The following news report tells the story of a community which suffered greatly during the “first wave” of Covid-19 and how it has responded to help us all.
A COVID-19 ‘mitzvah’: Orthodox Jews donate blood plasma by the thousands
One Saturday in mid-April, a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders held a conference call with a Minnesota doctor as they grappled with spiking coronavirus cases in their New York area communities.
Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic is leading a nationwide study on the use of blood plasma to treat patients with severe COVID-19. On the call that afternoon, he told the religious leaders he needed something for his research: more blood from people who have survived the virus.
“Do what you can,” Joyner said, according to Yehudah Kaszirer of Lakewood, New Jersey, one of the rabbis on the call.
About 36 hours later, Kaszirer boarded a private jet with roughly 1,000 vials of blood stored in coolers. It had been drawn from members of the community through a blood drive organized with military-like speed.
The blood would be taken to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and tested for antibodies.
“It felt like being on a godly mission,” Kaszirer said.
And, as it turned out, a very successful one. Roughly 60 percent of the plasma samples were found to contain antibodies.
Since that overnight flight, Orthodox Jews in Kaszirer’s community and others across the country have provided an extraordinary quantity of antibody-rich plasma for the U.S. government supported COVID-19 expanded access program, accounting for roughly half of the supply used to treat 34,000 people, Joyner said.
“There’s no way we’d be able to treat so many people without them,” he told NBC News. “They were the straw that serves the drink in a lot of ways.”
The role Orthodox Jews have played in contributing to a promising but yet unproven coronavirus treatment has garnered far less attention than the incidents of community members flouting social distancing guidelines.
Police broke up several large gatherings in Lakewood during the month of April, resulting in criminal charges for violating quarantine orders. Near the end of the month, thousands of Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn gathered for the funeral of a beloved rabbi. And some in the Orthodox community made headlines again last month by breaking into a closed playground in Brooklyn, with few masks and no social distancing
Dr. Israel Zyskind, a pediatrician in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a high concentration of Hasidic Jews, said the vast majority heeded the warnings to remain indoors. He said the virus spread rapidly during the Purim holiday in early March.
“When Purim was around, we didn’t know anything about social distancing, about mask wearing,” Zyskind, who practices in Borough Park, said. “Nobody wore masks. Nobody knew to stay indoors and not be with your families … There were very few cases in the United States.”
Borough Park was especially hard hit by the virus. The community has the fourth largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city and the highest in the borough of Brooklyn, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The latest figures show 226 confirmed deaths in Borough Park, meaning there have been 243 deaths per 100,000 residents in the neighborhood.
Other factors also likely contributed to the rapid spread of the virus within Orthodox communities in the Northeast. In places like Borough Park, Zyskind said, many families have six to eight children and live in small apartments in tightly-packed buildings.
The communities are insular and some tend to maintain an old-world way of life. Many families, Zyskind said, still live without televisions or computers.
Once the full scale of the crisis became clear, his community and others got the chance to turn the high infection rates into something positive.
“Because we were ravaged by COVID so early on, we recognized that we had the opportunity to give back to the scientific community and to our fellow brothers who are suffering,” Zyskind said.
“We don’t just care about ourselves,” he added. “We care about everyone, and we will do what we can.”