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It’s happening in hair salons and doctor’s offices. At the farmer’s market and at the vet. In synagogues and high-rise apartment buildings. At backyard barbecues and breakfast clubs. Everywhere we break out of our pandemic bubbles has become a potential battleground between the vaccinated and the vaccine-skeptical.
Last week, I wrote about the dilemma I faced when my beloved hairdresser told me she would not get the coronavirus vaccine because she was afraid about its longterm effects. I wasn’t sure whether or how to engage her about the fear and the impact of her decision — or whether I had either an obligation or right to boycott the business because of it. So I asked three rabbis about the Jewish way to navigate this new divide in our communities respectfully, responsibly and empathetically.
And I asked you to share your own vaccine-dilemmas. They poured in. Here are some highlights:
Francine Friedman, a self-described “senior who is fully vaccinated,” said her synagogue is now offering two Shabbat services: one where vaccines are required and masks are not, the other where masks are required and vaccines are not. “Neither service meets my needs,” she said.
“I am not comfortable attending an indoor service with unvaccinated people, even if masked. I am also not comfortable with a large group of people unmasked, even if they all claim to be vaccinated…. So, I am relegated to continue to celebrate Shabbat via Zoom until the pandemic is behind us.”
Laura Strauss, who lives in New York City, had “a rather heated discussion via text” with her granddaughter — “the mother of my two great-grandsons” — who lives upstate and is not getting vaccinated out of concern for future pregnancies. “She said that when I come up to see ‘my boys’ she would wear a mask if that would make me more comfortable,” Laura said. “I said it would, and our conversation became the warm, friendly one it always has been. When I did visit a few Saturdays ago, she did wear her mask. I’m still not happy about the situation, but there is nothing further that I can do.”
Leonette Morrison recently took her dog to the vet — the first time since the onset of COVID that owners were allowed inside. “I wore my mask, but was taken aback when the vet — who was maskless — made a point of telling me I didn’t have to,” she wrote. “He then proceeded to chat with me about his life. I got the impression that maybe he was flirting — and wanted to see my face. In any event, I kept the mask on.”
Leah Chase is hosting her annual Fourth of July cookout on Monday (the 5th) at her cabin in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Two of her usual guests are unvaccinated; she polled the other invitees to see if they’d be comfortable attending alongside them: all said no. “‘We can’t wear masks at a barbecue!’” Leah said they told her. “‘We’re eating and drinking; even in the mountain air on the deck and porch, it’s not safe!’”
“So, my two friends have been un-invited,” Leah reported. “My first friend will no longer speak to me, nor will she answer telephone messages or texts. My other friend accepts the decision of my guests because, as he says, it’s his choice not to be vaccinated and he’ll suffer the consequences of being ostracized by some people.
“This is not a pleasant experience, as I want both at the table as they always have been. Nothing I say has budged either toward a vaccination site.”
A farmer’s market vendor that Judith Forman buys items from most weeks told her, ‘I don’t like vaccines.’ Judith responded, “I don’t like getting sick and dying!” But Judith said she did not try to convince the vendor to get vaccinated, “because I’m sure she would not listen.”
“Now I’m wondering if I should stop buying from her — not a boycott, but for my own safety,” Judith wrote. “On the other hand, I have not questioned all the other vendors I buy from about their vaccination status.”
Nina Mogilnik wrote in about a doorman in her apartment building who was unvaccinated. “I spoke with him and told him that I hoped he would get vaccinated because I care about him and want him to be safe and healthy,” she said. “I reminded him how sick my eldest son had gotten with the virus and did not want that to happen to him.”
The doorman “was subsequently outed by a resident on a condo meeting Zoom call, which I found appalling,” Nina added. A bit later, the condo board changed its policy to mask-optional for those who had been vaccinated. “Next time I saw this doorman, he was smiling broadly,” Nina said. “And not wearing a mask…”
Sharyn McKee said she has had an ongoing conversation throughout the pandemic with a co-worker who refuses to wear a mask or get vaccinated. “We have had several discussion, such as is he upset his parents had him vaccinated for small pox and polio?” she recounted. “All he can say is it is not the same, even though he cannot articulate why.
“The only time I actually became angry is when he said, ‘But you are pro-abortion, don’t I have the right to have a say over my body?’” Sharyn continued. “My response: ‘First of all, nobody is pro-abortion. I am pro-choice indeed, BUT PREGNANCY IS NOT CONTAGIOUS.’ I still wear a mask when I am in a room with him, to protect him. He doesn’t care about protecting me.”
Ryan Torok lives in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, and one of the families in his building is unvaccinated. “It makes for awkward conversation, and I definitely think the wrong thing to do is to tell them how crazy they are,” he wrote. “People do, ultimately, respect facts, provided they are delivered respectfully. No one wants to be judged, and this past year has been not only a viral pandemic, but a pandemic of person-to-person mistreatment.
“I don’t necessarily believe it is my job to persuade a skeptic to get the vaccine, but I do believe it is my responsibility to inform myself as to why getting the vaccine is important. If the conversations with the vaccine-hesitant come up, I can share what I know with that skeptical person.”
