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‘Mentsch of the highest order’: Jewish teen helps register hundreds for vaccine

Last month, Benjamin Kagan, 14, had a simple goal in mind: Help his grandparents in Florida register for a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. “I was like, I need to stay awake,” he said in an interview this week. “We had four computers running, and we got lucky.”

A Facebook group, a Google form, and 10-hours-a-day of work later, the high school freshman took that one experience of assisting his grandparents and created an approximately 50-person volunteer network for helping those eligible get access to a vaccine. Kagan alone has registered 119 people for vaccine appointments as of Wednesday morning, and the group he runs has registered 329 people.

“The numbers are always changing,” Kagan said. From the morning of Feb. 24 to noon that same day, his group had successfully registered 14 more people.

Kagan’s act of service comes at a time when the nation feels roiled in confusion over vaccine rollout, and eligible seniors struggle to get access to a shot amid a state-by-state, city-by-city, hospital-by-hospital registration system. Volunteer networks have sprung up to try to resolve the issue, including a collaboration between the DC Jewish Community Center and George Washington University’s Hillel that resulted in 105 vaccine appointments for local seniors within two weeks of its inception.

The Chicago native and Francis W. Parker High School student says his history of volunteer work prior to this endeavor boils down to a bar mitzvah project and an eighth grade in-school volunteer program that “obviously got cut short” when the pandemic sent students home.

This week, Kagan was able to help register his first-cousin-once-removed — Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, known to many as the “Twitter Rabbi” and a contributor to The Forward — for a vaccine.

Ruttenberg is shepping nachas. On Twitter, she called him a “mentsch of the highest order.”

“The system shouldn’t be so broken that we need 14 year olds to step up,” she wrote. “But given that it is, I’m so proud of him.”

Kagan’s group, Chicago Vaccine Angels, was born from the original Facebook group he joined, Chicago Vaccine Hunters, after hearing about it on the local evening news. The Vaccine Hunters were working to help individuals in need get access to vaccines.

Kagan created an easy-to-use Google form, where people in the Chicago area could submit their names and information. Once their inputs land in his spreadsheet, Kagan himself or a fellow volunteer works to find an appointment.

Soon enough, the teenaged member of Temple Sholom in Chicago became known to local clinics as an expert of sorts. In one instance, a nurse messaged Kagan on Facebook, according to the “Today Show”, saying her clinic has 10 extra doses that need to be used immediately since they had already been taken out of the freezer. Kagan called 10 local people, and the doses were all administered.

According to Kagan, the community he grew up with inspires him toward these acts of service. And he’ll keep working until “everyone in this country is vaccinated, or can easily access a vaccine by calling a pharmacy or going online,” he told Today.

“The Jewish values that my parents raised me with and that my temple’s raised me with have contributed towards this need, this want I have to give back,” Kagan said to The Forward.

Marie-Rose Sheinerman is a news intern at the Forward. Contact her at sheinerman@forward.com or follow her on Twitter @RoseSheinerman.

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