Israeli Hasidic Leader Urges New York Teachers to Vaccinate Following Mandate

Ultra-Orthodox religious and political leaders in New York decried last Thursday’s mandate, which would require employees of over 900 private schools, including yeshivas, to be immunized against COVID

JTA
Sam Sokol
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An Orthodox Jewish man walks through the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, April 8, 2020.
An Orthodox Jewish man walks through the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, April 8, 2020.Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images
JTA
Sam Sokol

Despite American ultra-Orthodox leaders harshly condemning a “devastating” new vaccine mandate targeting non-public educational institutions in New York City, one of Israel’s most prominent Hasidic leaders has instructed his followers in Brooklyn to comply with government instructions.

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect who lives in Israel, urged teachers at a new Belz school being built in Borough Park to get vaccinated, stating that “it is proper for all staff members to be vaccinated — the men as well as the women,” local news site BoroPark24 reported.

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Rokeach’s support for vaccination echoed that of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of the so-called Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy, who has said that unvaccinated teachers must be banned from teaching at religious schools.

Ultra-Orthodox religious and political leaders in New York decried last 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 by outgoing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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.”

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."

“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.”

Former City Councilor David Greenfield, who is also 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.”

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.

Rokeach’s instructions for his followers regarding the coronavirus pandemic have at times also been contrary to government guidance. Last October, Rokeach refused to close his yeshivas and urged students to continue studying in spite of orders from the government to shut down to slow the spread of disease.

Still, Rokeach has come out in favor of vaccines. Earlier this year, a coronavirus vaccine drive was held at the main Belz beit midrash, or study house where about 1,500 people were vaccinated, according to Yeshiva World News.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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