Dr. Stephen Hall smiles with his "Covid-19 Vaccination Record Card" after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, Dec. 21, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Dr. Stephen Hall smiles with his "Covid-19 Vaccination Record Card" after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, Dec. 21, 2020. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Vaccine registry part of some synagogue reopening plans

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More than 150 million Americans have received the Covid-19 vaccine, and yet a large swath of the country remains deeply skeptical of it, and of certain policies accompanying its rollout — such as requiring vaccinations in workplaces, restaurants and other public spaces. In an extreme gesture, last month Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene compared efforts at a Tennessee grocery store to identify vaccinated staff to Nazi persecutions of Jews.

Notwithstanding those comparisons, at least two regional synagogues, B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek and Beth Israel in Carmel, have started instituting new Covid-19 safety policies  — vaccine registries — that leaders say have won over shul-goers and have lent some peace of mind to administrators.

“We don’t want to be in people’s business,” said Keren Smith, who as executive director of B’nai Tikvah has been maintaining a list of congregants who have produced their CDC vaccination record cards, either digitally or in person.

Even without being asked, “We had members come up to us and say ‘I am vaccinated!’ They would volunteer this information,” she said. “It’s a source of pride for many people.”

Vaccine registries have become an important component of a patchwork of Covid-19 precautions, as many synagogues move toward normal in-person services following the June 15 statewide reopening. (Neither B’nai Tikvah nor Beth Israel are fully back to normal, holding in-door services at 50 percent capacity or meeting outdoors.)

The leaders of both shuls say their congregants are fully on board with the plan. It helps that the Bay Area has embraced the Covid-19 vaccine with open arms (or rolled-up sleeves), with some of the highest vaccination rates in the country. By late May, all nine counties were among the top-25 most vaccinated in America, per capita. Marin County was the most vaccinated in the country, and San Francisco was fourth, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Yet the debate over vaccine safety, requirements to get the shot, and social stigma against those who don’t, has exposed a fault line in the country and become yet another indicator of our sharply divided age. Many remain opposed to efforts to track vaccination status and to require vaccines for participation in public life. Governors in several states — including Texas, Mississippi and Florida — banned the use of so-called “vaccine passports,” official documents demonstrating proof of inoculation.

The issue has become a political and cultural lightning rod, and a source of controversy. Greene, newly elected to Congress, said in her tweet that Food City supermarket’s requirement that staff display their vaccine status was “just like the Nazi’s forced Jewish people to wear a gold star.” She would eventually apologize for multiple comments comparing the Covid-19 response to Nazism, though her supermarket tweet garnered more 13,000 likes and remains up.

Rabbi Bruce Greenbaum of Beth Israel and Smith of B’nai Tikvah said they each deliberated about whether a vaccine registry would present an invasion of privacy, but among their congregants there was little to no pushback about sharing vaccination status, nor to keeping a list.

“The vast majority of our congregants are vaccinated,” Greenbaum noted. “We’re not saying you have to be vaccinated,” he added, “but we’re encouraging it for a variety of reasons.” Among them, the imperative to preserve human life: “pikuach nefesh, a basic Jewish value.”

In a recent community-wide email, Beth Israel congregants were told that “Proof of vaccination must be shown (one time only) in advance of attending an in-person event.”

In practice, the synagogue’s policies are actually a bit more lenient, Greenbaum said. Unvaccinated attendees are not excluded from services. But if someone is not on the vaccine registry, including children under 12 who are not eligible for the vaccine, they have to wear a mask.

“So far it’s worked pretty well,” he said. “We didn’t want to make people show their vax card every time they walked in.”

At B’nai Tikvah, the list is being kept in part as preparation for the High Holidays. Services will be conducted in person, barring any worsening of the pandemic due to virus variants, Smith said, and the registry will be one element of screening, which may also include asking about a recent negative Covid test.

“We’re going to have a lot of people in the room,” Smith said. “I think if our members know that everybody in the room is either vaccinated or has tested negative, you have a different comfort level, psychologically, to sit in a room and be able to enjoy services.”

She added, “It’s not something that people are shy about. Once they show it to me, they don’t have to show it again.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.