With the start of this summer in full swing, Rosh HaShanah preparations are far from our minds. However, the scene was quite different one year ago, when more than 30,000 Yidden prepared for the annual pilgrimage known as the Rosh HaShanah Kibbutz to the kever of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Rebbe Nachman spent the last eight years of his life in Bratslav, Ukraine, prior to moving to Uman, where he perished in 1810. His legacy of an intense joyous love with our Creator, which anyone can obtain through his own will, continues today by his myriad of followers.
In 2020, the two-century-old event was officially canceled due to the coronavirus, but last year, efforts were taken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in direct collaboration with three local rabbanim, to ensure the safety of those descending on Uman. Rabbi Duvid Katz, with his vast connections as Menahel/Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim (RAA), continually kept his network of 950 rabbis and community leaders in the United States informed, Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD, used his influence as Director of RAA’s Halachah and Medicine Commission to shared verified strategies, and Rabbi Zvi Gluck, an RAA member with over a decade and a half of experience in the annual pilgrimage, all shined in their roles as liaisons to the CDC, ensuring that COVID-19 would not spread throughout Uman and on return to the United States. Ultimately, no service workers or residents contracted the disease, and a mere 15 cases were eventually by travelers to the region.
“In 2020, there were a lot of problems going on. People were stranded and had to sleep in the airports, on the floor with young children,” explained Rabbi David Katz, who is also Executive Director of the Israel Heritage Foundation, Congregation Ayshel Avraham, in his introductory remarks as the evening’s sponsor. These families had been traveling to Uman for the Rosh HaShanah holiday at the height of the pandemic. To avoid chaos this past Yamim Nora’im, CDC staff from the Center of Global Health in the office of the Director, headed by Lauren Erickson-Mamane, MPH, were tasked with ensuring safety for those mostly American tourists. Beginning in February 2021, Lauren built relationships with religious leaders in the Greater New York area to target likely travelers to Ukraine and provide education to help reduce infection of COVID-19. “It is such a beautiful thing – caring for the 30,000 people who came from New York, Israel, and Europe,” hailed Rabbi Katz, who was honored with his wife Chaya. “People were complying and took the recommendations just as the CDC suggested.”
The IHF believes in promoting the goodness of Eretz Yisrael and her people. To that end, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Frager, IHF Executive Vice President, felt that a formal event showing appreciation to the rabbinical leaders was important, as it would lay the framework to set an example for the world on how to follow governmental recommendations. “My real calling has always been medicine; and with the pandemic, the CDC does not get enough credit for what they did,” explained Dr. Frager, as he called up Lauren to deliver the event’s keynote address. “They are still the gold standard. I hope that we are giving the CDC the recognition for their contributions in how vital they have been to America and to the world.”
Lauren, who had just returned from Kenya, began her heartfelt address by calling the noted rabbanim both her “friends and colleagues.” She noted, “A super spreader event was not observed in the New York Orthodox community after the pilgrimage. Between September 8 and October 8, 2021, only 15 COVID-19 cases were found in New York City with reported travel to Ukraine. Over many months, the CDC COVID-19 International Task Force developed trust and friendship in the New York chasidic and Orthodox communities. We learned that relationships are everything. I have had amazing experiences throughout my career in public health and can say that without a doubt collaborating with Rabbis Katz, Glatt, and Gluck during this project has been the highlight of my career.”
“In March 2020, our lives as we knew them were forever impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We lost family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues to this horrible virus, and those of us working for the CDC quickly pivoted from our normal duties and jumped into an emergency response. In the early days of the pandemic, we worked around the clock to develop effective COVID-19 mitigation strategies in the absence of either a vaccine, a cure, or even effective therapeutics. I was deployed in the COVID-19 International Task Force and was contracted by colleagues with the CDC Ukraine and the Ukrainian Public Health Center in February of 2001 to assist with the COVID-19 Mitigation Strategies for a pilgrimage in Uman, Ukraine, as health officials were concerned that this large gathering could lead to many new COVID-19 infections.”
Lauren was no stranger to collaborating with communities of faith and was up for the challenge. “I am persistent and did not accept no as a final answer when there was a way to get a yes! After many calls to the White House [Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships], the [New York City] Mayor’s Office, and the [New York State] Governor’s Office, I was provided the contact information of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, who was so gracious and eager to collaborate with the COVID-19 International Task Force.” Rabbi Glatt, who aired CDC recommendations on his weekly show via the Young Israel of Woodmere to over 6,000 viewers, made the connection for Lauren to Rabbi Katz.
“Rabbi Katz quickly convened an advisory group of key informants that included Rabbi Zvi Gluck of Amudim. Over the course of many months, I had the distinct pleasure to work closely with Rabbis Katz, Glatt, and Gluck in the development of a multifaceted communication strategy for both the United States and Ukraine. Factsheets in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ukrainian were developed, addressing the importance of vaccinations prior to travel, and mitigation measures during the pilgrimage and upon return to the United States. The factsheet built upon the Jewish religion’s obligation to do everything possible to maintain good health and protect the health of others.”
