On Tuesday on social media, I was shocked, thrilled and amazed to see a selfie photo of a Bergenfield neighbor receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. With 370 likes and 50 supportive comments the last time I looked at the post, I think it’s safe to say that the excitement was palpable. While the end of the global pandemic may not be imminent, it is at least in our sights!
A frontline healthcare worker, Dr. Yoni Ratzersdorfer is an obstetrician working alongside Dr. Yaakov Abdelhak at Maternal Resources. It is a private, high-risk OB-GYN practice with offices in Hackensack, Lakewood, Jersey City and Saddle River. Yoni delivers out of Hackensack University Medical Center (HUMC), where he received the Pfizer vaccine, the first one approved last Friday by the FDA for emergency use. He will receive the second dose of the two-part vaccine in three weeks.
Yoni’s wife, Rachel, whose children go to school with mine at Moriah, where she also works, spoke to me as Yoni was delivering babies late on Tuesday night. “HUMC started vaccinating its doctors on Tuesday and Yoni, as well as the other physicians in his practice, received the vaccine in the first round because obstetricians are known to have high risk of exposure. The reason for this is that they would never turn away a patient in labor, even if the patient tested positive for COVID,” she explained.
The Ratzersdorfers had been anxiously awaiting the vaccine, and of course were alert to potential short-term side-effects, but he reportedly felt totally fine and the shot did not hurt at all. “Hours later my arm felt a little sore, but overall it was no different from a flu shot,” Yoni said.
He said this next stage of the pandemic is a big milestone for their family and the community. “We are very excited to have reached this point where we have a viable vaccine. But we know the fight isn’t over yet and we still need to be vigilant about mask wearing and social distancing,” he said.
With no vaccine and no 100% reliable protection against exposure, this year has been among the most difficult for many people working in medical or medical-adjacent fields. As a personal aside, my own husband works in the medical field as well, at a hospital in Manhattan, though not like Yoni in a patient-facing role, and I can attest that the stress on him, and our family, has been profound and, at times, overwhelming.
“It’s been a very stressful year trying to give the best care to our patients while also not wanting to get sick or spread the virus,” said Yoni, who has treated and cared for a wide array of COVID patients, with infections ranging from asymptomatic to severe.
The vaccine and its halachic implications have been studied by the rabbinic leadership at the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America. On Tuesday, the same day Yoni received the vaccine, the group released a joint statement encompassing their psak on the issue, after seeking guidance from their poskim, Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig and with the support of Rabbi Dovid Cohen. “The conclusion of our poskim is that, pursuant to the advice of your personal health care provider, the Torah obligation to preserve our lives and the lives of others requires us to vaccinate for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available,” the statement said.
These are indeed monumental, but also frightening, times. The speed at which the vaccine was developed can be seen either as inordinately rushed or amazingly miraculous. I choose to rejoice in the miracle, especially as I write this on the seventh day of Chanukah, when we are commanded to publicize the miracle from our history. I am looking forward to this miracle in our own time, and to the moments when I can hug my family and friends again and move forward, wiser and more cognizant of my health and the health of others. Because, after all, this pandemic and the associated halachic obligations of mesirat hanefesh, to preserve lives, has taught us to focus, wholeheartedly, on what is most important.
It is my greatest, most fervent hope that Yoni’s vaccine will be the first of many successful and healthy moments in our community, as we dig out of the most difficult year many of us have ever faced.
By Elizabeth Kratz