|A "No Vax" sign at a demonstration against the barring of unvaccinated children from public spaces in Rockland County, N.Y.|
My Fellow Hasidic Jews Are Making a Terrible Mistake About Vaccinations
My community faces a grave threat. I am not talking about the measles spreading throughout our Hasidic neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I am referring to the scientific denialism that has infected our community and has put the lives of children here and elsewhere at risk.
In October, an unvaccinated child from our community contracted measles while on a visit to Israel. In New York City, more than 350 people have since become ill, an outbreak that health officials have linked directly to that first child’s case. Most of the cases are in the Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park.
According to health officials, the most recent outbreak is a direct result of disinformation efforts: Like tens of thousands of Americans, many Hasidic Jews have fallen under the sway of anti-vaccination propaganda — spread by people within our community — and have refused to inoculate their children against measles and other diseases.
As infections linked to this outbreak spread as far as Michigan, I can’t help wondering what has made some of us dismiss basic science, embrace quackery and treat objective truths as if they are no more than suggestions.
|A sign outside a pharmacy in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, warns against entry "if you have a fever and a rash, or have been exposed to the measles."|
In the not-too-distant past, the ultra-Orthodox community was a champion of scientific knowledge and innovation. Ours was a community with the ability to welcome science, value research and be a forward-thinking force for good. Where did we go wrong?
The rabbinical establishment, which is struggling to understand why a vocal minority is resisting the calls to vaccinate, must reckon with the role it has played in this crisis. Over the years, some of our religious leaders have greatly contributed to the current distrust of science.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration in 2012 introduced rules that required parental consent before an infant could have a form of ritual circumcision believed to be linked to the spread of herpes, some rabbis denounced those efforts as a blood libel or “the evil plans of the New York City health department.” The rules were put in place after 11 boys, between 2000 and 2011, contracted herpes from the practice, which involves an oral cleansing of the circumcision wound (it is practiced only by some ultra-Orthodox families).
Two died and two suffered brain damage.
Two died and two suffered brain damage.
Some rabbis derided the health department’s scientific expertise, and one respected rabbi went as far as to question the health department’s statistics. To assuage them, Bill de Blasio, upon becoming mayor, undid Mr. Bloomberg’s circumcision regulations. Two years later, six infants became infected with herpes in cases considered to be tied to the procedure.
Whether out of shortsightedness or strategic malice, some of our religious leaders have directly fostered an atmosphere where thorough research is sneered at, the scientific method is doubted and the motivations of professionals are assumed to be nefarious and steeped in anti-religious animus.
In more recent years, when the Department of Education pushed for an increase in secular studies in the city’s yeshivas, some of our leaders once again instigated their community to oppose these much-needed reforms. Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, the grand rabbi of Satmar, the largest Hasidic sect in the United States, whose stronghold is in Williamsburg, went as far as to say that the government was persecuting Jewish religious schools and essentially declared war against the department. These rabbis and community leaders used their platform to tell the ultra-Orthodox world that math, science, history and social studies are unnecessary and have little value — reinforcing the idea that government officials are out to get us and wish to destroy our religious values.
We see this same approach now among some of our leaders toward vaccines. Some rabbis are contributing to the spread of disinformation, repeating unfounded claims about the health risks of the M.M.R. vaccine.
Such anti-science has no place in our community’s beliefs; Judaism is not behind the refusal to vaccinate. Most in the ultra-Orthodox community are vaccinated, and a vast majority of prominent rabbis support the vaccination requirements. Seven rabbis recently banded together and released an edict, advising that the vaccinations are a matter of life and death. A majority of our charitable organizations, like Hatzalah and the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association Vaccine Task Force, have joined the battle against measles.
Doctors and health officials are begging the community to heed their warnings about the dangers of non-vaccination. Mayor de Blasio is now requiring unvaccinated individuals in our neighborhoods to receive the vaccine or face a fine, and city officials are closing yeshivas and day-care centers that defy the order.
But a powerful subgroup is continuing to ignore these calls and to misrepresent the motives of doctors, health officials and activists. They were behind a lawsuit against the city’s vaccination order, which argues that the current outbreak in Brooklyn is not “a clear and present danger to the public health” (it was dismissed last week).
Evidently, the strategic deployment of a siege mentality by some of our religious leaders has worked all too well. Their words are received by an impressionable community, and many people have bought into these claims. Having sowed deep suspicion of government health officials, and having planted doubts as to the veracity of scientific knowledge and government health statistics, community leaders are now unable to persuade these families to accept what we all know to be true.
Our leadership has effectively turned around the famous words of King David in Psalms and we can now say: Those who sow with joy will reap with tears.
Moshe Friedman is a Hasidic yeshiva graduate and a father of three.LISTEN:
NYC Measles Outbreak Declared Public Health EmergencyNew York City has declared a public health emergency amid a measles outbreak that is mostly impacting the Orthodox Jewish community. Mayor Bill de Blasio says Yeshiva schools that don't require all of their students to get vaccinated will face fines or closure.