Learning to look for — and book — vaccines

Learning to look for — and book — vaccines

Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg leads volunteers helping Schechter staff get shots

Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg hunts appointments on her laptop. (Jennifer Schlosberg)
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg hunts appointments on her laptop. (Jennifer Schlosberg)

As the pandemic goes on — and as we all know, because we all are living through it together — our shared needs change; this situation, which seems unchangeable, also is morphing day by day.

Our obsession right now is vaccines — how to get one, and then the second one — what category we fit in, whether we’ll have reactions to either shot, what being fully vaccinated means, what we will be able to do, and with whom, and when enough of us are vaccinated for this pandemic to be over. (Some of us also have to deal with vaccine resistance, which will not become a major issue until there is enough supply for us to engage more fully with the demand side, but will most likely force discussion of the issue with the anti-vaxxers in our midst.)

Most people get their vaccine appointments online, and some of us, it turns out, are better at navigating the websites, with their irrational instructions, bad connections, and frustrating blink-and-they’re-gone openings, than others. And those of us with day jobs with hard hours cannot devote the time to it that might be necessary.

Around the community — presumably around the country — people with flexible schedules and a knack for dealing with clunky, unresponsive websites, as well as the temperament that keeps them from hurling their laptops across the room, are getting together to help the still-unvaccinated people who need help getting appointments. Community institutions also are providing that aid.

Here is the story of one person and institution; neither she nor they are alone in the work they are doing. Every story is different. This is one of those stories.

Fourth-graders make prototypes at SSDS’s Popkin Innovation Lab. (Veronica Yankowski of Veroluce Photography)

Jennifer Schlosberg is the rabbi of the Glen Rock Jewish Center. “I’ve been booking people for vaccine appointments for probably over a month now,” she said. “When I started, it was really hard. The first appointment I got was for my mother, who lives in Pennsylvania. The first appointment didn’t work, so I had to do another.

“So I started learning tricks, and I started reaching out to my mom’s friends and my family, and I became a resource for so many people.

“And then I decided to try to take care of our shul community,” in Glen Rock, Rabbi Schlosberg said. “We had our chesed team reach out to all of our seniors, to ask them if they were booked. And we reached out to anyone we know who had underlying conditions. We asked them if they had already booked appointments. If they hadn’t, they gave me their names, and I booked them.”

As she did this, and she found appointments for more and more people, Rabbi Schlosberg was driven by her own family history. “My father — his name was Jay Schlosberg — died in 2007, when he was 58. He had diabetes, a stroke, whatever — you name it, he had it. He wasn’t computer savvy, and I think about someone saving a life like his.”

Rabbi Schlosberg has two daughters, one 5, and one 8; the older one is a student at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford. “So I reached out to Steve Freedman, the head of school there, and I said, ‘Please, if there is anyone there on staff who has an underlying condition, let me know.’” By then, most people who qualified by age already had appointments. “So I said, ‘Look, the teachers will be eligible very soon, and I will be happy to organize a team of volunteers to get them appointments.’

Third-graders recharge themselves using the school’s responsive classroom approach. (Veronica Yankowski of Veroluce Photography)

“By the way,” she added, “I do have a full-time job.

“He took me up on my offer, and within hours we were online, getting request from the teachers who wanted our support.” So far, the team has booked around 100 appointments.

The situation changes constantly. Unlike in New York, where teachers have been eligible for appointments for some time, teachers in New Jersey became eligible on March 15; Rabbi Schlosberg and her team were able to arrange appointments for them, keeping that schedule in mind. Different categories of people were able to get appointments in different kinds of places, some run by the federal government, some by the state, some by municipalities. After President Joe Biden said that it was his priority to get teachers vaccinated, more venues for those shots opened up.

The Jewish calendar presented another hurdle for Rabbi Schlosberg and her team. They kept people’s desire to be shomer Shabbat and chaggim in mind as they scheduled both first and second shots, with an awareness not only of Shabbat but also of the first and second days at both the beginning and the end of Pesach.

