I lost a childhood friend to Covid.
The Jewish world lost a lifetime educator.
The world lost a very special soul.
I was fourteen years old, a sophomore at Yeshiva University’s Manhattan Talmudical Academy, when on the first day of school I found myself in the back of Mr. Grossberg’s math class next to a teenage boy from Laurelton, Queens. Sitting in the back of that class the two of us got to know each other and what would become a lifelong friendship began to flourish. Jewish music was becoming very popular at that time. Groups like the Rabbis Sons were bringing a new modern sound to biblical verses. The two of us decided that we would join the scene and formed a band. Avi played the keyboard, Asher the guitar, Ira the drums and I sang. For months we practiced on our days off from school. Later that year we played on a float in the Salute to Israel Day parade and in the MTA gym on Israel Independance Day. Eventually we even got a Bar Mitzvah gig. The other band members were all far more talented than I, and a year or so later I left the band. But Avi and I remained friends. For several years we also spent summers together at Camp Massad Bet. When we were counselors, we took our days off together. Once we decided to try and hitchhike all the way from Dingman’s Ferry, Pa to Monticello, NY. It was a crazy thing to do even then. Amazingly, we made it there and back safe and sound and for years we would reminisce about our experiences that day and the final hitch in the backseat of a Gremlin.
After high school I continued on at Yeshiva University while Avi attended The Jewish Theological Seminary/ Columbia University joint program. We lost contact for a few years as we each went our separate ways until we were reunited as young marrieds when we both happened to move to Silver Spring; I to attend law school and Avi to work at the Board of Jewish Education. Instantly, our friendship renewed. And while in the years to come we each followed down somewhat different paths we remained true friends for over fifty years.
But of course, how could it have been any other way? Avi was everyone’s genuine friend. His heart was larger than life. His smile filled way more than every room in which he was present. Professionally, he was non-judgmental, always respectful, a bridge builder across the diverse spectrum of the Jewish Community never allowing his personal beliefs or opinions to influence his approach to others or to dismiss another’s views. While consensus is often difficult to achieve in the Jewish world, there was always consensus about Avi. Everyone, literally everyone, who crossed paths with Avi respected him and admired him.
Avi West was a very special person. A dedicated husband, father, and Saba. He enriched the lives of his students, his colleagues, his community, and his friends. He enriched my life for over fifty years. I will miss him dearly.
Today I lost a cherished childhood friend.
May his memory be a blessing.
Opinion: The delta variant is bringing back the dark clouds of last year
THE DELTA variant is raining on our parade. Just when many people want to celebrate a return to normalcy, confident of vaccine protection, the delta variant is bringing back the dark clouds of last year. In the United States, face masks and social distancing are being recommended anew, while around the world, lockdowns and travel bans are back in the fight against this highly-transmissible variant, a particular threat to the unvaccinated and a reminder that covid-19 will indeed be a long haul.
The good news is that vaccines, the most important measure to fight the virus, are holding the line for those who have received them. Research so far suggests delta is between 40 and 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which was 50 percent more transmissible than the original virus. Those without vaccines are in serious jeopardy. Hospital admissions for covid-19 around the country are largely made up of the unvaccinated. “This is a pandemic of unvaccinated people,” Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said last week.
Yet even those who have received a full vaccine dose are more and more often hearing advice to resume taking precautions. On Monday, Los Angeles County recommended that everyone wear masks in public indoor spaces, even though more than 54 percent of California’s population over age 12 is fully vaccinated. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) made a similar suggestion; 53.7 percent of the state’s population over 12 has been fully inoculated. “I would say from my own perspective, if you’re going into a heavily crowded area, you don’t know if somebody is not vaccinated and so you should just bring your mask with you and keep safe,” Mr. Pritzker said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has previously said that the fully vaccinated can do without masks, but on Friday, the World Health Organization urged fully vaccinated people to continue to wear masks, social distance and practice other mitigations. These shifts back to earlier measures ought not provoke fury and resistance. As the virus changes, so will measures to fight it.
