Top Israeli Rabbi Calls for Ban on Unvaccinated Teachers in ultra-Orthodox Schools

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who has been criticized for keeping yeshivas open during COVID's first wave, now says Jewish law requires the observance of public health guidelines

Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol
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Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (center) in Jerusalem, in 2013.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, center, in Jerusalem in 2013.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Sam Sokol
Sam Sokol

Unvaccinated teachers must be banned from teaching at religious schools, a high-profile ultra-Orthodox rabbi said this week, calling on all members of the community to get inoculated against COVID-19.

Speaking with coronavirus czar Salman Zarka at the rabbi's Bnei Brak home near Tel Aviv, Chaim Kanievsky said that such teachers should be suspended from their jobs due to the danger they pose to students’ health, ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat reported Tuesday.

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Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of the so-called Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy, added that Jewish law requires the observance of public health guidelines. His comments echoed statements favoring booster shots by leaders of several prominent Hasidic sects.

Earlier this week the government announced that it was imposing on teachers the Green Pass scheme, which requires proof of immunity or a negative test. According to Health Ministry Director General Nachman Ash, to enter a classroom, unvaccinated teachers will have to be tested for the coronavirus once or twice a week.

The Education Ministry estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of education staffers – some 30,000 of 260,000 people – are unvaccinated.

Speaking with national broadcaster Kan on Tuesday, Education Ministry Director General Yigal Slovik said an unvaccinated teacher who refuses to be tested “needs to sit at home without being paid.”

But the chairman of the Secondary School Teachers Association, Ran Erez, said that such unpaid leave might cause his union to petition the High Court of Justice.

“If this applies to the whole public sector, fine, but we won't cooperate with a Green Pass for teachers only,” he said. “This morning I instructed my legal team to prepare the petition.”

According to the Health Ministry, the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 12 percent of Israel's population, account for 16 percent of the more than 1 million eligible Israelis who have not yet been vaccinated. In a population of 959,185 people, 343,971 had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of August 16.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews were disproportionately affected by the virus during the first three waves of the pandemic, partly because they tend to have larger families and live in denser neighborhoods.

In October, during the second wave, health officials reported that the community accounted for at least 34 percent of all cases. A recent serological survey found that around one in every five ultra-Orthodox children has COVID-19 antibodies.

Cases in the community began to rise again following the opening of ultra-Orthodox schools on August 8, a few weeks before secular and religious-Zionist children start classes.

In March 2020, several of the country’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis, including Kanievsky, called for schools and yeshivas to remain open, in violation of government directives – before they backtracked and voiced support for various restrictions.

Around the same time, the Health Ministry found that of the people infected in public spaces, more than 30 percent had visited synagogues and yeshivas.

On Monday, following the cabinet’s announcement that it would let schools open for in-person learning, United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party, called on the government to apologize to Kanievsky for his stance during the first wave. It said the government had “finally adopted his approach on the issue of education.”

Ultra-Orthodox schools opened on August 8.Credit: Nir Keidar

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