Although Rabbi Schlosberg has resisted getting on Twitter until now, she realized that it would help her find vaccine appointments, she said. “They send alerts when places open,” such as drugstores and other such spaces. “And we have a crew of people, under my leadership, and sort of naturally everyone has a job. There is the person who sends confirmations and someone else checks eligibility and someone else might book appointments late at night or early in the morning.” They’ve gotten just about all the teachers and staff vaccinated or booked by now, so “we are opening it up to the immediate family of teachers and staff and students.”

A student celebrates becoming bar mitzvah at an outdoor service. (Veronica Yankowski of Veroluce Photography)

The work can be absorbing, Rabbi Schlosberg said, and she finds herself responding with alacrity to stimuli like the sound of a tweet announcing a new set of available appointments.

“The night before I started working with Schechter, I asked my daughters what they wanted for breakfast, and they said eggs and toast, and I told them I’d make them eggs and toast,” she said.

“And then the appointments started opening up at breakfast time, and I was feverishly crashing away at my computer, trying to get as many booked as possible. My daughters said ‘Mom!? Where are my eggs? Where is my toast?’ I said ‘Girls! Can you grab yourself some cereal and watch some TV? I just need you to let me do this right now.’

“Because of that, I was able to book quite a number of appointments, I think 13 within an hour. I was texting with someone at Schechter who I’m working with, and I said, ‘Please tell someone that my daughter may be late to school today. I am booking appointments for her teachers and I can’t leave my computer.’ She said she would tell the teachers, no problem.

“And then my daughters looked at me and they said ‘Mommy! We didn’t get our eggs and toast.’” In fact, they’d had dry cereal, with no milk, because it’s too hard for them to pour milk. The risk of making a mess made it a bad bet.

Eighth-graders play guitar in a music class. (Veronica Yankowski of Veroluce Photography)

“And I had this teachable moment,” Rabbi Schlosberg continued. “I said ‘Girls, I want you to know what it was that I was doing when you were eating. I was able to book a lot of appointments for some of your teachers.’ And when I told her the name of the person I had booked, her eyes just lit up. Then I said, ‘Don’t you think that was more important than eggs and toast?’”

When they got to school, just a few minutes late but late nonetheless, Rabbi Schlosberg “explained to them that sometimes there is a good reason to be late to school. I am trying to model to my girls how important life is.”

Mr. Freedman, the head of school, said that most of his staff either is vaccinated or has an appointment. There “are a small handful of people who haven’t signed up for vaccinations, but it’s a very few people. Over the next week, we’ll have to explore what the reluctance is, and then we’ll go on from there.” That’s a big change, to move from scarcity of resources to an adequate supply but a hesitation in demand.

The school is doing so well because “these tzadikim, these parents, decided that they would help everyone,” Mr. Freedman said. And they’re highly ethical, he stressed. They will work only for people who are eligible. They do not cheat. They do not try to get people in unfairly — although of course they will work to help find an appointment for anyone in the community who does qualify. (The difficulty in coming up with fair guidelines for an extraordinarily valuable resource while it still was scarce was excruciatingly difficult, and most likely it was impossible to make a decision that would please everybody.)

The Schechter school has been doing well, Mr. Freedman said, and as both the vaccination rate and the weather improve, it is likely to continue to do better. “We have a wonderful medical committee that is guiding us, and we follow their advice,” which is based on CDC and local requirements but goes beyond them. “We have been administering PCR tests every week since we came back from winter break in January, and that has helped keep down spread and also helped our staff feel more confident,” he said. “We hope to change that after Pesach, because our tents will be back up, and the children will be outside way more again.”

These students are learning Hebrew in an outdoor classroom. (Veronica Yankowski of Veroluce Photography)

One thing that the pandemic has given the children and staff is a more robust view of their place in the outside world. “The kids have been out in all weather,” Mr. Freedman said. “In the cold, in wind, in snow. They and the teachers have discovered new strengths. It used to be that if the weather seemed to be too cold, we would have recess indoors. Not we go out all the time, and it’s great for the kids. We had lessons in the snow, using food coloring.”

Still, even though those strengths will be useful to the students throughout their lives, the end of the pandemic — along with the disappearance of vaccine bookings and tents and lessons outdoors no matter what — will be enormously welcome.

Until then, the committee will keep on booking.

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