Jewish learning Doing Our Part to Create a Healthier and More Just Society
My name is Lev Kotler-Berkowitz and I have a twin brother named Sivan. We are 16 years old, and we are rising juniors at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA. Throughout the pandemic we were both eager to assist with a COVID-19 related cause, but our modified school schedules and other factors did not allow us to dedicate significant time to the cause. However, now that school is out for summer vacation, we are excited to be participating in grassroots efforts to help our city recover from COVID.
Sivan and I feel that it is crucial to work for increased vaccination rates, particularly with more transmissible and potentially more deadly variants emerging across the country and throughout the world. We believe everyone (barring a medical justification) should get vaccinated to protect themselves and others against COVID-19. However, we understand that there is a lot of misinformation circulating on social media and elsewhere, so we want to help combat these negative forces by educating people about the facts of the virus and the vaccine.
Therefore, in May we applied and were accepted to the Hebrew College cohort of the Faith in the Vaccine Student Ambassador Program, which is sponsored nationally by the Interfaith Youth Core and runs from June to December. We are supported in our learning and action by We Got Us and other outstanding local organizations. Training sessions and meetings began soon after our acceptance.
The Student Ambassador program offers us opportunities to better educate ourselves and share this knowledge with others in our community. A key point that has been repeatedly stressed by our mentors is that our mission is to provide the people we encounter with reliable, evidence-based information, and not try to convince them to get vaccinated. Rather, we aim to help people make their own informed decisions. Through our training, we have also learned to listen carefully to people who are vaccine hesitant, knowing that individuals from different communities often have very different experiences with vaccines and with medical care more broadly, including painful experiences of medical racism.
In addition to our vaccine-specific work, we have been collaborating with Rabbi Or Rose, Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership at Hebrew College, to create COVID-19 care packages for Rosie’s Place, a women’s shelter and community center in Boston. Sivan and I designed a digital flyer to publicize the packages and request donations, and we coordinated donation drop-off locations and other details with Hebrew College. The donation drive runs from June 15 to August 1st, at which point we will assemble the packages. Given the increased needs so many people are experiencing due to COVID, working to help the clientele at Rosie’s Place feels like a natural extension of our efforts.
As Jewish teenagers, we were inspired to join the Ambassador program by values that are essential to our religious identities. For example, the Talmud teaches that “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved a whole world” (Sanhedrin 37a), and we take that message to heart when engaging in our work. A related value is pikuah nefesh, “watching over a soul,” which requires one to go to great lengths to protect and sustain life. In fact, pikuah nefesh overrides the vast majority of other rules and practices in Judaism.
Sivan and I believe that everyone should do what they can to help vaccination efforts. While COVID-19 cases have been declining significantly in Greater Boston, there are still communities in which vaccination rates are quite low. Further, with the Delta variant spreading rapidly in various parts of the country we need to enhance our vaccination efforts before more people get sick and die. As the medical experts and community organizers have stated repeatedly to us, this requires a thoughtful and strategic “ground game.” This means getting out into local communities, particularly in neighborhoods where vaccination rates are low, and working with other youth and adults—volunteers and professionals—to communicate the urgency of our cause in respectful ways.
We are grateful to Hebrew College and the Interfaith Youth Core for providing us with the opportunity to play a constructive role in helping our city heal from COVID-19. We feel that our participation in the Ambassador program is helping us to become more skilled and reflective activists. It is our intention to continue this journey well beyond the immediate crisis brought on by the pandemic. We want to do our part in creating a healthier and more just society for all.
(Pictured above l-r: Lev and Sivan) To learn more about Hebrew College’s Faith in Vaccination Program, visit hebrewcollege.edu/faithinvaccine