Lee Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was hectic last Sunday. With less than a week left before the start of Passover, everyone was tending to last minute shopping.
For some in the neighborhood, the printed signs urging vaccination against measles that are plastered all over Williamsburg and other Orthodox and Hasidic neighborhoods, coupled with school closings and the shunning of some Hasidim on public transportation, might evoke historical episodes of scapegoating in the bad old countries. Back then, Jews were routinely accused of spreading disease and forced to live behind ghetto walls. But the current spate of measles within the various Hasidic communities that call Williamsburg and other Brooklyn neighborhoods home is very much about 21st-century America.
According to the New York City Department of Health (DOH), between October 2018 and April 15, 2019, there were 329 confirmed measles cases in Brooklyn and Queens, mostly within the Orthodox communities. The first case was an unvaccinated child who picked up the virus in Israel.
The Rockland County website states that during the same period there were 186 cases in eastern Ramapo (New Square, Spring Valley, Monsey), all places with large numbers of Orthodox and Hasidic residents. There too, the first case started with an unvaccinated child who caught it in Israel, but infected those who hadn’t been traveling.
The site also states that of the people countywide who had contracted measles, 81.2% had not had the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.
Measles is airborne and highly contagious. When you combine that with large families such as those common in Hasidic and some Orthodox communities, and crowded city life in places like Williamsburg, even a handful of unvaccinated people means a large number of cases.
Some Jewish community leaders are not wild about New York City’s new, shall we say, vaccination edict, but they, their organizations, and the overwhelming majority of local doctors are resolutely pro-vaccination.
Ezras Nashim, the women’s ambulance corps that serves observant Jewish women in Borough Park and the surrounding area, issued the strongest of statements encouraging vaccination, citing, among other things, the Talmud’s declaration that “all of Israel are responsible for each other.”
Rabbi David Niederman, director of United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn (UJO), a Satmar community-service group, was equally emphatic about the Halachic demand to vaccinate children. He stressed that those who opposed it are part of a fringe group, much like the anti-vaxxers in the United States as a whole.
Gershon Schlesinger, president and CEO of Brooklyn’s ParCare Community Health Network, echoed the medical necessity of vaccinations and stated that all the large religious schools are on board with the city’s mandate. But he noted that some unvaccinated kids could be students at smaller yeshivas. Those schools might be more flexible in asking for vaccination certificates with other paperwork, he suggested, not because they’re anti-vaccine as a matter of policy, but because it’s not a priority for administrators dealing with student enrollments.
And Der Yid, a Satmar daily newspaper in Yiddish, broke with tradition last week when it published an English version of an editorial proclaiming those who don’t vaccinate “Senseless! Heartless! Torah-less and Reckless.”
But one can see some cracks in this mechitza.
It’s hardly unusual for Jews, regardless of their level of observance, to differ on interpretation, as anyone who’s spent time discussing Halacha, or Talmud, or simply attended a Shabbat dinner, surely knows.
While the Torah tells us to protect our health, there are some who believe that not vaccinating is doing exactly that. Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, told Tablet that he wouldn’t “judge” anyone who decided not to vaccinate because they truly believed it was best for their family and their children.
Frieda Vizel, a former Hasid who still has strong family ties to the community, wondered whether some women might be using the issue as a way to be heard in an environment that otherwise devalues their opinions and opposes broad secular education for both sexes.
And then there is the very vocal, very loud anti-vaxxer movement at large. Though in the minority, they are media savvy and keen to exploit situations like the measles outbreak in Brooklyn, said one Lubavitcher Hasid who spoke to Tablet but declined to provide his name. One needs to look no further than the press event held earlier this month where anti-vaxxers explicitly compared their plight to that of Holocaust victims by donning yellow stars.
Although many in Hasidic circles were reluctant to talk about it in the midst of the unwelcome attention and inflammatory rhetoric, some prominent rabbis are well-known anti-vaxxers.
Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the rosh yeshiva of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, and his wife, Temi, write and lecture on the Jewish anti-vax circuit, according to a 2014 article in the Baltimore Jewish Times that quoted him. To further exacerbate the problem, in 2015 Rabbi Kamenetsky signed a letter authorizing rabbis of Lakewood, New Jersey’s Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) to admit unvaccinated children. And even a cursory search of the web reveals that Rabbi Kamenetsky isn’t the only Jewish religious authority who claims Halacha is on his side.
Of course, Rabbi Kamenetsky needn’t rely on Jewish law to justify his views when it would be just as easy, perhaps easier, to find justifications in secular society. Just this week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Children’s Health Defense group filed for a temporary restraining order against the New York City Department of Health on behalf of five parents of unvaccinated children, citing “violation of petitioners’ rights under the United States Constitution and New York State law.” This is not the first time that pseudoscience and health fads of the larger culture have found their way into insular Jewish communities, and it is unlikely to be the last, but what a strange shidduch it makes.
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Toni L. Kamins is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, Times of Israel, and many other publications. She’s the author of the Complete Jewish Guide to France and the Complete Jewish Guide to Great Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press).