Written By: Jane Erikson
In 2004, Bennett Blum, MD, traveled to The Hague, Netherlands, as a United Nations consultant and expert witness in the war-crimes trial of Yugoslav army general Pavle Strugar – a follower of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian president and convicted war criminal. Strugar was found guilty on multiple counts of attacks on civilians and destruction of historic and cultural property in Dubrovnik, and sentenced to eight years in jail.
With that case, Dr. Blum – a graduate of the College of Medicine Class of 1990, and a world-renowned forensic psychiatrist – and his team established new international guidelines for assessing a person’s competency to stand trial.
Dr. Blum has lent his expertise to cases involving serial killers and rapists, elder abusers and scam artists who prey on older adults. Also a specialist in geriatric psychiatry, he has testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee, advised the Research Triangle Institute, and worked with the 2005 White House Conference on Aging on financial exploitation of older Americans.
Dr. Blum is also a rabbi. And how all this came to be is an intriguing story in itself.
Much of Dr. Blum’s early years – first in the Chicago area, then in Phoenix – were spent in his parents’ extensive home library.
“I grew up in a completely secular household,” he says. “My father is a Holocaust survivor, and he responded to that by not being religiously observant. But I wanted to know more about my family members who were slaughtered.”
His mother, who grew up in the U.S., was interested in psychology; her book collection included the complete works of Sigmund Freud.
“I was the classic sweet, clumsy, overweight, bespectacled, studious child,” Dr. Blum says, “and when I was about 10, I began to read all my mother’s psychology books. What I couldn’t understand, I looked up.”
He soon developed an interest in both religion and psychology.
Dr. Blum graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the UA with a degree in psychology in 1984, spent two years in graduate school, then enrolled in the UA College of Medicine Class of 1990.
After getting his MD, he went to UCLA, where he completed his residency and two fellowships, in geriatric and forensic psychiatry. From UCLA, he went to work with the forensic consulting firm Park Dietz & Associates, based in Newport Beach, California.
In 1998, Dr. Blum was visiting the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, when he was asked to consult on a case involving a Hassidic rabbi and his male colleague who were accused of sexually molesting a passenger on a flight from Australia to the U.S. The judge in the case was expected to allow a “cultural defense” – the rabbi’s attorney would argue that if the prosecution understood the rabbi’s religious culture, it would understand the rabbi could not have done what he was accused of doing.
Dr. Blum explained to the attorney that he was not an expert on Jewish law, but his understanding was that clergy were clearly not exempt from common requirements of law, ethics, or acceptable behavior. The attorney said that Dr. Blum would be hired as a forensic psychiatrist. Part of the assignment was to study the Talmud and other rabbinic writings, to be prepared to testify on relevant behavioral standards.
The case never went to trial, but Dr. Blum’s studies “opened up a whole treasure of intellectual insight that you can’t appreciate when you’re 13 years old,” he said. That and the fact that by then he was regularly going to synagogue with his wife, whom he met as an undergraduate, then re-met in his final year of medical school, created in Dr. Blum an even deeper connection to Judaism.
Shortly after that case, the Blums moved back to Tucson, for family reasons. Two years later, their Los Angeles rabbi called. He had been asked to teach rabbinical students at a school set up for people seeking second careers. He urged Dr. Blum to enroll.
Dr. Blum had taken some classes at the University of Judaism while he and his wife were still in L.A. He also remembered how much he enjoyed studying for the “cultural defense” case.
“I was almost 40, but I thought, this is likely to be my last chance” he recalls. “And I thought, I can look back in 20 years and say I had a chance and I took it, or I can say the opportunity arose and for some reason, I never tried.” He also thought the ancient texts had information that had been forgotten, but was relevant to his forensic work. He was right.
For the next five years, Dr. Blum was flying to L.A. on Sunday, taking classes all day Sunday and Monday, and flying home to Tucson on Monday night. A sixth year was spent doing research. In 2007 he was ordained as a rabbi.
“When I was a little boy, I knew I wanted to be a rabbi – which somewhat befuddled my parents – and I knew I wanted to be a physician,” Dr. Blum says. “I never expected to do both.”
Dr. Blum typically works 60 to 80 hours a week. He continues to consult with Park Dietz & Associates, while managing his own consulting business, specializing in elder financial abuse and other issues related to “undue influence.”
Dr. Blum also runs his own clinical practice, seeing patients who pay out of pocket, or don’t pay at all. He has chosen not to contract with health insurance plans; he sees an inherent conflict between physicians and insurers.
He also teaches Judaism classes for adults, gives lectures in psychology and psychiatry – some formal, some informal – and offers seminars on forensic psychiatry topics throughout the United States and internationally. His work has been included in noteworthy texts, including Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry and the treatise Assessment of Older Adults with Diminished Capacity from the American Bar Association. Dr. Blum’s forensic methods are taught in several law schools plus training programs from the National District Attorney Association.
“It took a lot of hard work and determination, but I found a way to combine my interests and also help some of the most vulnerable people in the world. I am a lucky man.”
Dr. Blum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (520) 750-8868.