Among the many canards about the Orthodox Jewish community that emerged in some media during the current pandemic was our ostensible (though nonexistent) distrust of modern medicine. While there certainly may be medical procedures or standards that are controversial, scientifically proven medical protocols and interventions are fully embraced by the community as part of the halachic mandate to protect our lives.
The Orthodox Jewish community, like all of New York City and New York State, has more to contend with regarding coronavirus because its members reside in areas with greater natural population density. This by no means correlates with specific disdain for medical advice by Orthodox Jews any more than it indicates that New Yorkers know or care less about science than Idahoans.
Nothing could better prove the folly of the accusers than Orthodox communities’ astounding response to medical authorities’ request of people who have been infected with Covid-19 to come forth for antibody testing to confirm that fact and, if confirmed, for subsequent blood plasma donation to aid in research for treatments of those sickened by the virus.
Donating plasma takes considerably more time than a simple 10-minute blood donation, up to two hours, during which the plasma — the liquid part of the blood that carries cells and proteins throughout the body — is extracted from the donor’s blood and the blood’s red cells and platelets are returned to the donor’s body.
A much-featured photograph of several Chassidic young men donating blood so that its plasma can be used in such research said it all. The men were among thousands of Orthodox New Yorkers who quickly stepped up to have their antibody titers checked so they could donate blood in the quest to save lives.
Efforts to identify qualified donors and process their donations have drawn many more Orthodox Jews in places like Brooklyn, Rockland County, Lakewood and Baltimore.
More than half of the donors to New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital system’s plasma collection system, according to its chief operating officer Dr. David Reich, have been Orthodox Jews.
Among the organizers of efforts were Lev Rochel Bikur Cholim in Lakewood, which sent over 1,000 samples to the Mayo Clinic, and Refuah Health Center of Monsey, which sent over 2,000 samples. Yachad d’Bobov together with Hatzolah of Boro Park set up a testing site in Boro Park. ODA of Williamsburg has also marshaled its medical facilities for the effort.
Among those spearheading the effort to inform and encourage Orthodox participation in the potentially life-saving research was Agudath Israel of America. Its chief of staff and associate director of education, Avrohom Weinstock, consulted in March with infectious disease experts and was advised that the downsides of plasma donations are minimal and, with drugs and vaccines far from development, plasma therapy seemed logical to pursue. With that information, Agudath Israel began encouraging Jews to donate plasma on April 1.
Agudah then reached out to New York State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, who worked with it to apprise area hospital administrators and board members of how the Orthodox community could help.
Many blood donation centers are at capacity. Mordy Serle, a Flatbush lawyer who is tirelessly helping lead the effort, said that the New York Blood Center, a nonprofit that supplies blood to hundreds of New York hospitals, discloses at the end of each day how many slots they have open for the next day, so that he and other activists, like Abba Switizcki, a real estate investor, working with the Agudah’s Mr. Weinstock, can direct potential donors to facilities that can accommodate them.
Chaim Lebovits, a shoe salesman from Monsey, has been leading his own efforts in this area since March, and now all four Orthodox individuals, who have never met, are collaborating with leading national researchers to help patients obtain plasma.
And when hospitals in the New York area had no donation slots available, the team coordinates to find other medical facilities to accept plasma from New York area Jews. One result was dozens of Jews from Monsey and New Square who took an entire day to travel to Delaware to a blood bank that had the capacity to take them.
A website, covidplasmasavealife.com, was set up, as were phone banks. Mr. Serle said that the team, he, Mr. Weinstock, Mr. Lebovits and Mr. Switizcki, “coordinated around 25 volunteers to man the phones” and collected information from some 3,000 prospective donors.
Preliminary observations of outcomes of hundreds of patients who received plasma with antibodies for Covid-19 have been encouraging, according to The Wall Street Journal, though rigorous studies have yet to be completed.
While the Agudah and the Orthodox team have been at this for nearly a month, Amazon announced on Thursday, April 23, that it would fund a Columbia University study, at $2.5 million, to better understand how plasma helps Covid-19 patients. Microsoft is now preparing to launch its “Plasma Bot” project to begin to screen people to donate plasma.
What is unmistakably evident, though, is that the Orthodox Jewish community is at the forefront of promoting medical progress, and its members are willing, like no other group, to give of themselves to fight the coronavirus.
Perhaps that fact will help at least some critics of our community decide, instead of trying to find illusionary faults, to declare the truth of mi k’amcha Yisrael.