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The latest phase of Ohio’s vaccination program presents a mixed bag as early childhood educators are finally included, while the state continues to exclude members of Chevra Kadisha, volunteers who ritually bathe and dress the deceased. However, there is an effort underway to include those volunteers in the latest round.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the new phase to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program on March 1. The new phase 1C includes certain professions at risk of contracting COVID-19. These groups will be eligible to get the vaccine starting on March 4. These individuals include those working in child care services, funeral services and law enforcement and corrections officers in addition.  It also includes those 60 and older.

While the newest phase of vaccinations does include funeral service workers, it only applies to licensed professionals, not the volunteers who make up the Chevra Kadisha, Heshy Neiman, president and director of the Chevra Kadisha or Jewish Sacred Society of Cleveland, told the CJN.

David Levy, manager of Epstein Memorial Chapel in Columbus, agrees, adding that he called the Columbus Department of Public Health and was told that only crematory operators, funeral directors and their apprentices would qualify for vaccines. However, this leaves out a significant portion of the industry who face the same risks, he says.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Neiman told the CJN. “I mean, we’re hands on, working with bodies on a daily basis, we’re washing them, we’re dressing them, we’re doing everything personally ... we should be able to get that vaccine. I just don’t get it.”

Excluding those volunteers has decreased the number of people willing to undertake this important act as many of the Chevra Kadisha are older and at greater risk from the pandemic, Neiman said. “It’s taken a big toll” on these volunteers and on this important tradition, he said.

Neiman is speaking with the governor’s office to try to amend the order to include Chevra Kadisha and said he expects to hear back within the next day whether an amendment including those volunteers will happen.

Despite this disappointing news, Levy and other funeral directors, such as Bart Bookatz, managing funeral director of Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz Memorial Chapel in Cleveland Heights, see promise in the state’s order.

“Hopefully, this is just another step towards being able to say, one day, that we’re back to normal,” Bookatz said.

Levy agrees, adding that the order will help ensure funerals can take place at the funeral homes as opposed to just graveside as has been the practice since the pandemic started.

Meanwhile, early childhood workers are now eligible for vaccines, much to the relief of educators, such as Jessica Robins, director of early childhood services at the Mandel JCC.

“I am thrilled,” Robins told the CJN March 2, adding the effect on her staff has been immediate. “I know that my staff already feel more appreciated and recognized by our government and policy makers and have already expressed feeling more comfortable and at ease coming to work every day.”

Ronnie Conn, the COO of the JCC of Greater Columbus in Columbus, said, “The JCC is “excited that our early childhood educators are now eligible to receive the vaccine. They have been serving an essential role since the beginning of the pandemic. ... Long term, we hope that this helps keep our teachers and families safe and healthy.”

Publisher’s note: Jessica Robins’ husband, Andrew Spott, is a member of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company Board of Directors.

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