Measles Can Be Contained. Anti-Semitism Cannot.
Amid an outbreak largely attributed to the anti-vax movement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disclosed that, as of mid-May, 880 cases have been confirmed nationwide in 2019, “the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1994 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.” Since September 2018, 535 cases have been confirmed in Brooklyn and Queens alone, largely concentrated in Orthodox Jewish communities. Another 247 cases have been confirmed in Rockland County, north of New York City, also largely among Orthodox Jews.
The spread of measles is matched by a twin pathology. Since the start of the latest measles outbreak last fall, the Anti-Defamation League has seen a spike in reports of harassment specifically related to measles, yet another expression of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S.: pedestrians crossing the street to get away from visibly Jewish people, bus drivers barring Jews from boarding, and people tossing out slurs such as “dirty Jew.”
The distinctive demographics of the Orthodox world—lots of babies, tight-knit neighborhoods, frequent international travel—have compounded the recent measles outbreak. But just as the anti-vaccination movement feeds off a handful of fringe outsiders, long-standing stereotypes about Jews have found a new vector in this disease. Rabbis, community leaders, and public-health officials are working desperately to educate people in the Orthodox population who are scared or uncertain about vaccines, hoping to curb the spread of this dangerous illness. The outbreak of anti-Semitism, however, might prove much harder to contain.
Rivkie Feiner, a community volunteer in Monsey, a town in Rockland County, told me she’s heard numerous stories of people yelling about measles or making derogatory comments when they see Jews. A man walked by her son in Costco and said, “I guess if I get the measles, I’m getting it here.” One local rabbi told her that during a visit to Rite Aid with his family, a group of teenagers screamed at them from the parking lot, “Hitler should have killed you all with the measles.” Feiner has lived in Monsey for basically all her life, she said, and in the past few years, “there have been more anti-Semitic incidents than in [her] entire life combined.”
The reasons behind the recent measles outbreak are complicated. The New York cases likely have origins in Israel and Ukraine, both of which are experiencing their own outbreaks of the disease.
Orthodox Jews frequently travel back and forth between Israel and the United States, creating opportunities for the disease to spread, especially among unvaccinated people. On a recent press call, Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s vaccine director, reported that 44 cases of measles have been brought to the U.S. by international travelers this year. More than 90 percent of those travelers, she said, were either unvaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status.
While unvaccinated people seeded the outbreak, the number of small children in Orthodox communities has helped it spread. Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and the resident epidemiologist at the South Nassau Communities hospital on Long Island, told me that “even in relatively highly vaccinated communities, if you have a lot of little children under the age of one … you’re going to have an awful lot of young children at high risk for contagion.” The standard CDC guidelines on the measles, mumps, and rubella, or MMR, vaccine recommends that children receive a first dose at around 12 months and a second dose four to six years later. But for young children who might be exposed to the disease, especially through travel, the CDC recommends getting vaccinated sooner: as early as six months, with a second dose just four weeks later. Glatt has been working with public-health officials to share information about these updated guidelines, which could make a big difference in Orthodox neighborhoods with lots of babies.
In Brooklyn, where the largest number of cases among the Orthodox has occurred, public-health statistics suggest that vaccination rates are actually quite high, even in two of the neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by the outbreak. According to New York State data for the 2017 to 2018 school year, 94 percent of kids at Orthodox Jewish schools in Williamsburg, along with 97 percent in Borough Park, have gotten their MMR vaccines. (These numbers do not include preschool-age kids, however.) Current vaccination rates might be even higher, given the recent vaccination push in these communities.
Rabbis and other Jewish communal leaders have played central roles in these efforts to encourage vaccination. A number of high-profile Orthodox rabbis have said that according to Jewish law, vaccinating is not just acceptable, it is required, because it protects and preserves life. A prominent Orthodox newspaper, Hamodia, has been running ads encouraging people to get vaccinated. Women in the community have also been working to distribute accurate medical information to Orthodox mothers, who often make medical decisions for their kids. Shoshana Bernstein, a mom in Monsey, collaborated with public-health officials on a handbook called Tzim Gezint—Yiddish for “good health,” often said after people sneeze—which offers culturally sensitive information about vaccines.
Despite these efforts, Glatt said, “the Jewish community is not immune to—and I’ll put it nicely—nuts.” A handful of high-profile leaders, including an influential rabbi in Lakewood, New Jersey, oppose vaccination, often offering justifications on religious grounds. Despite warnings from Orthodox rabbis, a recent gathering of anti-vaxxers in Rockland County drew an audience of hundreds, many of whom were Jewish.
Once a rumor about the danger of vaccines starts spreading, it can be powerful, regardless of a community’s faith background. Members of Orthodox communities are often suspicious of outsiders, including non-Jewish public-health officials, and many don’t have access to the internet to do their own research. People are scared, says Israel Zyskind, a pediatrician in Borough Park who mostly treats the Orthodox. “Patients [who] were previously for vaccinating, or happily vaccinating their child and trusting their pediatrician, are now questioning … whether they should be worried, and should be concerned,” he told me. One young couple I met in Borough Park on a recent visit said they asked their rabbi before vaccinating their children; the father said he often hears men speculate about the danger of vaccines in synagogue after they meet for morning prayers.
The measles has spread among Orthodox Jews for complicated reasons, and the public-health conditions in those communities are nuanced. The thing about anti-Semitism, though, is that it’s not typically compatible with nuance. Vaccines are embraced by the vast majority of Jews and Jewish leaders; anti-vax conspiracy theories are a human phenomenon, not a Jewish one. And yet associations have staying power. With every new case of measles in Jewish Brooklyn, with every photograph of an Orthodox school paired with an article on the outbreak, the perceived connection between Jews and disease grows a little stronger. And no vaccine can eradicate that.