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The First Responders
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36 Under 36 2020

The First Responders

These five people stand in for the hundreds of nominations we received of young people on the front lines of the battle against Covid-19.

In this extraordinary time, we saved the final spot in our 36 Under 36 2020 young leaders section to collectively honor five of those on the frontlines of fighting the coronavirus. They are stand-ins for the dozens of frontline workers and volunteers who were nominated. All combine a strong Jewish identity with an ethos of service that has strengthened during the current crisis. They are devoting — and in some cases, risking — their lives to bring physical and spiritual succor to the men and women threatened by this generation’s plague, doing it with the moral support of their concerned families. We salute them.

Dr. Eitan Fleischman, a resident at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, planned to spend the last few months in the hospital’s wards getting hands-on experience in treating such conditions as heart disease and COPD. Instead, he’s been spending time in the ICU with Covid-19 patients.

In ordinary times, Dara Marans Shapiro would be working long hours at her Midtown office and going to yoga classes and museums afterwards. Instead, she’s working from home and getting up early to take part in Zoom discussions about the project she formed at the start of the coronavirus crisis to deliver meals to health care workers.

If she followed her anticipated schedule, Sophie Kieffer would have been in South Sudan the last few months, doing health care advocacy work for a local nonprofit and visiting recipients in their home communities. Instead, she has been volunteering at food banks and soup kitchens throughout New York City, preparing food packages and serving meals to people affected by the pandemic.

During a health and economic crisis that has changed the lives of most people in this country, Fleischman, Kieffer and Shapiro, as well as Dr. Jonathan (Yoni) Garellek and Rabbi Joe Wolfson, have focused their time and energy on the needs of other people, those most (and most suddenly) in need.

“We all can do work that can save lives” — or support the lifesavers, says Rabbi Wolfson, a campus rabbi at New York University. “We’re all trying to do our part,” says Kieffer.

When their jobs changed or were curtailed over the last few months, all shared the impulse to use their skills — and in some cases, the added time on their hands — to reach out. “Coronavirus has removed much of our ability to do what we want to do,” Rabbi Wolfson says. But it has given them the chance to do something else.

Special Delivery

Rabbi Joe Wolfson, 34

Rabbi Joe Wolfson serves as the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) rabbi at NYU’s Bronfman Center for Jewish life. Teaming with his wife Corinne Shmuel, he has shifted his in-person classes and counseling sessions with students online and runs activities on behalf of the wider, off-campus community. Previously he had rounded up hundreds of students and alumni to create and deliver care packages to a homeless shelter annually on 9/11, and to bring coffee and donuts to firemen and policemen.

He now coordinates hundreds of calls to isolated seniors in Manhattan through DOROT, some of them made by students and alumni who speak Yiddish and Russian. Through Met Council, he arranges delivery of kosher food packages to the elderly and, before it closed earlier this month, to Covid-19 patients hospitalized at the Javits Center.

This impromptu work, facilitated via WhatsApp, “became a full-time operation,” the rabbi says.

A native of London who was active in Jewish student activities at Cambridge University, Rabbi Wolfson has also raised thousands of dollars for charitable distribution. He recorded a weekly podcast on the Torah portion to boost listeners’ spirits, and has arranged online lectures and musical performances for isolated seniors.

But not everything can be done online, and the rabbi understands the risks when he makes food deliveries to the homebound. “We had no other option,” he says. “We can’t leave them to starve. You can’t send food by Zoom.”

‘This is What I Signed Up to Do’

Dr. Jonathan (Yoni) Garellek, 33

Dr. Jonathan Garellek is based at two Long Island hospitals — North Shore University Hospital, in Manhasset, and Long Island Jewish Medical Center, in Hyde Park.

He also happens to be an infectious disease specialist, a medical fellow scheduled this winter and spring to serve as a consultant and researcher.

During the coronavirus peak, he did rounds with other physicians, seeing up to 50 patients a day. “This is what I signed up to do,” Dr. Garellek says. ‘I did not give it a second thought. It’s a real opportunity to do chesed [acts of kindness].” He’s also a member of a team conducting a trial for an experimental drug to treat Covid-19, and organizes weekly lectures given to other Infectious Disease fellows.

A resident of Queens’ Kew Gardens Hills neighborhood, Dr. Gerellek volunteers for the borough’s Jewish community, taking calls and answering questions from rabbis and others about the disease.

