When the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association started, members did not have vaccine education on their minds. The group, known as JOWMA, began two years ago as a networking and mentoring organization for frum female medical professionals.
“My main goal, when I thought of what would become JOWMA, wasn’t an organization to provide community education,” said Dr. Eliana Fine Feld, MD, first year OBGYN resident at Stony Brook University Hospital. “It was to support women in the Orthodox community who wanted to go into the medical field. It was to provide mentorship and networking opportunities to frum female physicians, physician trainees, and pre-medical students; and to show women that it is possible to have a successful career as a physician while having a family.”
So how did JOWMA become a leader in the community in promoting the Covid-19 vaccines?
In a word: Timing. In March 2019, when Fine Feld started the organization, a measles outbreak was plaguing different pockets of the U.S., including several Orthodox communities. Fine Feld and other early JOWMA members realized that although some were not getting vaccinated for ideological reasons, many others had more practical concerns.
“If you have seven kids, and you’re living in an apartment in Brooklyn with no car, you’re going to have very little motivation to head out and get a vaccine,” she said.
Fine Feld and Dr. Maureen Nemetski, MD, PhD, a pediatric emergency medicine physician, decided to create a vaccine hotline that people could call and receive a confidential, free, in-home MMR vaccine by one of JOWMA’s doctors. With the help of Dr. Jane Zucker, MD, assistant commissioner at NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene, the organization was able to obtain vaccines from the DOH.
“There is a lot of mistrust of medical authorities in some communities, and we thought that being frum medical professionals, combined with providing a completely free service, would encourage people to get vaccinated,” said Fine Feld.
JOWMA members noticed that the vaccine hotline also became a place where thousands were calling to ask questions about the safety of the vaccine.
“We realized that we had a whole population of people that don’t utilize TV or the Internet to get information, and they call different hotlines to get that information,” said Fine Feld.
Thus, instead of only being a place to call to request the free vaccine service, the JOWMA vaccine hotline was transformed into a way of communicating measles vaccine information and updates.
In the current epidemic, the hotline functions similarly, providing information about Covid-19, the vaccine, and various other preventative health issues. Thus far it has received 40,000 calls. The information in the hotline is updated weekly and is linked to JOWMA’s weekly podcast led by Dr. Alissa Minkin, MD, a pediatric specialist at Beach Pediatrics.
When Covid-19 hit, JOWMA utilized many of their already existing educational methods, such as webinars, the hotline, and podcasts, to collaborate with other medical professionals and discuss topics related to the vaccine and Covid-19. JOWMA also created a bi-monthly live-stream town hall series called “Covid-19 Vaccine & You” that featured medical professionals such as Dr. Naor Bar Zev, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and statistical epidemiologist, and Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at the FDA, discussing topics such as the process of vaccine development, its importance, and safety of the vaccines.
Dr. Sarah Becker, chair of JOWMA’s Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force, said the town halls were created in response to people feeling that so much Covid-19 and vaccine information “is thrown at them at once. The town halls allow people to feel heard in this process by submitting their questions and having them answered and creating more of a discussion feel.”
JOWMA also created mikvah guidelines that provided information about how to attend the mikvah in the safest way possible.
“We felt that, as frum female medical professionals, we have both the experiential and medical understanding of the mikvah in a way that a secular health organization does not,” said Fine Feld.
JOWMA’s town hall series also includes a live-stream specifically for kallah teachers, doulas, and mikvah attendants that provides information about answering questions that may arise when speaking with kallahs, mothers or mikvah attendees.
“These are people that are naturally going to receive questions about the vaccine relating to pregnancy, fertility, and overall safety, and we wanted to provide them with the necessary information to feel confident in answering questions,” said Fine Feld. The town hall series also featured a live-stream for medical professionals about how to talk to their patients about the vaccine and offered print materials such as brochures that focused on dispelling the myths of the Covid-19 vaccine. Additionally, as many members of JOWMA are on their children’s schools’ medical advisory boards, JOWMA put out back-to-school guidelines that featured up-to-date Covid-19 information and answered common questions.
