Tag Archives: Brooklyn

Jew of the Week: Baruch Blumberg

Hepatitis B and The First Cancer Vaccine

Baruch Samuel “Barry” Blumberg

Baruch Samuel Blumberg (1925-2011) was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. He studied at the Yeshiva of Flatbush, and then at Far Rockaway High School in Queens (which was also attended by fellow prominent scientist and former Jew of the Week Richard Feynman). After serving in the US Navy during World War II (attaining the rank of commanding officer), Blumberg studied math and medicine at Columbia University. He earned his MD in 1951, worked as a doctor for several years, then enrolled at Oxford University to do a PhD in biochemistry. Decades later, he would be elected Master of Oxford’s prestigious Balliol College (founded all the way back in 1263), making him the first American and the first scientist to hold the title. In the 1960s, Blumberg discovered the hepatitis B antigen, and soon showed how the virus could cause liver cancer. His team began working on a diagnostic test and a vaccine, and successfully produced both. Although Blumberg had a patent on the vaccine, he gave it away freely to save as many lives as possible. (One thirty-year follow up study showed that the vaccine reduced infection from 20% to 2% of the population, and liver cancer deaths by as much as 90%. Some have therefore called it the first cancer vaccine.) Blumberg was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work with hepatitis B, and his “discoveries concerning new mechanisms for the origin and dissemination of infectious diseases.” In 1992, he co-founded the Hepatitis B Foundation, dedicated to helping people living with the disease, and funding research for a cure. Meanwhile, Blumberg taught medicine and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Incredibly, he also directed NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, was president of the American Philosophical Society, and a distinguished scholar advising the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, as well as the Library of Congress. He had worked for the National Institutes of Health, and The Institute for Cancer Research. Blumberg remained Torah-observant throughout his life, and rarely missed his weekly Talmud class. He credited his Jewish studies as a youth for sharpening his mind and allowing him to excel in academia, and once said that he was drawn to medicine because of the ancient Talmudic statement that “if you save a single life, you save the whole world.” Fittingly, it has been said that Blumberg “prevented more cancer deaths than any person who’s ever lived.”

Words of the Week

Science gets the age of rocks, and religion the rock of ages; science studies how the heavens go, religion how we go to heaven.
– Renowned evolutionary bologist Stephen J. Gould

Jews of the Week: Recha Freier & Ruchie Freier

Two Trailblazing Women

Ruchie Freier

Rachel “Ruchie” Freier (b. 1965) was born in Brooklyn to a Hasidic Jewish family. In high school, she took a course in stenography and went on to work as a legal secretary. She soon became a paralegal, and was her family’s breadwinner, supporting her husband’s full-time religious studies. At 30, she realized she was working under lawyers that were younger and less knowledgeable than she was, and made the decision to go to law school herself. Juggling school, work, and raising six kids, it took Freier ten years to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science and a law degree. She passed the bar in 2006, becoming America’s first Hasidic female lawyer. Meanwhile, Freier was heavily involved in community work, and spent time as an advocate for New York’s oft-misunderstood Hasidic Jews. In 2005, she set up a charity called Chasdei Devorah to support poor Jewish families, and in 2008 co-founded B’Derech to help troubled teens. In 2016, she was elected Civil Court Judge after a tough race. That made her the world’s first female Hasidic judge. Freier also serves on New York’s Criminal Court. Amazingly, she is a licensed paramedic, too, and works with Ezras Nashim, an all-female volunteer ambulance service (a branch of the more famous, all-male Hatzalah). The New York Times has appropriately called her a “Hasidic superwoman”. Freier has won multiple awards, and was recently ranked by the Jerusalem Post among the 50 Most Influential Jews in the World.

Recha Freier

Ruchie Freier is not to be confused with Recha Freier (1892-1984), also born to a devoutly Orthodox family, in Germany. Recha Freier experienced tremendous anti-Semitism in her youth, and this inspired her to become a Zionist. Her husband was a rabbi in Berlin, while she taught in a high school and spent the rest of her time writing. In 1932, Freier was asked to help five young men who could not get jobs because they were Jewish. Freier had the idea to send the boys to the Holy Land instead to learn farming. She raised the necessary funds and organized their voyage and settlement. Thus was born what would become the Youth Aliyah. The organization would go on to save 7000 young Jews from Nazi Germany and settle them in Israel. Freier coordinated with (former Jew of the WeekHenrietta Szold to make sure the teens were taken care of in their new home. Freier herself escaped Germany in 1940 by crossing the border to Yugoslavia. There, she saved 150 Jewish orphans. All made it safely to Israel in 1941. Two years later, Freier established the Agricultural Training Center to educate impoverished children. She was also an avid musician and pianist, and in 1958 founded the Israel Composer’s Fund. In addition to composing a number of original musical pieces, Freier wrote works of poetry and Jewish folklore. In 1981, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her contributions, the State’s highest honour.

Words of the Week

If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.
– Bruce Lee