Growing up in the Viznitz community in Montreal, Etty Sims had little exposure to life outside of her close-knit Hassidic sect.
In this world, the highest career aspiration for girls was to teach preschool. So even when she became captivated by the fast-paced rhythm of hospitals and the life-saving work of medical clinicians as a teenager, Sims simply didn’t allow herself to dream of becoming a doctor.
“Where I grew up, anything outside that community wasn’t even a discussion,” explained Sims, 29, who graduated from Cooper Medical School of Rowan University last month as part of the Camden-based school’s 43-member inaugural class. “I can’t even say college was discouraged. It just wasn’t a possibility.” With a few months in between medical school and the start of what is sure to be a hectic yearlong internship at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School in Newark, Sims had time to reflect on how the impossible became achievable.
There was never a point when she broke off with her community. In fact, the mother of two— with another on the way in August—stresses that she grew up in a loving, supportive home and environment. And even as she no longer considers herself Hassidic, she is a religious Jew.
“I don’t like to put myself in a box,” observed Sims, who will continue after her internship in general anesthesiology at Jefferson University. “I’m Jewish in my own way.”
Sims grew up on stories of medical emergencies from her parents, both volunteers with Hatzalah, the emergency medical service organization that operates in Hassidic communities worldwide.
Soon after, a pivotal volunteer job came her way. An exhausted Israeli couple, staying in Montreal after the birth of their medically frail child, sought her out as a volunteer to stay with their infant overnight in the hospital. Sims jumped at the chance, and then worked out arrangements to stay with the baby overnight on a weekly basis.
By this point, Sims had started contemplating a career outside of the preschool realm. Still, becoming a doctor was unthinkable; after all, there was no such thing as a Hassidic woman doctor. She did know, however, of a woman physical therapist. So after graduating at age 16 with an associate’s degree in early childhood education, she took a job at an early intervention center, working to reinforce children’s therapies.
While her parents were supportive of her desire to study physical therapy, they stressed that she would need to marry before attending a co-ed college. That opportunity came when she met her future husband Jacob, a yeshiva student from Brooklyn.
Settling in Lakewood, NJ, the young couple found full-time jobs while researching her college options. But in the time between planning and enrolling at Ocean County College, Sims became pregnant with her daughter Lanna, delaying her start date until the January semester. Lanna was born in November and school started in January.
“I thought I’d be the dumbest person there,” she said. “I attended a Hassidic girls school and all these other people were coming from public and private schools.”
But not only were her grades stellar and the classes stimulating, her professors were beyond helpful.
Once she was in the groove of balancing school, work and motherhood, it was her father who pushed her to apply to medical school. She found Cooper through research, excited both by the idea of staying in New Jersey and the school’s mission to help an underserved community.
Still, the young woman who had never even heard of the MCAT was not confident that any medical school would take a chance on her. As it turned out, Cooper was open to outside-the-box candidates.
Cindi Hasit, a retired Rowan administrator, said Sims did not have any special needs beyond the bare minimal religious adjustments.
“She just seems to be extremely resilient and didn’t ask for a lot,” recalled Hasit. “The first freshman test, for example, was scheduled three days after Rosh Hashanah. So she couldn’t study Monday or Tuesday that week but the test was on Friday. She didn’t ask for anything special and managed to somehow study, pass that test, and she just kept going from there.”
Graduation last month was an emotional ceremony, with her parents, several siblings and their families coming down from Montreal to witness the event. Among her proudest accomplishments, she said, was being able to serve as a role model for her younger sister Basia, 14, and hopefully for other religious girls.