In an era when women had few opportunities to pursue in higher education, Rose Stavisker’s place in Columbia University’s dental school class of 1905 was a distinguished achievement. Along with six others, she was about to be among the first women to graduate from a professional dentistry school in New York State. And yet she was prepared to sacrifice that achievement—or certainly defer it—if it forced her to violate her religious beliefs.
In 1905, final examinations at Columbia University’s School of Dental and Oral Surgery were scheduled for a Saturday. That presented a serious problem for Rose Stavisker. As an Orthodox Jew, she could not write the examination on the Sabbath. She asked the school administration if she could take the examination on another date, but the school refused. Her only recourse was to wait another year until the final examinations of 1906, hoping that they would not again fall on a Saturday.
But that was not to be the end of the story.
Rose Stavisker was born in Poland in 1883 to Moses Stavisky and Hannah Greenberg. Her family immigrated to New York in 1887 and lived on Rivington Street in the heart of the Lower East Side. The Orthodox home Rose grew up in influenced her profoundly. Praying three times daily—a religious obligation mandated for men, not women—was a practice she embraced. Her discipline and seriousness of purpose contributed to academic excellence and to the drive that led her to choose to go to dental school.
It must have been deeply disappointing to contemplate the prospect of deferring her dream for another year. As an observant Jew, however, Rose Stavisker accepted Columbia’s response.
Then, a remarkable event occurred at Columbia. Before the Sabbath on which the examination was scheduled, a consensus began to emerge among Rose Stavisker’s student cohort about the school’s insensitivity. Instigated not by her but by her classmates, the class of fifty-five students unanimously declared that they would refuse to take the examination unless it was given on a day other than Saturday. Columbia quietly reversed itself, and the examination was rescheduled.
Rose Stavisker passed, graduating proudly in the class of 1905.
She practiced dentistry for several years in the family apartment on Rivington Street, and then she married and raised three children. When she returned to her profession, she chose to work at a free dental clinic. In addition, Dr. Stavisker aided the growing number of refugees arriving in New York in the late 1930s from Nazi-threatened Europe, by taking them in and providing Sabbath meals and other assistance.
Rose Stavisker Fischman, a Jewish woman of high principle and far ahead of her time, died suddenly in October 1941. Her children, inspired by her life of devotion, would go on to make their own distinguished contributions to American Jewish life.