GW Hillel Students Lend a Hand to Older Jewish Adults for Vaccine Signup

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An older adult receiving a vaccine and a young adult on a computer are shown.

After talking with friends and family about how cumbersome the vaccine sign-up process was, Dava Schub noticed that the only success stories she’d come across involved a tech-savvy grandchild navigating the online vaccine registration for their grandparent. 

And as CEO of Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, Schub has developed a knack for community building. So, she reached out to Adena Kirstien, the executive director of Hillel at The George Washington University. 

Thus, the Vaccine Sign-Up Support Project was born: Thanks to a partnership between GW Hillel and the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center, older Jewish adults can rely on the buddy system to help them get vaccinated. 

Older Jewish adults sign up via a Google Form where they enter their contact information and indicate if they are DC, Maryland or Virginia resident. From there, older adults are matched with a member of GW Hillel within a week, according to Schub. 

After Kirstein put out feelers to GW Hillel, she got 20 responses almost immediately. At the time of publication, almost 40 students have volunteered to participate in the initiative since recruitment began two weeks ago. So far, around 300 older adults have signed up to receive support in the past week that the Google Form has been up and running.

Similar to vaccine distribution sites all across the country, the initiative’s biggest obstacle is the widespread shortage of vaccines. 

“We don’t have a magic wand,” said Schub, who stressed that the initiative does not guarantee vaccination appointments. “What we can promise is that we will stick with you through the process,” she said.

Schub’s emphasis on seeing older adults through the process of getting a vaccine appointment allows important community-building connections to be made. Due to pre-existing conditions, and age-related vulnerabilities, many older adults have been more isolated than the general population throughout the pandemic. Schub hopes that the contact older adults have with GW Hillel volunteers can be a bright spot during their lonely, dark winter’s days. 

That said, Schub has emphasized that volunteers aren’t trained social workers. For older adults who are looking for more support than the brief interactions with students can bring, the initiative is partnering with the J-Caring Hotline and Jewish Social Service Agency.

“I look at older adults and think of how much they’ve done for so many in their lives and in their community,” says Schub. Supporting them and helping them navigate this vital process “is our responsibility as a collective.” 

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And older Jewish adults aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of the initiative. Members of GW Hillel are also struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness, shares Kirstein. The executive director of GW Hillel makes a habit of reminding her students of the agency they do possess in a time where so much is out of their control. 

“On a day you’re struggling, what’s one thing you could do to help somebody else?” she asks them. “And could it lift your spirits?” 

In addition, college students are within the age ranges that typically experience the loss of a grandparent or grandparent-like figure, which the COVID-19 pandemic has tragically exacerbated. Connecting students with older Jewish adults has a particular emotional resonance said Kirstein. “There’s a special connection between those two generations,” she says.

Sarah Boxer, a junior at George Washington and part of student leadership at GW Hillel, said successfully signing up Jonathan Kempner, a businessperson who is 69 years old, for a vaccine felt as relieving as when she heard her own grandparents had gotten vaccinated. 

Kempner said he put his “tentacles out to any resource” in order to snag a vaccine appointment, which involved waking up at midnight on January 26, the first day that patients 65 and older could sign up for the vaccine in Maryland, to no avail. That day, appointment slots on some healthcare provider websites filled up ten minutes after going live, said Boxer.

After being matched with Boxer, Kempner said the 20-year-old called him the next day saying she had found him an imminent appointment at a site that was mere ten minutes from his home—he was immensely impressed. “Maybe it was a little bit of luck,” says Kempner. “It certainly beat going to six different websites,” he said. 

“I wish that this was something that every college was doing,” says Boxer. “And I wish there was a better network in place for people who do qualify to have access to resources that are meant to help them and guide them through the process.”

Schub is excited about the opportunity to build collective knowledge of reliable locations, websites, and best sign-up times amongst the Hillel volunteers to combat the disjointed vaccine registration process. 

“It’s not that the seniors don’t understand the technology, or don’t have the knowledge or skill that they need,” says Boxer. “It’s more just that the system itself is flawed because it’s just very much a game of chance.”

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