Cindy Chazan offered her “three cents,” which read like something of a manifesto: “I have a right to attend my own synagogue; however, I don’t feel comfortable if there would be an honor system whereby unvaccinated congregants will wear a masks and others don’t have to,” Cindy wrote. “I therefore have a choice and will probably continue to Zoom. My choice.”
“If I choose to wear a mask in a supermarket only to be heckled publicly by an anti-vaxxer, I have the right to report her behavior, not her decisions,” she continued. “If unmasked and ungloved staff at my local deli are dishing out food, EVEN if I love their food, I am opting to leave and taking my business elsewhere — and letting management know that I feel too uncomfortable to stay. Finally, if we have a party, I feel we have a right to explain that if you’re vaccinated, we welcome you.”
And Jerome Zacks said his “approach to individuals who declare their choice of refusing the vaccine on the basis of personal freedom is to respond with humor.” To wit: “I explain that I’ve joined the personal freedom group…I’ve decided not to stop for red lights!”
I was struck, reading the responses, by how many vaccine-showdowns seemed to be happening in hair salons. Maybe it’s the odd intimacy that, long before the pandemic, had many of us opening up about our dreams and dilemmas whenever we sat in the chair. Maybe it’s the close contact — certainly less than the six feet of social distancing — required to wash or cut or color or shave. Maybe it’s rooted in the asymmetry of this and other service-sector relationships.
Gail Geffon, who has an auto-immune disease, recently got her first cut-and-color in a year. When the stylist showed up with a plastic face shield, Gail asked her to mask up. She did — and then went on what Gail described as a “rant” about why she was not getting the vaccine, railing against the speed with which it was released.
“I have personally read all I could about COVID, I have spoken to numerous professionals — my personal physicians, pharmacists and ER doctors - so I felt I had a lot of information to share. But I controlled my tongue,” Gail wrote. “She sounded like so many others who believe in a conspiracy theory about the vaccines and the virus. I realized I would absolutely be wasting my breath and that my words would fall on deaf ears. And that she was the one holding scissors and hair dye in her hand over my head!!
“So instead, I bit my tongue, kept my mouth closed and told myself I would not return. There are many other hair stylists out there who believe as I do, who are fully vaccinated and who do not espouse their beliefs on their customers.”
A reader named Barry Schiller wrote that I — and presumably Gail — should have told the hairdresser I would not come back unless she got vaccinated. “In a capitalist country it is the financial implications that count,” he said. ”A breakfast group I am part of is not returning to one of our pervious spots because the owner did not take COVID precautions seriously. That helps move the market to those that do.”
I also heard from a salon owner in Maui, Hawaii, Marc Tolliver. He said he was having a problem with vaccinated clients not wanting to wear masks — and with stylists who do not want to get vaccinated. Marc, who is also a life coach, noted that he has long been telling stylists, “You do not just have five to 12 people in your chair a day, you have have five to 12 personalities in your chair, too. They all come with their own personal stories, with their concerns, fears and joys.”
He noted: “The beauty industry is all about personal contact.”
And then Marc shared his own story, something that happened not in his salon but while he was dining out with some friends. A client he had not seen in years but who he suspected would be vaccine-skeptical came up to the table, maskless, tapped him on the shoulder, and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek.
“If we were not in COVID, it would have been a warm and surprisingly wistful greeting — instead, since I was in fear mode, to protect myself, I immediate pulled away and said the words, ‘Are you vaxxed?’” Marc recalled. “She walked away hurt and surprised, because her trigger was ‘are you vaxxed?’ I had to ask my friends at my table, ‘Was I OK in that situation?’ and they all told me, ‘Yes.’
“Right now, we all run high on emotions,” he continued. “We can feel like a villain just asking someone if they are not vaccinated. We can feel like a victim if they are not vaxxed. Or we can feel like a hero if they are vaxxed.”
Marc did not list “rabbi” among his credentials, but he sounded a bit like one as he concluded: “As we are getting out of this worldwide pandemic, we may want to focus on our beliefs and values. The values we place and hold that are so dear to our life. We must not simply react, but instead respect the person who is in front of you — including yourself.”
Your Turn: Share memories of those lost at Surfside
The Surfside, Fla., collapse is an unimaginable tragedy. We are all praying, mourning, or hoping for a miracle as the painstaking search/rescue/recovery mission continues. So many of the 18 confirmed dead and 145 missing are Jewish, and so many families lost multiple members.
They were mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, colleagues and minyan-mates. To honor their lives, the Forward is collecting personal anecdotes and memories from people who knew them — the kinds of things we might say in a eulogy or share at shiva.
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Jodi Rudoren became Editor-in-Chief of the Forward in 2019. Before that, she spent more than two decades as a reporter and editor at The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @rudoren, email firstname.lastname@example.org and sign up here to receive her weekly newsletter, “Looking Forward,” in your inbox.
YOUR TURN: Reader stories of vaccine-dilemmas at hair salons and beyond