By Rabbi Uri Topolosky
Special to WJW
For two years in a row, our congregation has concluded Yom Kippur under the stars — this past year due to COVID, and the year before after a 3-year-old boy pulled the fire alarm with 20 minutes left in Neilah. Both experiences were surprisingly beautiful and profound.
I actually prayed for months after that first, exhilarating, outdoor Neilah for the wisdom to convince our synagogue board to do it again. I half joked the second time around that it was all my fault — I had prayed too hard.
I was thinking about that prayer toward the end of last summer, as the pandemic was trudging along, wondering how to frame a High Holiday message of resilience and hope for the congregation.
As their rabbi, I had been wrestling with how best to serve and lead. We had reopened the synagogue, albeit outdoors, in masks and socially distant, but not everyone returned. We offered classes and programs online, but Zoom fatigue and parental exhaustion were real. I was teaching outdoors, but the summer heat (and now the cold) and COVID anxiety limited those opportunities. One-on-one engagement was most gratifying, but so many were still falling through the cracks.
That was when I decided to enroll in the Novavax COVID vaccine trial, hoping to do my small part, along with 30,000 other subjects, to help science give us the next step forward. This decision was especially gratifying with the recent news that the vaccine has an efficacy rate of nearly 90 percent.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his address Kol Dodi Dofek writes: “Man is born as an object, dies as an object, but it is within his capability to live as a “subject” — as a creator and innovator who impresses his individual imprimatur on his life and breaks out of a life of instinctive, automatic behavior into one of creative activity.”
Granted, some gifted scientists are the real creators in this vaccine narrative, but I feel blessed to be even just a subject in this trial. In the (translated) words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, this has really felt like an attempt “to turn fate into destiny.”
I have now received two inoculations, have had blood regularly drawn, and have tested negative for the coronavirus for each of the past six months. Every time I visit the clinic, I meet other participants in the trial. Some much younger than me, and others much more my senior. There is a quiet, determined stillness in the air. Grateful whispers and appreciative nods are exchanged from behind masked faces.
I have been most impressed by the medical team. They, too, have committed themselves to the trial, and warmly recognize me at each appointment — probably not by my face, but by my “Rabbi Uri” mask that I wear. As they take my vitals and check my chart, we talk about the importance of faith-based communities walking through this crisis, and the need for clergy to model trust in vaccination.
We acknowledge that there are those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, and so, I feel even more grateful for the opportunity to help pave the way for others to get their shot.
I am now in an awkward position, because the great creators and innovators of our time have risen to the challenge, and moved more quickly than anyone could have expected. As a result, the vaccine producer has applied to the FDA for permission to unblind the study (which is supposed to continue until the summer), so that any of the subjects who received a placebo can now receive a vaccine. That response could come any day now, and I too might be scrambling like everyone else to get an appointment. In the meantime, I plan to continue in a study that could provide a much-needed additional vaccine for our world.
For my own congregation, I’m wondering if I should press my synagogue board for a third round of outdoor Neilah — this time, may it be of our own choosing. In that spirit, I continue to pray that we turn this painful fate into an inspired destiny.
Rabbi Uri Topolosky serves as the spiritual leader of Kehilat Pardes – The Rock Creek Synagogue in Rockville. He is a graduate of YCT Rabbinical School in New York.