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Published Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Doctor’s Unexpected Mitzvah

By Michelle Harris

Rebecca Karp Leaf helped a man with terminal cancer fulfill a final mitzvah in his quest to convert to Judaism

As part of the oncology team at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Rebecca Karp Leaf, a medical resident working toward her certification in oncology/hematology, has been training to help people who need medical care. Often, there is not much that can be done for the terminally ill people she sees each morning during medical rounds; visiting them is often a matter of trying to make them more comfortable, reducing pain, monitoring nutrition and talking to them about their concerns.

But earlier in her training, when Karp Leaf’s attending physician asked one patient, Tom, whether there was anything else the team could do for him, Tom had a simple, but life-changing, request: could someone help him complete the final step of his conversion to Judaism in order to be buried in a Jewish cemetery with his wife?

“Are any of you Jewish?” Tom asked first, as if on impulse. Rebecca and her team looked at one another in slight surprise, as she raised her hand. She came from a fairly religious Jewish family, attended Solomon Schechter Day School as a child, and married a “nice Jewish guy” – also a doctor – she met on JDate. “I am well along in the conversion process,” Tom said, “but one of the last things I need to do is get circumcised before I can actually convert.”

Karp Leaf learned that Tom had already been circumcised as an infant, so the ritual he needed to have performed was not an actual circumcision, but a “brit hatafat dam,” in which a drop of blood is drawn from what remains of the foreskin. The procedure is quick and fairly painless, but can only be conducted by a rabbi, a Jewish physician or the patient himself.

Never one to shy away from a chance to help someone, Karp Leaf spoke to Tom’s doctors to determine if he was medically able to withstand the quick procedure, as well as with the hospital rabbi for further guidance. Although the rabbi had never performed such a procedure herself, she wanted to be present for the ceremony. They met at Tom’s bedside the following day, awash in emotion but gratified at the thought of helping this dying man fulfill one of his last wishes.

Upon Tom’s “go,” Dr. Karp Leaf performed the required needle prick and the Rabbi recited a short prayer. Then the three sang a song together, Lechi Lach: “Go forth to a land that I will show you, to a place you do not know. Go forth on your journey and I will bless you.” The threesome – previously strangers, brought together on that day to perform an act of God – were linked in a moment of intense connection and tears formed in their eyes.

“Thanks,” said Tom. “This is the most important thing you could have done for me.” Karp Leaf hugged him, an ever-so-slightly changed person – and physician.

As she reflected on the events of her day later on, she thought about what Tom had said. It had been easy for her to feel helpless tending to terminal patients, but on that day with that patient, she knew she had made a difference. Tom would be buried as a Jewish man with his Jewish wife in a Jewish cemetery – and at that point, that was all that mattered. Rebecca Karp Leaf helped a man with terminal cancer fulfill a final mitzvah in his quest to convert to Judaism.

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