During the intermediate days of Passover, he gave up three vacation days to take shifts at the Long Island hospitals. An observant Jew, he says he still manages to daven, without a minyan of course, three times a day, despite his hectic schedule at the hospitals.

“I love what I do. In medicine you can make a difference in a person’s life,” he says, “I have not changed that.”

Spiritual Doctoring

Dr. Eitan Fleischman, 29

Dr. Eitan Fleischman, an internal medicine resident, says his medical work has taken on a spiritual aspect. He’s had to read the Shema at the bedside of deceased patients, on behalf of family members who could not be with their loved ones in the hospital.

The Cleveland native, who lives in Crown Heights (where he hosts gourmet Shabbat meals and is an active member of Congregation Kol Israel) commutes to work on an electric scooter. He has worked 12-to-14-hour shifts, six days a week, treating people diagnosed with the coronavirus, performing intubations and resuscitations. “It’s all Covid,” he says. He has had to work on the occasional Shabbat — a rabbinically permitted leniency in critical care.

Like so many other health workers, he saw his work switch overnight to the treatment of Covid-19 patients and the increased risk that accompanies it. “If you don’t do it, there’s no one else. It’s part of the job of being a doctor — part of a doctor is putting others before you.” Better he, than older, more-vulnerable physicians, Dr. Fleischman says.

Dr. Fleischman, who has served as a volunteer with the “Save a Child’s Heart” and “Project Sunshine” organizations, has worked as a patient liaison in the past months. He keeps families updated on the condition of patients whom they cannot visit or informs them of their deaths. “It’s emotionally draining,” he says.

The last few months have been an education, says Dr. Fleischman, who graduated from medical school a year ago. “I have dealt with death before, but not in this concentration. I don’t think there’s anything to fully prepare you” for this.

Feeding the Frontlines

Dara Marans Shapiro, 29

Dara Marans Shapiro, a native of Teaneck, N.J., lives on the Upper East Side and works as a financial services strategist. When she read about the pressure on health care providers and the decreasing business of local restaurants, she thought, “What can I do to help?”

Her answer was Feeding the Frontlines, a project she founded to support the failing businesses and deliver healthy meals to 37 hospitals, seniors residences and similar institutions here and in nearby New Jersey. Through a GoFundMe campaign, she has raised $35,000, provided 3,000 meals, and supported 34 restaurants (including three kosher ones). “I felt so helpless reading the news every morning, and I wanted to do what I could to make a difference,” Shapiro says. “I wanted to be a change maker. I felt accountable for other people.”

Her volunteer organization identifies hospitals that can use the help and restaurants to provide the meals. The volunteer team is remote; the restaurants themselves coordinate the deliveries.

Though emergency room workers are the focus, meals are provided to as many workers as possible on a shift, including security guards and social workers. Without her meals, she says, “they wouldn’t be eating, and they wouldn’t be eating well.” Recipients tell her, “you gave us fuel to get through the hard nights.”

Working long hours at home, Shapiro has sacrificed “sleep … and Zoom calls with friends.”

How does she judge the success of her efforts? “The metrics,” answers Shapiro, who majored in philosophy at college, “say it all.”

Putting South Sudan on Hold

Sophie Kieffer, 31

Sophie Kieffer was back in the States, planning to leave in March for a volunteer stint in South Sudan with the Impact Health Organization, when international travel shut down. After Passover with friends in her hometown of Providence, R.I., she came to Manhattan, where her parents now live, to find volunteer tikkun olam opportunities.

“I needed to do something to be useful,” says Kieffer, who earlier had volunteered with Ethiopian teens in Israel. “People are struggling. I feel I should help people who are struggling.”

She works six days a week at food banks and other feeding programs, most under the auspices of churches; once a week she goes to the Met Council warehouse in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She hands out food from food trucks, packs boxes of meals, and scoops cups of rice into containers for hours on end. In her spare time, she works at the New York offices of a few African-based NGOs, helping them with fundraising and website development.

Kieffer became interested in Africa after studying in Ghana during college, and earned a master’s degree in Global Health from Georgetown University.

Is there a risk in traveling around New York City? Of course, says Kieffer, who has had more than a dozen inoculations during her years working abroad. “I have been exposed to many types of diseases and have never let my potential for contracting them stand in the way of providing support for anyone in need.”

The best part of her work here?

“Hearing people say that they can see my smile through my mask.”

Kieffer says she will continue volunteering her time — maybe in another U.S. city — until she is able to go to South Sudan, as planned. “Definitely.”

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