They came in waves throughout the day, large groups in car pools and married couples taking advantage of their newfound health for a road trip through the mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania.
By the time night had fallen, more than 60 Hasidic Jews from New York had arrived to donate blood plasma, rich in the antibodies they generated when they were sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“There were probably never so many Hasidim in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the history of the world, and here they’re riding in literally to save lives,” said Mordy Serle, an Orthodox Jew who made the trip from Brooklyn last month to donate blood. “I think I was the only person there without a beard.”
The coronavirus has hit New York state with devastating force, infecting more than 340,657 people and killing more than 26,000. And public health data suggests the Orthodox and Hasidic community may have been affected at a rate that exceeds other ethnic and religious groups, with community estimates placing the number of dead in the hundreds, including beloved religious leaders.
That heavy toll has caused grief and anguish in a famously tight-knit community, but has also ignited tension over religious events, like funerals, that attracted crowds in violation of social-distancing rules and drew the ire of Mayor Bill de Blasio last month.
But as people have begun to recover, thousands have donated blood plasma, which public health officials believe may be used to help treat people suffering from COVID-19.
A number of factors lie behind the outsize role of the Orthodox plasma drive, according to public health experts and community leaders, including the close ties that bind Orthodox society, a religious commitment to the value of human life and a network of organizers committed to turning something bad into something good.
“I think the Jewish people are a little bit like a rubber band,” Serle said. “You know, the more you pull them down, the more they’re going to snap back up.”
Thousands of recovered COVID-19 patients nationwide have donated blood plasma in recent weeks, said Dr. Michael Joyner, who is leading a study at the Mayo Clinic in the use of plasma to treat patients with severe COVID-19.
“By far the largest group is our Orthodox friends in New York City,” said Joyner, who said more than 5,000 patients across the country had received plasma treatment so far. “I would be shocked if they were less than half the total.”
Dr. Shmuel Shoham, who is leading a study at Johns Hopkins University on the use of plasma to treat people immediately after virus exposure, said it was clear Orthodox Jews from New York were “punching way above their weight.”
“The community has taken a tragedy and turned it into a superpower,” said Shoham, who immigrated from Israel as a child.
The seeds for the Orthodox donation drive’s success may have been planted years ago, when Shoham’s friends in New York began to circulate his name in the Orthodox community as someone who could help people navigate the world of medicine.
“I have this inability to say no,” Shoham said. “So people would call me and ask questions and I would answer, and that’s how I developed relationships with them over the years.”
When he learned about the impact of the virus on the Hasidic community in New York, the doctor reached out to a friend, Chaim Lebovits, a shoe salesman, to see if he knew anyone who would be interested in donating their plasma. The response from the community was immediately positive, the doctor said.
On the ground, several local initiatives to recruit donors had already begun, including one organized by Lebovits as well as another run by Serle, a lawyer, and Abba Swiatycki, a real estate developer. Avrohom Weinstock was organizing a similar drive through his employer, Agudath Israel, an ultra-Orthodox umbrella group whose leader, Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, died from the coronavirus last month.
“What struck me initially was that we all kind of had the same idea,” Weinstock said about organizers of the plasma drive. “It resonated with everybody in the community and that’s why they really pushed it forward and donated. I think that it comes from our education and the way we’re raised, the idea of kindness, or chesed, as being one of the foundations of what the world is built on and how it is sustained.”
Agudath Israel publicized the effort at synagogues across the New York region and included information about it in its newsletter, which has tens of thousands of subscribers.
Weinstock said rabbis instructed their followers to drive to blood banks on the Sabbath, in contravention of normal religious rules, if that was the only time they were able to secure an appointment to donate.
“From a moral and religious perspective, we have every obligation to do whatever we can,” Weinstock said. “If we’ll find out later it saved 50 lives or 100 lives or 20 lives, whatever the case is, if it’s 20 lives, it’s worth every effort, every minute of it.”
Together, they have gotten more than 12,000 plasma donors to sign up since April 4. Serle said organizers expect that number to grow to 30,000.
They have recruited so many donors that appointments at blood banks across New York and New Jersey have filled up, forcing donors to travel to Pennsylvania and Delaware to donate plasma.
“I’m, like, blown away by it,” Serle said.
The medical benefits of convalescent plasma for coronavirus patients have not yet been determined by clinical trials, and several studies about its use are underway nationwide.
“We are hopeful, we are cautiously optimistic but we are doing rigorous data analysis to tell us more,” Joyner said. “All the standard caveats apply.”
But he said blood plasma had been used to treat patients suffering from infectious disease for more than 100 years, including during the 1918 Spanish flu and more recent outbreaks of SARS in China.
“In a pandemic situation,” he said, “what choice do you have?”
Community leaders and Hasidic news media say that hundreds of Orthodox Jews in the New York area may have died from COVID-19, and Orthodox neighborhoods have been among the most heavily affected in the city.
The plasma drive has given organizers a sense of purpose at a time of communal and personal grief.
As the pandemic bore down on New York, Lebovits’ brother died of cancer. He spent time with his brother and attended his funeral before he went back to organizing the drive, he said.
“One of the things he told me was no matter what happens, you’ve got to keep doing what you’re doing because there are other people’s lives on the line,” Lebovits said.
Antibodies and donation appointments have also occupied their minds at times of great personal joy.
Serle said he remembered the day their drive began to work with New York Blood Center — Saturday April 11, the Sabbath — because it was the same day his daughter was born.
“We had a conference call scheduled for 11:45 with the Mayo Clinic and Hopkins and some other hospitals,” Serle said. “My daughter was born at 11:30, and my wife says after the baby was born, ‘You better get on that call.’ So in the delivery room with the baby there, I’m sitting there on this conference call. It was surreal.”
Overall, he said, after so much hardship, many in the Orthodox community view the return of their good health — and their COVID-19 antibodies — as a blessing.
“We look at it as a gift that we recovered, because many people in our community did not recover. And for us a gift is not something to sit back and enjoy and just talk about, it is a gift we have to use,” he said. “Everybody here has the gift of these antibodies, and they want to use them to save people.”