One year ago, SAR Academy in Riverdale found itself at ground zero of what would soon be the nationwide Covid-19 crisis.
One year later, the Modern Orthodox day school is rallying its community to assist seniors and others in getting Covid-19 vaccines.
Volunteers using WhatsApp have been helping eligible people, including Holocaust survivors, find available vaccines and book their slots, and sorting out travel to vaccination sites.
The effort began in December, when Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, principal of SAR Academy, realized that getting vaccinated would be a challenge for those without tech savvy. When the first vaccines became available in early January, Rabbi Krauss used the in-house messaging service Slack to help eligible faculty and staff get their vaccines.
Within days, about 150 members of the faculty and staff had their first dose, and the team turned its attention to the wider Bronx and Westchester community.
“I turned to a group of volunteers formed in the early days of the pandemic to deliver food and other essential supplies to the community, our chesed volunteers,” said Rabbi Krauss. “The group started with about 40 volunteers, quickly became 50 and now has about 80 people tirelessly communicating on WhatsApp.”
School families and local synagogues were sent links to a Google form for those seeking help and a list of resources.
Yael Baker, co-director of communications at SAR, said the school hasn’t tallied all those who have been helped. “I know one volunteer who just booked his 128th appointment on behalf of someone and another who reported her 65th. Most people aren’t keeping track because they simply want to help as many people as possible,” she said.
Volunteers have booked appointments for people in their home states of Illinois, Florida and Massachusetts. At least one student has been using the resources to assist her own network.
“My kids laugh at me because when I see openings, I drop everything and run to the computer,” said Jen Kroll, a vaccination volunteer. “The exchange on WhatsApp is constant, 24/7. Its all about infosharing and quick action. Rather than one person clicking on sites all day we all are available at different times and then posting when we see an opening.”
Said Rabbi Krauss: “What’s so inspirational is that this is no longer about SAR. This started as helping our community but its impact has now grown tremendously. It’s the truest definition of achdut,” or unity.
On March 3, the school held a virtual ceremony marking one year since it became one of the first schools in the metropolitan area to close due to Covid. (It has since opened with a strict pandemic protocol.) Among the speakers was Lawrence Garbuz, a New Rochelle attorney and SAR parent who was among the very first coronavirus patients in the state.
“I have tried to use this past year as period to reflect and to understand better what has happened to us and our community. It is bittersweet though,” said Garbuz. “We have lost people that we know. We have lost people that were our friends and our family. Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate.”
He shared a message of positivity.
“You need to have positive attitude in the ways you deal with each other and when you deal with yourself. Take care of yourself in order that you enjoy life, that you slow down, in order to take care of the things that are most important: homework, friendship, family,” he said.”That’s the lesson I learned in hospital, in rehab and as I’ve tried to recuperate over the past 12 months.”