The shared values between Judaism and public health

Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic

By Joshua Yudkin

Whether we look at Heseds (Jewish community centers) in Eastern Europe or Jewish youth groups and day schools here in the United States, Jewish communal leadership, generally, has been prudent and intentional in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the evolving scientific research, Jewish leadership has followed an inclusive population-health prevention approach, looking out for our entire community.

In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged our individualistic human nature. Most often, people wore surgical masks not to protect their own health, but the health of those around them. Most often, people socially distanced to protect those they care about — think about the number of grandkids who did not get to hug their grandparents, or the number of friends who refrained from sharing a long-overdue embrace. Most often, people disrupted their daily routines when they felt fine and quarantined to prevent serving as a vector to others in their community. Most often, prayer services to celebrate and to mourn, community gatherings to remember and relive and family traditions to unite and share were significantly altered to protect the health and well-being of our community.

Thanks to public health education campaigns, vaccines and our own actions, the COVID-19 pandemic is, generally, no longer described by high-levels of hospitalizations and deaths. It, largely, does not inspire fear. More commonly, people describe living in a post-COVID-19 time. Nonetheless, at the time of writing this article, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that, in the past week in Texas, there were 37,637 new cases of COVID-19, 508 persons hospitalized from COVID-19 and 150 deaths from COVID-19. Over 30% of Texans have still not been vaccinated.

Community leaders continue to wrestle with decisions about mandatory masking inside and required vaccination for programming. While many of us have been blessed with strong health, our community is filled with new life, seasoned life and at-risk life. Following the example of Abraham, Judaism emphasizes hachnasat orchim, or being radically welcoming. Echoing the way Pesach Sheni, literally the Second Passover, was created to ensure all Jews had access to participating in our tradition, true Jewish community is radically inclusive. Highlighting the Jewish practice of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life, the rabbis remind us in the Talmud that “whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world, because we are created in the image of G-d.”

As we look forward, there are a few important lessons that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted for our community. First, public health practices are based in Jewish teachings. In other words, public health practices of protecting our entire community are based in Jewish values. Second, we have a moral obligation to protect our community’s most vulnerable — yes, even if that means we are inconveniencing ourselves. We do this not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it works. Third, community is based in common values and common practices. Both public health measures and Jewish tradition are based in community participation. In the same way that social distancing and masking does not work without a community, Jewish tradition requires community — we need a minyan to read from the Torah and mourn and edim, or witnesses, at a wedding.

Public health and Judaism both celebrate and protect life. American bacteriologist C.E.A. Winslow defined public health as the “the science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health through the organized efforts and informed choices of society, organizations, public and private communities and individuals.” Judaism is also dedicated to protecting, promoting and prolonging life. Our Torah is called Etz Haim, the Tree of Life. Our tradition teaches us that we were all created betzelem Eloqim, or in the image of G-d. Our tradition stresses kedushat haim, the sanctity of life.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that public health and Judaism are both forces for life. As we enter 2023, what actions will you take to live your life to its fullest?

Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.

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