Lauren explained that Amudim’s concerted mitigation efforts included the distribution of 5,000 hand sanitizer bottles, 100,000 hand sanitizer wipes, 250,000 cards with mitigation strategies, sanitizer locations at each of its food-serving stations, requirements for dining hall staff to be masked and gloved, limiting dining hall and table seating to 50-percent capacity, and large signage throughout the area. Tens of thousands of disposable masks, COVID-19 rapid antigen tests administered by the Red Cross, 13,000 COVID-19 PCR tests, and Hebrew speaking staff on a COVID-19 hotline were also made available via the Ukrainian Public Health Center.
“This was a wonderful opportunity for us to collaborate and make a kiddush Hashem,” said Rabbi Dr. Glatt, Associate Rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere and originally of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, where he delivered a profound Daf Yomi shiur. “When we do the right thing from a medically and halachic point of view, we are sanctifying G-d’s name. That is what G-d asked us to do: to save lives, to act in an ehrliche, appropriate, and proper fashion from a community perspective, and from a Jewish perspective to act in the most proper way possible.” Additionally, the rabbi, who was honored this past Chanukah by the Biden White House with lighting the Chanukah menorah, chairs the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau, serves as their Chief of Infectious Diseases, and is the hospital epidemiologist.
During the pandemic, information changed on an almost hourly basis, and those who criticized tactics were not on the frontlines. “We were riding the waves of a horrible pandemic and trying as best as possible not to sink,” relayed Rabbi Glatt, who was honored with his wife, Rebbetzin Marjorie Glatt, Esq. “We saved hundreds of thousands of lives under the guidance of the public health in the United States. There could have been a far worse outcome if people ignored the public health advice.” Rabbi Glatt praised Lauren for ensuring that this project, which also appears as a success story on the CDC website, will soon be published as a scientific paper in the Journal of Infectious Disease COVID-19 Supplemental.
“We were certainly very concerned about what would happen, on the level of cooperation, and how we can all work toward the same goal,” related Rabbi Zvi Gluck, CEO of Amudim and respected Kew Gardens Hills resident who was brought into the fold by Rabbi Katz. For 16 years, Rabbi Gluck has worked with Ukrainian officials, talking with the US State Department, the US Embassy in Kyiv, the Ukraine Ministry of Transportation, and the Foreign Service. Rabbi Gluck revealed that these agencies, including the Ministry of Health and the Office of President of Ukraine, felt similarly on the success of Rosh HaShanah in Uman last year, and often expressed shock at the organization of every detail. Dr. Ezra Barzilay, director of the CDC in Ukraine, was one such official to publicly make this statement.
“There were tremendous hurdles time and time again in how to ensure that one can be buried in accordance with Jewish law and tradition and to bring closure and comfort to their families,” began Rabbi Gluck, as he went on to divulge the untold story of the Orthodox community’s relationship with the CDC and their friendship with Lauren, whom he called “a true public servant,” as tragedies of loss during the pandemic, and we benefited from her assistance. Within moments of sending off a text message to Lauren detailing a struggle with a burial in the Dominican Republic, she inquired further. Rabbi Gluck praised Lauren’s willingness to want to learn and understand before jumping to do. “Lauren immediately reached out to the powers that be and put me in touch with the proper offices, got me the documentation, and that was the beginning of having done it multiple times.” Gluck resolved, “The community does not even know how much of a thank you the CDC gets in so many different aspects, of how we as a community were able to follow our tradition and religious beliefs that came as a result of you reaching out of your comfort zone.”
“Thank you for making a kiddush Hashem and doing things the right way,” stated Commissioner Fred Kreizman of the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit. When the Mayor talks about getting stuff done, he is referring to a person like Lauren when the government does something correctly, making lasting partnerships.
The event was held at Mike’s Bistro in Manhattan’s Midtown East, and drew the company of Fred Dixon, CEO, NYC & Company, New York City’s tourism office, who reminded the audience that the essence of the event was the ability to safely travel while “encouraging and enabling people to continue to travel and connect, especially for important pilgrimages.” Alyssa Masor, Orthodox Community Liaison for the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, attended with her husband Avraham Mordechai and discussed her involvement with mitigation efforts and the post-mission follow-up.
“I like helping people. I feel that is why I was born,” observed Dr. Stephen Soloway, MD, FACP, a noted rheumatologist, Executive President, IHF, an appointee of former President Donald Trump to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, and the author of Bad Medicine: The Horrors of American Healthcare.
“The tone here tonight is partnership,” said NYPD Inspector Richie Taylor, Commanding Officer, Community Affairs, and the highest-ranking Jew in the force, as he summed up the event. In noting how Dr. Soloway was born to help others, Taylor, a former Queens Hatzolah member, added, “I think everyone in this room shares that same sentiment about themselves. In many ways, everyone was chosen to help someone else, and that is why we chose our given path.” Taylor also acknowledged the presence of Joel Eisdorfer, Senior Advisor to the Mayor, who so eloquently fits the bill of assisting another in need and has the privilege of advising the Mayor on how best to help the people of New York.
May we live in good health, peace, and safety, and never experience the turmoil and devastation of another public health emergency.
By Shabsie Saphirstein