COVID Vaccine Mandate in New York Private Schools Sparks Outrage in ultra-Orthodox Communities

'Mayor de Blasio ends his career in office picking a fight with Yeshivas,' said an Orthodox leader in New York, as the community decries what they view as government overreach in dealing with COVID

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Members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk past shipping containers Brooklyn in March.
Members of the Orthodox Jewish community walk past shipping containers Brooklyn in March.Credit: Wong Maye-E / AP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Ultra-Orthodox community leaders lashed out at New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last week, declaring that a new vaccine mandate targeting non-public educational institutions “could be devastating to our schools and the children they serve,” extending the debate around compulsory vaccinations and personal choice. 

Ultra-Orthodox religious and political leaders decried Thursday’s mandate — which would require what the city said are around 56,000 employees of over 900 private schools, including yeshivas, to be immunized against coronavirus — as an example of government overreach.

The Democratic mayor had issued a mandate for the city's public schools workers that took effect in October, later extending the mandates to cover the city’s workforce, including police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers, and, as of last week, child care workers.

The mandate is slated to go into effect on December 20.

“We’re doing everything in our power to protect our students and school staff, and a mandate for nonpublic school employees will help keep our school communities and youngest New Yorkers safe,” de Blasio said in a statement explaining the expansion of the mandate.

“The city has no legal authority to bark these mandates at private employers and religious institutions. This will just lead to another court battle on religious freedom which New York will - once again - lose,” said ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn councilman Kalman Yeger who dubbed the mandate “a lovely parting gift from City Hall.”

Chairman Rabbi David Zwiebel of NYC Religious and Independent School Officials — an organization representing parochial schools belonging to several Christian denominations as well as Jewish and Muslim educational institutions — argued against vaccinations as a "condition of employment."

“It is a matter most appropriately left to individual choice, not governmental fiat.”

According to Zwiebel, who is also the executive vice president of ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel of America, “COVID transmission rates in our schools are extremely low” and “with the vast majority of the staff in our schools already fully vaccinated, any modest health benefit attained by raising the percentage of vaccinated employees to fully 100% must be weighed against the harm of having classrooms abruptly bereft of teachers in the midst of a school year.”

“This is an area where government should be using its bully pulpit to persuade, not its regulatory arm to coerce,” Zwiebel stated, insisting that “the practical impact of the city imposing an immunization mandate could be devastating to our schools and the children they serve.”

Former City Councilor David Greenfield, who is Orthodox tweeted, “odd: Mayor de Blasio ends his career in office picking a fight with Yeshivas,” adding that the yeshivas first learned of the new policy via the New York Times. “It went over about as well as you’d expect.”

Asked by a Times reporter why he would oppose such a mandate, Greenfield stated that the orthodox community was frustrated because it had not been consulted, asserting that “this mandate gives them zero resources and sets them up to fail.”

Simcha Eichenstein, a City Councilor whose district includes the heavily Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, also protested de Blasio’s decision, stating that while he urged “all New Yorkers to vaccinate, this administration should be competent enough to understand the absurdity of rolling out a last-minute mandate that they cannot legally enforce without any community engagement.”

“I have no doubt it will backfire,” he tweeted.

De Blasio's words were welcomed less than warmly by many ultra-Orthodox leaders who have previously voiced harsh criticism of city hall’s handling of the pandemic.

They charged de Blasio with enforcing a “double standard” regarding the enforcement of public health measures and accusing him of “scapegoating” the Jewish community when criticizing violations of social distancing rules."

Despite the vehement ultra-Orthodox opposition to vaccine mandates in the United States, in Israel, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of the so-called Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy, has said that unvaccinated teachers must be banned from teaching at religious schools.

According to ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat, the rabbi said that such teachers constituted a danger to students’ health and that Jewish law requires the observance of public health guidelines. 

New York’s ultra-Orthodox communities experienced especially high rates of coronavirus infection during the first year of the pandemic, when they came under criticism for flouting public health measures imposed to limit the virus’ spread, including holding a massive indoor wedding with hundreds, if not thousands, of guests.

Last October, an ultra-Orthodox anti-lockdown protest turned violent when demonstrators mobbed Hasidic journalist Jacob Kornbluh, who had been reporting on his community’s response to the pandemic. After the ringleader of the protests was subsequently arrested, a mob formed outside Kornbluh’s apartment building, screaming that he was an “informer.”

According to the New York Times, vaccine uptake in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods has lagged significantly behind the general population, with only 51 percent of residents in Borough Park, and 59 percent in South Williamsburg, having received their first dose.

The JTA and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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