A COVID-19 'mitzvah': Orthodox Jews donate blood plasma by the thousands

“There’s no way we’d be able to treat so many people without them,” said Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic.

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By Conor Ferguson and Cynthia McFadden

One Saturday in mid-April, a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders held a conference call with a Minnesota doctor as they grappled with spiking coronavirus cases in their New York area communities.

Dr. Michael Joyner of the Mayo Clinic is leading a nationwide study on the use of blood plasma to treat patients with severe COVID-19. On the call that afternoon, he told the religious leaders he needed something for his research: more blood from people who have survived the virus.

“Do what you can,” Joyner said, according to Yehudah Kaszirer of Lakewood, New Jersey, one of the rabbis on the call.

About 36 hours later, Kaszirer boarded a private jet with roughly 1,000 vials of blood stored in coolers. It had been drawn from members of the community through a blood drive organized with military-like speed.

The blood would be taken to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and tested for antibodies.

“It felt like being on a godly mission,” Kaszirer said.

And, as it turned out, a very successful one. Roughly 60 percent of the plasma samples were found to contain antibodies.

Rabbi Yehudah Kaszirer is the director of Bikur Cholim of Lakewood in New Jersey. The non-profit, which provides intermediary services between healthcare providers and members of the Orthodox Jewish community, mobilized quickly by organizing drives to provide donations of convalescent plasma to combat COVID-19.NBC News

Since that overnight flight, Orthodox Jews in Kaszirer’s community and others across the country have provided an extraordinary quantity of antibody-rich plasma for the U.S. government supported COVID-19 expanded access program, accounting for roughly half of the supply used to treat 34,000 people, Joyner said.

“There’s no way we’d be able to treat so many people without them,” he told NBC News. “They were the straw that serves the drink in a lot of ways.”

The role Orthodox Jews have played in contributing to a promising but yet unproven coronavirus treatment has garnered far less attention than the incidents of community members flouting social distancing guidelines.

Police broke up several large gatherings in Lakewood during the month of April, resulting in criminal charges for violating quarantine orders. Near the end of the month, thousands of Orthodox Jewish men in Brooklyn gathered for the funeral of a beloved rabbi. And some in the Orthodox community made headlines again last month by breaking into a closed playground in Brooklyn, with few masks and no social distancing

Dr. Israel Zyskind, a pediatrician in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a high concentration of Hasidic Jews, said the vast majority heeded the warnings to remain indoors. He said the virus spread rapidly during the Purim holiday in early March.

An Orthodox Jewish man walks in front of a school bus in the predominantly Hasidic neighborhood of Borough Park in Brooklyn, N.Y.NBC News

“When Purim was around, we didn't know anything about social distancing, about mask wearing,” Zyskind, who practices in Borough Park, said. “Nobody wore masks. Nobody knew to stay indoors and not be with your families ... There were very few cases in the United States.”

Borough Park was especially hard hit by the virus. The community has the fourth largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city and the highest in the borough of Brooklyn, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The latest figures show 226 confirmed deaths in Borough Park, meaning there have been 243 deaths per 100,000 residents in the neighborhood.

Other factors also likely contributed to the rapid spread of the virus within Orthodox communities in the Northeast. In places like Borough Park, Zyskind said, many families have six to eight children and live in small apartments in tightly-packed buildings.

A crowd of girls gather at a crosswalk in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., which was hit by the virus early on.NBC News

The communities are insular and some tend to maintain an old-world way of life. Many families, Zyskind said, still live without televisions or computers.

Once the full scale of the crisis became clear, his community and others got the chance to turn the high infection rates into something positive.

“Because we were ravaged by COVID so early on, we recognized that we had the opportunity to give back to the scientific community and to our fellow brothers who are suffering,” Zyskind said.

“We don't just care about ourselves,” he added. “We care about everyone, and we will do what we can.”

The initial blood drive in mid-April came together within hours of the Saturday phone call with Joyner, Kaszirer said. Orthodox Jews typically refrain from using electrical devices, like phones, on the Sabbath, but Kaszirer said the urgency of the situation made him make an exception.

On Sunday, April 19, some 16 tents were set up and staffed with volunteer medics and nurses, many from Kaszirer’s Bikur Cholim nonprofit aid group.

“Other people in the community heard about it and said, ‘Hey, I'm a registered nurse,’ ‘I'm a registered phlebotomist. Do you guys need a hand?’" he recalled.

It was 3 a.m. Monday when Kaszirer boarded a plane with the blood samples to Minnesota. He said he was back in New Jersey by noon, and emails with the results on the antibodies began pouring in shortly afterward.

“We were like, ‘We thought this would take days.’ And here it was – literally from idea to result was a little longer than 36 hours,” he said.

Blood drives were soon being held in other Orthodox communities around the country – in places such as Detroit, Baltimore and Michigan, and as far west as Los Angeles.

Joyner, the Mayo Clinic doctor, said he’s been astonished by the Orthodox Jewish community’s ability to mobilize its members and organize a complex medical project in a span of hours.

“They had a high rate of infection, which was terrible, but they decided to do something about it,” he said. “And they used their social cohesion and organizational and logistical skills to make it happen.”

“I’d be surprised if we didn’t do more projects with them,” Joyner added. “These individuals are problem solvers.”

The effectiveness of convalescent plasma therapy in treating COVID-19 patients has yet to be established in clinical trials, but Joyner said he’s optimistic. An initial study has already shown the treatment to be safe for COVID-19 patients.

The plasma donated by the Orthodox Jewish communities isn’t just being used for transfusions. Some 8,000 vials of blood serum have been donated for use by scientists at 10 institutions across the globe in their quest to figure out why the virus is so deadly for some and not for others.

“I've never stepped into a scientific endeavor that's moved quite as fast as this,” said Dr. Avi Rosenberg, an assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Kaszirer said the community’s plasma donations reflect its commitment to doing good deeds – what Jews refer to as “mitzvahs.”

“We live in a closed world to ourselves. That’s the way of life,” he said. “But wherever we can give a hand, be a beacon of light, it’s our mitzvah.”

Jaime Longoria and Rich Schapiro contributed.