This article is part of a series called Faith in the Field that explores responses to Covid-19—including vaccination efforts—within different faith communities. The series features racially and religiously diverse leaders across the United States who shared their stories with IFYC via one-on-one interviews. In addition to illuminating distinctive experiences of the pandemic through a faith lens, these interviews offer practical guidance for conducting vaccine outreach in thoughtful, culturally competent ways.
The following interview features Dr. Toby Bressler, senior director of nursing for oncology and clinical quality at the Mount Sinai Health System and vice president of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association. The interview was conducted by Shauna Morin for IFYC; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC): To start off, I would love to learn a little bit about the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association that you work with.
Toby Bressler (TB): The Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association (OJNA) is a not-for-profit, and it is the first faith-based affiliate of the American Nurses Association. OJNA has about 2,700 members on our closed Facebook page with 19 chapters across the country, one in Israel, and one in Canada. Our mission is really to serve the Jewish community of nurses and, of course, help the community at large. It doesn’t matter how you affiliate as Jewish across the spectrum—because identifying as Jewish can be fluid and can change over someone’s lifetime. So, we identify as the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, but anybody who would like to join as a member can do so. We take great pride in being nurses, being the most trusted profession, according to Gallup polls, in the last 20 years.
With trust comes great responsibility, and that’s why in the past year or so [of the pandemic] we’ve done a tremendous amount of outreach to communities—those that speak Yiddish, Hebrew, English. We’ve had rabbis on panels with healthcare professionals to provide a culturally congruent and sensitive message to folks, and to give them information about Covid-19. We don’t force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do, but really give people information in a way they can understand and in a language that makes sense to them. If you have a rabbi starting a conversation by telling you that [certain behaviors] are considered a mitzvah—which is a good deed and something that we Jewish people strive to do—it tends to open people up to say, “Hm, you know, if the rabbi is saying this is something I should be doing, let’s listen a little bit more and see where that leads.”
IFYC: It sounds like you have access to an active network through OJNA where conversations are happening. What have you heard through that network about distinct challenges within the Jewish community, or ways the Jewish faith community has been a support for people during the pandemic?
TB: Let me start by saying the community was heavily hit by Covid-19. Where I live in the New York area, it was rough for a lot of people for a long period of time. There was also a lot of misconception at the beginning, some of which was [the result of] folks within the Department of Health and local governmental agencies not including folks within the Jewish community. For example, in Borough Park, Brooklyn—which is a deep and heavily populated Jewish community—they had gentlemen on street corners giving out masks in the height of the pandemic, not knowing that all the women in that neighborhood would not accept something from a man unless that man was a first-degree relative or their spouse. So, they didn’t know what they didn’t know, and I think that caused a lot of frustration and misunderstanding.
The Jewish community was also hit very hard by Covid-19 because our lives are so communal. We eat together, pray together, celebrate together, mourn together, and right before the pandemic, there was a big Jewish holiday. So, folks were going to people’s houses and eating and exchanging food and gathering in large groups. And that perpetuated the tragedy we saw later on. Currently, there are various forums in which we are providing education to our communities, including facts about the Covid-19 vaccine and where you can get it. We organized advertisements in the Jewish newspapers, in the Yiddish newspapers, and on a radio program that’s geared toward the Jewish community. We actually got on the radio and a member of OJNA was interviewed by a talk radio celebrity, if you will, to say, “Here’s who we are, here’s what’s going on. We’re nurses and we’re working on the front line. Here’s what we’re seeing, and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.”
IFYC: You’re naming some of the things we’re so interested in, in terms of the critical nature of understanding what different religious communities need and how to engage and communicate with them. When you think about the Department of Health or government efforts on a broad scale to do public health outreach, what recommendations would you give to avoid those pitfalls you mentioned earlier?
