Temple Beth El’s preschool program, Simcha, is requiring all children, teachers and staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend the play-centered program in Aptos. Some families have objected to the temple board’s vaccine decision and have left the program. Rabbi Paula Marcus, the congregation’s longtime leader, argues that caring for the most vulnerable among us, and thus getting ourselves and our children vaccinated, draws directly from the commandment to preserve life — which the Jewish faith places above all others.
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As a rabbi, I have struggled during these 2½ difficult pandemic years to hold my community together and make sense of all the loneliness, loss and mental illness I have seen. It’s been a terribly challenging time and has made us all think differently about who we are and about our relationship to those we love and to our wider community.
A large part of my job is building community, which has proved challenging on Zoom and through masks.
Many issues have pulled us apart, including, sadly, the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Our congregation, Temple Beth El in Aptos, has worked hard to create policies that will make everyone as safe as possible. We have had meetings with infectious-disease doctors, pediatricians and public health professionals to help us decide what precautions we should take to protect the most vulnerable in our community.
This month, after hours of conversations, we instituted a full-vaccination policy for all kids who want to attend Simcha, Temple Beth El’s preschool. We instituted the same rule for all teachers and staff. Already, 85% of our 45 families have or are in the process of getting their young children vaccinated. Sadly, three of our families have left and one is considering leaving because they are afraid to vaccinate their children.
I understand their fears about vaccinating their kids, all of whom are under 5.
I disagree with them because I believe the vaccines are safe. But I understand. Our children are our greatest blessing.
These are families I care about and respect deeply. I will miss having them among us and am pained to see them leave us.
But for the sake of saving lives and doing our best to curb the possibility of new variants, our board made this decision. We think it is the best way to protect our children, teachers and family members, especially those with preexisting conditions who are most susceptible to complications from the virus.
Tragically, I know parents and grandparents who were immunocompromised and got COVID-19 from their children and grandchildren. The children and grandchildren recovered, but the parents and grandparents died.
As a rabbi, this is what I must weigh. I am with these families as their loved ones get sick and when they mourn. I see and feel their pain. This is what we all must consider in making these life-altering decisions.
It is literally the value of a life. I want to do everything possible to prevent more COVID-related funerals.
Many of our children are close to their grandparents, who are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications due to their age. When I see grandparents dropping off and picking up their grandkids, I pray that they will remain safe, healthy and able to enjoy many more years and milestones together.
Too many families have not been that fortunate. More than 1 million people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. since 2020. Worldwide, more than 6 million people have died.
The Talmud, the primary text of Jewish religious law, teaches: “To save one life is to save the world.”
That’s what this decision does. It works to save as many lives as possible, in the best way we know how right now.
As a rabbi, I’m not in a position to debate the medical data about the COVID-19 vaccines (although like most rabbis, I enjoy debating). We have our medical advisers for that.
What I can speak to is the importance of Jewish values and how to incorporate those values into our modern, daily lives.
Jewish ethical values place pikuach nefesh — the commandment to preserve life — above all others. The obligation to fulfill this commandment gives even the most traditionally observant Jews permission to break almost every other Jewish commandment. In other words, saving a life is not just an obligation, but an imperative.
In the case of vaccinations, pikuach nefesh calls on us to be vaccinated, not only to protect ourselves but to protect others.
This is why Simcha is committed to having all of our children and staff fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
We want to make our environment — the return to something close to normalcy after these 2½ years of interruptions and grief — as safe and seamless as possible. COVID-19 has taken too much from our kids and families already.
It has caused such upheaval emptiness and loss, such disconnect and isolation for our teens and youth and so much confusion and missed learning opportunities for our little ones. We have missed so many birthday parties, class trips, and communal celebrations of Jewish holidays.
We at Temple Beth El and at Simcha have done what we can to be outdoors and safely distanced, but we haven’t had large gatherings in our sanctuary or social hall. Our December Hanukkah celebrations occurred outside in the dark, which was quite cold, despite the warmth of the menorah’s lights. We’ve welcomed the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and marked the holiest day of our year, Yom Kippur, in our parking lot.
We’ve had to avoid eating indoors around a table, a hallmark of all religions, and something we Jews do together every Friday night to welcome the Sabbath. We’ve lost what for many of us is our favorite part of our celebrations: the sense of community we feel while sharing a meal.
We want to get some of that back for our kids.
We think vaccinating all kids, staff and teachers will give us the best chance at sustaining a creative, stimulating curriculum while keeping the most vulnerable among us safe.
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These Jewish values of inclusivity stretch beyond our policy on vaccination. Our anti-bias curriculum is another example of how we strive to honor the value of each person and establish a safe community for learning. We welcome all children in our program. You don’t have to be Jewish. Our community celebrates diversity and welcomes families of all backgrounds. We stress the importance of friendship, understanding and getting to know people who come from different experiences and cultures.
Given the departures of a handful of families, our program has some openings right now. Programs vary — from two to five days a week and from half to full days — and our curriculum is play-based and mostly outdoors.
Our teachers are already hard at work rethinking ways to engage with our young children and families. Together, they are building a warm and caring learning experience, based on Jewish values, and the need to preserve life.
Those values teach us to care for each other and put the health of our community first.
We must work together to keep each other safe, heal, learn, celebrate and embrace life for ourselves, our elders, and our children.
Rabbi Paula Marcus has served as senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aptos since 2016. She sees activism and social justice as key to Jewish values. She served on the national board of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and has facilitated numerous justice-oriented workshops in the Bay Area. She is one of the co-founders of Out in Our Faith, an interfaith LGBTQ network, and a leader in the Santa Cruz interfaith Tent of Abraham Project. She has lived in Santa Cruz County for over 40 years. Her previous piece for Lookout, “Live your biblical values: Support the Park Avenue housing project,” appeared in May. For information about Simcha preschool, contact Caitlin Clancy at email@example.com.