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How Women of Faith Are Leading the Way in the Vaccine Push

jewish women leading push on COVID 19 vaccine

Photo Credit: Roman Yanushevsky/Shutterstock

Hundreds of thousands were dying as a seemingly unstoppable virus spread across the continent. A technological feat of a breakthrough was made with a vaccine. Then came the challenge of getting people to take it.

It may sound like the modern-day story of COVID-19, but this was 19th-century Europe, when smallpox ravaged families and communities. With the Catholic church’s influence strong across many parts of the Continent, it was priests who were among those who took up the charge of convincing the faithful to get inoculated. The disease eventually would be eradicated in the latter half of the 20th century.

Today, as Americans once again go to battle against the newest epidemic, clergy and communities of faith are among those at the forefront of helping the nation get back on its feet.

Parking lots and meeting rooms at churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples across the country have been transformed into vaccination sites. Ministers, imams, and rabbis have become some of the strongest voices in the push to get as many Americans as possible to vaccinate.

“Judaism teaches that ‘when you save one life, it is as though you saved the whole world,’” says Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, a longtime leader in Conservative Jewish tradition who is the founder and CEO of Leading Ethics LLC. “Vaccines save lives, and getting vaccinated will save our own lives by protecting us from COVID. Vaccination, which is safe, is also our individual opportunity to save countless lives by slowing the spread of the virus throughout the population and impeding the promulgation of new variants.”

“Faith leaders are also important role models for their communities and build vaccine trust by getting vaccinated and sharing photos, videos, and sermons about the vaccination experience on social media and their community websites,” Schonfeld says.


Schonfeld is among the many American faith leaders who have put their voices and time this year by working directly with congregations, ministries, and individual members of their faith communities to help educate Americans about the safety and effectiveness of the three vaccines currently available in the U.S. She has conducted online Q&As with rabbis about how to combat COVID-19 and pointed congregations to programs such as Faiths4Vaccines, an interfaith effort promoting vaccination across religious lines.

“Vaccine hesitancy can be caused by misinformation, which faith leaders can address. It can also be caused by concerns arising from any number of personal or social factors, and faith leaders can help people obtain the information they need to have their questions answered,” says Schonfeld, who is based in New York and is the former CEO of the The Rabbinical Assembly, the main body representing rabbis in the Conservative Jewish movement.

“Faith leaders are also important role models for their communities and build vaccine trust by getting vaccinated and sharing photos, videos, and sermons about the vaccination experience on social media and their community websites,” Schonfeld says.

Indeed, the misinformation about the most effective solution to end the pandemic — a simple shot or two in the arm — seems to have in part led to the slowdown of vaccinations in the U.S. as cities and states turn offering prizes to entice people who have so far avoided “the jab.” Perhaps the state of Ohio has taken it the furthest, with the governor announcing randomly drawn $1 million prizes for those who get vaccinated.

False rumors have spread in some Jewish and Muslim communities that vaccine vials contain traces of pork — something that’s forbidden in both faith traditions. Surveys have shown that white evangelical Christians, a group that numbers more than 40 million in the U.S., comprise one of the demographics that’s most opposed to getting vaccinated. According to a Pew Research Center study, 45% of white evangelicals said they would not get vaccinated.

Numbers like that have caused Schonfeld and other faith leaders great concern, leading to the recent launch of a host of faith-based websites and organizations aiming to combat hesitancy among religious groups.

Schonfeld sees religious leaders as among those who can bridge the gaps — between education and misinformation, between hesitancy and enthusiasm, and between preventative health and risky practices — when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.


Faith4Vaccines describes itself as a “multifaith movement comprised of local and national religious leaders, as well as medical professionals, who are working together to identify and resolve current gaps in vaccine mobilization, outreach, and uptake.” Its leaders include Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, the co-convener of the National African Americans Clergy Network, and Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist who is part of the Muslim American Health Professionals organization. On the website for Faith4Vaccines, Syed and others share videos of themselves speaking candidly about why vaccines are so important to them.

Other projects include Christians and the Vaccine, which uses examples from the life and words of Jesus as well as testimonies by prominent scientists who are Christians to promote the vaccination cause.

Schonfeld sees religious leaders as among those who can bridge the gaps — between education and misinformation, between hesitancy and enthusiasm, and between preventative health and risky practices — when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Faith leaders are in a position to identify obstacles to vaccination such as transportation, care coverage needs for children, elders, or other household members, challenges to getting paid time off of work, language barriers, or other challenges,” she says. “The slowing in vaccination rates is worrisome and means that the vaccination effort needs faith leaders more than ever to work ‘one at a time’ to address hesitancy. Looking across our society, faith leaders are one of the most well-situated groups to do this work.”



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