Delta, now about 20 percent of the cases in the United States, may become predominant in a matter of weeks and has spread swiftly elsewhere. In the face of a surge of delta cases, doubling every few days, Israel reinstated its mask mandate 10 days after lifting it. Major cities in Australia, including Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne, are under lockdown because of delta. Cases are skyrocketing in Russia again, which has a low vaccination uptake. In Africa, a third wave is rapidly gaining steam, with cases rising for five consecutive weeks, and delta has been detected in 14 countries.
What delta means is that the battle against the coronavirus will be ongoing for some time, possibly years. We have to be flexible and determined, using all the tools available. Most obviously, when we have a tool that works and a vaccine, why would we not take full advantage?
The month of May represents a milestone in our law firm’s journey through the pandemic. By the end of the month we will have returned full strength to our offices with no one working remotely. This has been made possible solely due to the availability of vaccines. As we transition back to a more “normal” work environment, we remain mindful that the pandemic is still a reality. Thus, we will continue to faithfully abide by all CDC guidelines to ensure a safe work place.
Our return to a larger degree of normalcy is coinciding with our annual evaluation process. As a part of that process we decided to solicit the thoughts and opinions of everyone on two issues: remote work and recreating our firm’s “together” culture. While we are still in the midst of this process and have drawn no conclusions as of yet, the responses to date have been enlightening. On the subject of remote work, to date, those responding have indicated a strong preference for “in office” work, leaving the remote option for “emergencies” or unavoidable situations. Further, all respondents to date agree that any remote work policy must have a defined structure and limits. On the topic of how best to rejuvenate our esprit de cours, the responses have been somewhat mixed with some encouraging initiation of “socially distant” lunches and similar opportunities and others desiring a slower timetable for the return of our firm luncheons and events.
To help us formulate our plans we have reached out to CEOs and consultants to seek their input and thoughts. While size, number of employees, physical plant, location, and other factors differ from business to business and result in different approaches, plans, and timetables – one thing is abundantly clear – everyone is beginning to focus on what “returning” will mean to their business and employees.
Of all the challenges we faced during the year plus of the pandemic, the “how to return to normal” challenges are most welcome.
As we begin to see the light at the end of this tunnel we call a pandemic, we should never lose sight of the important lessons to be learned from our experience over the last year. Sometimes a child, even more than an adult, can see through to the essence.
A year ago you and I were studying for your bar mitzvah. And then, suddenly and without warning, the pandemic struck and changed everything. Understandably, you were extremely disappointed. We all were. After all you had worked so hard for a year studying and preparing. And we were all looking forward to celebrating with you. But G-d had a different plan for you and thousands of other bar mitzvah boys around the world.
A family Zoom event substituted for your bar mitzvah weekend and and later in the summer you celebrated with your friends at a socially distanced party. I know it was not exactly the bar mitzvah you had dreamed of, but you made us all very proud watching you accept the will of the Almighty.
Hillel, you have grown and matured this year. You are a spectacular young man and I am so proud to be your grandfather. Hillel, this blog post is for you.
Vaccines are a pandemic game changer for sure. Just ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to get one. They are allow a gradual return to pre-pandemic activity. For example, I have hugged my grandchildren and shared meals with them, unmasked, in accordance with the latest CDC guidelines. I have recently begun to see individuals whom I have not seen literally for a year because they have been sequestered at home during the pandemic – until now – that they have been vaccinated. While this Passover we still will not have our entire family gather together for the seder, we will not be alone (see my blog post from last year). We will celebrate together with my ninety year old in laws who have also vaccinated. And just last night I received a notice from my synagogue that a number of the Covid imposed practices and restrictions are being lifted beacause so many of the at risk members have been vaccinated.
Clearly we are on the way out of this pandemic.
And yet all the experts are warning us – vaccinated and not yet vaccinated – to proceed with caution. Infection rates are still significant. Mutations are in a race against vaccinations. People are still dying of Covid-19.
So while I am enjoying my “new freedom”, I remain cognizant of my obligation to act responsibly; to ensure that my actions do not cause others to get sick. I am returning happily to a greater degree of “normalcy” BUT doing so slowly but surely.
For my entire professional career I have travelled extensively. My practice has taken me across the United States, Europe and even to the Amazon. I have tons of frequent flyer points on many airlines. On United alone I have flown close to 1 million miles. That is until the second week in March 2020 when the Corona virus pandemic brought my travel to a screeching halt. From March 8, 2020 until a week ago I did not set foot in an airport nor board a plane.