TB: I would say that it’s important to be sensitive to the communities you’re serving. So, if you know the history of Jewish people in the United States, you would know that in the 1930s and 1940s they experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust, where they were subject to medical experiments at the hands of the Nazis. [Because of that], the Jewish community may not trust public health departments in a way we may typically think that they should. Also, understanding that members of the Jewish community may not have internet, they may not have social media, they are not exposed to secular news, they have a very different and insular education … This can lead to the spread of misinformation.
So, lessons learned are to build trust with thought leaders—whether it’s OJNA, or rabbis, or other thought leaders in the community—if you build trust, that’s the most the fundamental, most important thing. Liaising with healthcare professionals embedded in the community also gives us a better understanding of what’s happening. Oftentimes, organizations parachute into communities and try to do good, and then they don’t understand the local context, the culture, the core values of the community. That is a missed opportunity. And finally, I would recommend a collective call to problem solving. It’s not coming down and saying, “This is what you must do.” It’s looking from within the community, in terms of public health, and finding out what it is that folks know and what they don’t know, and then responding to that. It’s looking at [public health] through a lens of community-centered care and having an approach that’s cognizant of the culture and the norms of the community.
IFYC: I’m going to shift a little bit more specifically to vaccination and this tremendous diversity within Judaism you mentioned earlier. I’ve seen statistics on in some cases where vaccination rates are really high, and then other communities where there’s more hesitancy. Could speak to your experience where there is more hesitancy and how you’ve responded to that?
TB: I don’t know the exact number of folks who are vaccinated or not. I do know that in some communities, just anecdotally, vaccine rates are lower than we would like them to be, and part of that is the mistrust. But folks like us from the OJNA, we know the way people receive messages. For example, a lot of the Orthodox and Hasidic or Haredi Jewish communities do not have access to internet. They don’t have a computer, but they do have smartphones. And everybody has a WhatsApp group. So, we’ve been sending information on various WhatsApp groups. Here’s a vaccine tip sheet. Here’s some information. Here’s a conference call because they wouldn’t do Zoom because it requires a computer.
If you have the insiders helping you get out the message, it’s a much higher uptake than those who don’t. We recently had a vaccine event in March that included a rabbi from Israel and a local physician here in the U.S. They spoke together about the social imperative, the faith-based religious imperative, and your health imperative to receive the vaccine. And then there was a question-and-answer session, and people asked really solid questions. The panelists were able to answer in a way that was meaningful because they were from the [Jewish] community.
IFYC: Could you could you give some examples of the social or faith-based imperatives that have been talked about?
TB: When you have a rabbi who says, “One of the 10 commandments is to honor thy mother and father” … What greater way to do this than to protect their health? That holds a lot of value. And to my former point that we are a communal group, and we like to do things all together as a community … Messaging is phrased in that way. You know, “He who saves one life saves the world,” that’s one of the core values of Judaism. So, if those things are presented in that way, it makes sense, and leads people to listen a bit more.
IFYC: That’s beautifully said. The last question I’ll ask is if you’ve been vaccinated, and if so, have you shared that story of vaccination with others?
TB: I have been vaccinated. My family has been vaccinated. I actually took a picture of my son, who’s 15 and got vaccinated, and sent it all around to show, “See, he got it. He’s safe. I’m a nurse; I know.” The president of OJNA, she did a video testimony of her experience [getting vaccinated] because she was vaccine-hesitant, and that was very powerful. It’s really about word of mouth and sharing stories with other people. So, my daughter-in-law, who just gave birth, she got the vaccine. She’s in her childbearing years and she’s telling everyone, “My mother-in-law said to get it, and I got it, and I’m fine.” This is how you create a critical mass, by telling the story, sharing your information, sharing your personal journey.
I’ve also shared with folks the deep sorrow and pain that I saw when we were in the height of Covid, when we had trucks outside my institution with that were used to store body bags. I mean, bodies and bodies—you never can unsee that. When you share those moments of being with family at the end of life, and nobody is there with them, and you’re holding the iPad so someone can say goodbye to their mother, to their father, to their sister, to their child, it’s heavy. And now we have something that we can do to change the course of this. People will trust you when they know that you care, and that’s all we’ve got at the end of the day.