The imperative to preserve and safeguard life – Why two JCCs announced vaccine requirements in the absence of a government directive

It has not been an easy ride for the JCC field these past 18 months. Mandated closures, partial re-openings, staff layoffs, workforce shortages, capacity limitations, new operating protocols, contract tracing, mask requirements and mandated quarantines—a journey no JCC has faced on this scale for this extended and unknown duration. 

But driven to serve community and to enrich Jewish life, JCCs were amongst the first institutions in the American Jewish communal landscape to reopen their doors to the public — often within weeks of the initial coronavirus wave — and have largely remained open for business through the roller coaster ride that is COVID-19.

We’ve learned a lot as well during this time—about ourselves, our collective level of resilience, our enduring commitment to address new and emerging needs, and our responsibility to safeguard community health. Through our experience on the ground each day providing child care, operating summer camps, distributing food to at-risk seniors, host blood drives, COVID testing and COVID vaccinations, we have found our “sea legs” and strengthened our capacity to deliver critical services in uncertain times. And we have continued to bring joy, community and culture to thousands of people in new ways: Holiday packets delivered right to your door, parking lot packaging shelf stable meal-kits for our neighbors experiencing food insecurity, Hebrew taught by teachers you love from the comfort and safety of your own home, in-home opportunities to experience film festivals and theater straight from the stage of Israel.

As we prepare for the upcoming new year and reflect on our contributions, failings, and learnings, it has become increasingly clear that our JCC’s have found voice around “not standing idly by,” and intentionally integrating pikuach nefesh into our daily practice.

The mitzvah of preserving life taking precedence over other Jewish laws has been at the forefront of our minds these past weeks, as the Delta variant began taking hold of our communities. Unlike the initial COVID wave, where JCCs quickly complied with state and local directives, we are largely on our own at this time. We are left looking for ways to balance and integrate quality service delivery and supporting public health outcomes. The two distinct JCC’s we oversee did not need to wait for a local directive around indoor mask wearing. We independently reinstituted that practice in early August as COVID transmission rates grew in our areas.  

But our professional staff and boards saw a need to do more — to provide a leadership example to our local communities — and to prioritize pikuach nefesh as a fundamental Jewish tenet to power our decision making. And, now that all those above the age of 12 in fact can protect themselves with one of three vaccines, we see it as our individual and communal obligation to act to protect the children in our families, in our JCCs and in our communities at least until they are able to protect themselves. With these priorities in mind, our JCCs independently announced the decision of a vaccine requirement for members, staff, and guests over age 12 as an intentional and responsible approach for our JCCs to be part of a community solution to mitigating the epidemic, to reduce its severity, and to ultimately save lives.

We each have studied the history of JCC’s, born from the settlement house movement that were advocates in addressing public health needs more than a century ago and served as standard bearers to where we find ourselves today. Lest we forget that the roots of the Jewish resident camp movement began to help impoverished Jewish immigrants away from the polluted inner cities and tuberculosis epidemic and intro healthier physical settings? Haven’t we studied the photographs of our staff members in the heart of Jewish neighborhoods 100 years ago addressing the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19?

Neither JCC took this decision lightly. Each of us are taking a calculated risk of potentially sacrificing much needed operating revenue in the short-term for a more sharply defined future. where public health outcomes are more fully integrated into our operating model. While our staff vaccination rates far exceed the community average, we could lose treasured members of our workforce who have dutifully served the JCC community for years. We risk being dragged into a no-win partisanship debate that dominates the news cycle and the culture wars proliferating through social media channels. But in our respective view, leadership is about making decisions when the stakes are high, not avoiding them.   

Dr. Bob Johansen, author of Full-Spectrum Thinking: How to Escape Boxes in a Post-Categorical World, notes that the “future will reward clarity and punish certainty.” At this time of great uncertainty, the clarity of Jewish ethics has provided the imperative for us to act decisively. And in the tradition of Hillel, if our actions save even one life, we will have saved an entire world. 

Brian Schreiber is the President & CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and a special advisor to the JCC Association.  Dava Schub is the CEO of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center.

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