Although a recent article on Emes News by Rabbi Reuvein Schwartz stated that JOWMA has been “issuing halachic rulings about vaccines… and inhibiting mikvah usage, without having a single Rabbi on their board,” Dr. Becker reiterated that JOWMA’s goal “was never to provide commentary or information from a halachic perspective. We have only provided information on topics that are near and dear to our communities, from strictly a medical perspective. Our mikvah guidelines did not say whether you should go to the mikvah or not, they simply stated if you do, here’s what you can do to be safe.”
Noting that JOWMA sometimes gets feedback that they are too “pro-vaccine,” Dr. Becker said, “Our job is to provide people with the most up-to-date evidence about the vaccine, vaccine development, and what is real information and what is fear-mongering and conspiracy theory…. When you are doing that, you’re going to come out, on the most part, of getting the vaccine.”
One of the best ways to spread vaccine awareness is to “lead by example,” said Dr. Sarah Rosanel, MD, a board-certified internal medicine doctor currently completing her cardiology fellowship, and the head of JOWMA’s Social Media and Communications committee. “We feature pictures of many JOWMA doctors and medical students getting the vaccine on our Instagram page, and some have paragraphs to explain why they are doing so.”
Fine Feld said that being part of the community has helped JOWMA know exactly what is important to community members and how to speak to them. “We can understand why the most common questions we’ve gotten about the vaccine have been about pregnancy and fertility; this is so greatly valued in our communities, and so we create events to address those concerns. We understand that historically there were times that Jews were misled by the government, that in the Holocaust Jews were experimented on by medical professionals. We understand where the hesitancies can arise from, but we also understand the science behind the vaccine and the importance of it.”
JOWMA intentionally splits their advertising between digital (Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc.) and various community newspapers and magazines, Dr. Becker said, in order to reach different crowds.
Another strategy utilized is to partner with different community organizations in order to spread information. For example, one town hall was a partnership with Bikur Cholim of Lakewood, Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition (FJCC), and Oizrim Jewish Council of Monsey. Other events were partnered with organizations such as Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association (OJNA) and I Was Supposed to Have a Baby, an organization that utilizes Instagram to help spread support and education for those struggling with infertility.
“Working with trusted organizations from various communities allows us to spread information to a wide range of communities and reach people that we might not have otherwise,” said Dr. Becker. Additionally, JOWMA’s hotline was created, and continued, specifically for the purpose of being able to provide up-to-date information for those that do not utilize TV or Internet; the organization also sends mailings of educational pamphlets and information to this population. “We have members who are supporting their husbands in kollels, or are rebbetzins, and we have more modern Orthodox physicians, so we try to utilize modalities that can cater to various types of communities, but our information is geared towards all frum communities,” said Fine Feld.
Dr. Rosanel noted that someone who was anti-vaccine once commented to the organization, “How much are you all getting paid to spread this [vaccine] information?” In response, she emphasized that JOWMA volunteers are busy medical specialists, doctors, medical students, mothers, and wives who volunteer their time for free because “we want to spread awareness of and the truth about what we see on the frontlines, in hospitals, offices, labs, etc., about Covid-19 and the vaccine. Since the beginning there have been misconceptions about Covid-19 and the vaccine that the reality in the labs and hospitals does not support.”
Dr. Rosanel does not conceptualize differing opinions on the vaccine as “pro” or “anti” vaccine. “I look at it as having the medical background, understanding of drug development, and understanding of science, or not having that.”
All the members of JOWMA are volunteers and spend hours of their free time creating events, responding to questions, and updating their social media pages.
“Time is what we have the least of, but we give it because we believe in the importance of sticking together and using all of our skills to give to the community,” said Dr. Rosanel. After a recent event about cardiovascular health and preventative cardiology education, she received a personal message from an attendee saying that there was so much new information she learned from the webinar and can’t wait to make changes to her life based on what was discussed in the webinar. “Feedback like this really inspires me to keep doing what I am doing.”
JOWMA’s next event, co-sponsored by Chazaq, is tentatively scheduled for July 11, and will discuss the vaccine, pregnancy, and fertility.
The organization’s next frontier is to keep the conversation going about vaccinations. “We don’t want people to fall into an availability bias – that the vaccine must be dangerous because that’s what they are hearing about. People need to hear about vaccine safety and efficacy and be reminded the purpose of it: to close the door on Covid-19 and get back to normalcy,” said Dr. Becker.