I have been in no rush to resume flying. ‘Why take the risk?’ has been my feeling all during the pandemic. And then my granddaughter in St. Louis became engaged and I found myself driving to BWI Airport to go to St Louis for her engagement party. Had both my wife and I not been vaccinated we would in all likelihood have not gone, but since we are vaccinated we determined it was a controlled risk and decided to go.
What I encountered was definitely not what I had expected.
I should have realized my expectations were off when, at 8 am on a Sunday morning, I had difficulty finding a parking space at the airport. The lines at the TSA stations should have been another indicator. But it was not until I passed trough security and into the terminal proper that it became clear to me that, but for masks, the airport in all other respects was just had been the day I left it a year ago: packed with people, one on tp of the other, rushing to their departure gates or to retrieve their luggage at baggage claim.
Our Southwest flights were full. In fact, our return flight did not have a single empty seat. Social distancing was non-existent in the terminal and impossible on the plane. The terminals were as busy as ever. Except for the masked faces you would never know that we are in the midst of a pandemic.
If you travel by air…be prepared.
Lucky. I am one of the lucky ones.
I have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. By sheer luck I was able to navigate the still broken vaccine appointment “system” (if you can call it a system) and obtain an appointment for a vaccine. Two shots later I am one of the fortunate. And while there is still a way to go, a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I am on the way back to “normal”. Of course, I must continue to be cautious, follow CDC guidelines, mask, and social distance, but I do feel safer.
One need only follow the news and data emerging from Israel which is leading the world in vaccination of its citizens, to recognize the critical importance of vaccination as the key to ending this pandemic once and for all. With 4 million of its citizens vaccinated, the overwhelming data points to the 95% plus efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The robust vaccination program there is now allowing that country to open up for the vaccinated in a way unheard of, indeed impossible, over the last year. Businesses, malls, restaurants, cultural and sports venues are now opening up for the vaccinated. The Israeli Government has issued a digital green pass which enables the fully vaccinated to enter these venues, while the non-vaccinated may not.
Unfortunately, in the US we are a long way from the day when our society will reopen in such a wide and safe manner. Vaccine distribution remains problematic and insufficient. Vaccine appointment systems and web sites are deficient and difficult for many – especially the most vulnerable – to navigate. Robust public education and awareness campaigns which are critically needed to educate the public on the safety, effectiveness, and importance of vaccinating are woefully lacking. And the vacuum is being filled by much vaccine “fake news”.
Mass vaccination is our only pathway out of this pandemic. Come on America get your act together and let’s end this pandemic!
Last Monday I was among the lucky ones – I received my first vaccine shot. It was not an easy task to find a location dispensing the vaccine shots and to get an appointment. I was lucky.
Though the United States governments (federal, state and local) have had ten months to prepare for the vaccination of the public and while science miraculously performed the “impossible” during those same ten months and produced multiple effective vaccinations, our governmental apparatuses have utterly failed to construct effective information and delivery systems critical to the vaccination of the public and defeating Covid-19. As a result, I fear that many who are unable to navigate the utterly confusing, inefficient, and ineffective “system” (if you can call it a system) will give up and remain unvaccinated. This is especially concerning at a time when more infectious mutants of the Covid-19 virus are spreading throughout the world.
The following article from today’s Washington Post demonstrates the dire situation.
Vaccine rollout gets ‘below an F’ grade
Canceled appointments. Insufficient doses. Contradictory eligibility rules. Infuriating websites.
Multiple mishaps have mangled the region’s rollout of vaccine doses that an exhausted citizenry expects will end the pandemic. The problems, also evident nationwide, add to the list of failures that the world’s richest country has compiled in a year of battling the coronavirus.
“If I were a teacher, I’d give [the effort] whatever is the grade below an F,” said Kavita Patel, a physician at Mary’s Center in Prince George’s County and a former White House policy director in the Obama administration.
Much of the fault for the debacle lies with the Trump administration, which once again dumped responsibility onto state and local authorities for a national task that a centralized system would have handled better.AD
“I was surprised that the federal Operation Warp Speed of the previous administration did not include plans for the last 12 inches of the vaccine effort — getting doses into arms, arguably the hardest logistical path in the process,” said Michael P. McDermott, president of Mary Washington Healthcare in Fredericksburg, Va.
