CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, arguably the most sought-after healthcare speaker of the past two years, appeared at The Temple on April 27.
Walensky was in conversation with CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen on behalf of Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta, an organization that works to expand opportunities for Jewish women and girls.
JWFA, which is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year, has grown rapidly from 33 women to 167 trustees investing more than $1.6 million in 57 partner organizations locally, nationally and in Israel. It advocates for women’s issues ranging from economic equality and empowerment, violence prevention, leadership development and education.
“What I like about JWFA is that we make our own decisions to advocate for things we care about,” JWFA trustee Amy Arogeti told the AJT. Trustee Merle Hoch agreed. “I gave myself the gift of belonging to JWFA, where we get to decide where the money goes,” she said.
Top-level Ignite sponsor Ilene Engel, who founded JWFA along with Sara Zaban Franco and Carol Zaban Cooper, welcomed the group with her expressions of gratitude for staff and supporters. JWFA Chair Linda Davis warmed up the audience. She described the organization as the only one in Atlanta solely focused on social change for Jewish women and girls.
“We are making a difference in this generation and in generations to come, one woman at a time,” she said.
Executive Director Rachel Wasserman appeared by video (in a pre-recorded message) and in person. She outlined the issues the organization has faced and the positive strides it has made now that it is better able to anticipate and respond. Dr. Amanda Cooper Cohn, a JWFA trustee and CDC staff member whose mother, Carol Zaban Cooper, co-founded the JWFA, explained her connection to Walensky as one of mentorship. “She demonstrated that a strong Jewish identity can coexist in the medical profession,” she said.
For the main event, Elizabeth Cohen, who is well known for her coverage of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, joked about joining The Temple, initially, “to meet nice, single Jewish men,” per her father’s suggestion. The conversation between the CNN correspondent and the CDC director flowed smoothly, marked by Walensky’s humility and intelligence. Walensky explained how, when offered the CDC position, she sought advice first from her supportive husband, then from her rabbi.
“Can I do this job? Can I rise to the occasion?” she recalled thinking before ultimately choosing to accept the challenge. Her rabbi’s inspiration, originally from Rabbi Simcha Bunim (as related by Martin Buber in his “Tales of the Hasidim”), was about having two pockets: “Every person should have two pockets,” the rabbi says. “In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: ‘I am only dust and ashes.’ When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it.”
Walensky spoke about agency, saying that on a plane, for example, one has no control over who is around. That’s why she does wear a mask in flight. She especially lamented the toll the pandemic has taken on healthcare workers. “Don’t forget the work that the CDC is doing behind the scenes: preventing 63 outbreaks that could have been much worse, treating kids, all extraordinary work,” Walensky said. “The message is: we have to address the critical infrastructure of the public health work force, down 60,000 jobs, being on top of monitoring and linking data and issues like racial inequality.”
In response to Cohen’s question about gender inequality in medicine, Walensky said that her class at Johns Hopkins Medical School was split evenly between men and women, “but in the higher echelons, like the division chief area, there were very few female heads.”
Walensky emphasized that she is committed to a balanced life, sitting down to dinner with family, “even if sometimes it’s 9 p.m. We can enjoy that time.”
Cohen and Walensky joshed about the former’s daughters meeting the latter’s sons.
A box of kosher scones greeted guests at the exit.
- Marcia Caller Jaffe
- Dr. Rochelle Walensky
- The Temple
- CNN Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen
- Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta
- Amy Arogeti
- Ilene Engel
- Executive Director Rachel Wasserman
- Hurricane Katrina
- Rabbi Simcha Bunim
- Martin Buber
- Johns Hopkins Medical School
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention