30 tables up the stairs.”

All these years later, he oversees a smooth-running lab, helping students understand the workings of the human body. He also helps them understand the Jewish traditions that underpin Touro University.

He recalls that his boss, who is not Jewish, once said lightheartedly that the requirements necessary to make Touro a kosher place make Judaism “a religion of intentional inconvenience.”

Notes Silverman: “He was right. It sums up who we are nicely.”

Far from finding his job ghoulish, Silverman says working in the lab has given him enhanced appreciation for the wonders of the human body.

That was never clearer to him than during the first Touro graduation ceremony in 2001. Silverman had been asked to recite a benediction, and for that he chanted the ancient Asher Yatzar blessing, in which one thanks God for the many openings and hollows within the body.

Says Silverman: “I realized the profoundness of that prayer when I started working here and started to see inside a human being, and how complex we are.”

Bruce Silverman in the gross anatomy lab at Touro University California on Mare Island photo/courtesy Touro University California
Bruce Silverman in the gross anatomy lab at Touro University California on Mare Island photo/courtesy Touro University California