But our state and local authorities also share the blame. Despite months of advance notice that vaccines were coming, they failed to manage public expectations about how long it would take to procure the vials of vaccine to administer.
They also did not build user-friendly IT systems so people could easily schedule appointments.
They changed eligibility requirements in the middle of the process, partly under Trump officials’ prodding.
The result is that political and bureaucratic snags have dimmed the glow, for now, of the historic scientific achievement of developing vaccines in record time to protect against a new and deadly disease.
The problems are typical of others that have bedeviled the U.S. coronavirus response and led many abroad to experience a novel feeling about the country they once admired: pity.
In the spring and summer, we had similar delays and difficulties in launching testing and contact-tracing programs. Although the Washington area has done better overall than much of the country, the shortcomings reflect decades of underinvestment in public health.
“There has been no centralized, well-considered plan,” said J. Stephen Jones, president of the Inova hospital system in Northern Virginia. “It’s clear evidence that we have chosen as a nation to forgo public health, and we are paying the price today.”
All three of the region’s top leaders — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — did damage control at news conferences last week.
They pleaded with the public to show patience, saying they couldn’t do much until the federal government sped up its delivery of vaccine doses to them.
Hogan: “The plain truth is that for at least the near future, the demand for vaccines will continue to far exceed the supply that will be available to us.”
Northam: “The biggest challenge that we have . . . is the supply.”
Bowser: “We will continue to have less vaccine than we need.”
All true, but questions remain. Why didn’t they warn the public ahead of time of how long it was going to take to get vaccinated? Why did they widen eligibility without having enough vaccine and, thus, give false hope to hundreds of thousands of people who weren’t at the front of the line to get shots?
“Expectations were never managed well,” said J.B. Holston, chief executive of the Greater Washington Partnership. “The public clearly was led to believe that once vaccines were available, it would be really clear who they were available for and how to sign up. That didn’t happen.”
Authorities expanded eligibility before they were sure of procuring enough vaccine doses to meet demand, partly because the Trump administration, in its waning days, urged states to include the elderly in addition to top-priority groups such as front-line health-care workers.
“This was a parting shot of the Trump administration,” said Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “Governors started to feel pressure [to expand eligibility]. What our members found was, once the governors are feeling pressure, there’s not much you can do. There’s reason and science, and then there’s politics, and you’ve got to respond to all of them.”
The eligibility rules were especially chaotic in suburban Maryland. In Montgomery County, people 65 and older are able to get vaccinated at the county’s hospitals and pharmacies, where state rules apply. But the cutoff is 75 and older at the county’s health department facilities because Montgomery wants to be sure the most vulnerable population is vaccinated first.
At a facility in Prince George’s County, where state guidelines allowed for any Maryland resident to sign up, large numbers from outside the county did so. That led County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) to cancel nonresidents’ appointments, to ensure that her own constituents got first crack.
In Northern Virginia, Inova canceled thousands of vaccine appointments last week when the stateabruptly changed its distribution method and cut its delivery of doses to Inova from 19,500 in one week to zero the next.
For many residents, the biggest frustration has been spending hours at the computer trying to schedule appointments on unwieldy websites that weren’t designed to account for different priority groups and other features of the coronavirus vaccination process. It is necessary in many cases to seek appointments on a hodgepodge of websites, such as those for the state, county, individual hospitals and pharmacies.
Northam said Virginia will develop a statewide system for people to schedule appointments. Earl Stoddard, Montgomery’s emergency management director, said he hoped Maryland would do the same.
Again, that’s a need that should have been anticipated.
West Virginia, which has one of the nation’s best records so far in getting shots into arms, has drawn praise for, among other things, using a single, transparent website for scheduling appointments. As we continue flailing, perhaps we need to rethink all those jokes about how our mountainous neighbor is supposedly so backward.
We need to do better. Lives are at stake.
I have been privileged to live in the Washington D.C. area for many years and to attend and photograph several Presidential inaugurations. This year, as a result of the pandemic and the horrific events of the last ten days, today’s inauguration is like no other in our history. The unfortunate contrasts are dramatic as can be seen in the following photo essay.
All images © Judah Lifschitz 2021