U.S. Authorities Accuse Israel of Measles Outbreak in Haredi Communities

Cases of measles have been diagnosed in New York and New Jersey, and the N.Y. State Department of Health asserts that first ones were of children who had visited Israel

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Haredi community in Brooklyn, 2013.
Haredi community in Brooklyn, New York: Lobbyists undermined regulation of New York yeshivas. Now they’re doing it againCredit: AP
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

An outbreak of measles in Israel has reached ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the U.S.

In recent days, media outlets have reported on the dramatic rise in cases of measles in Haredi communities in New York and New Jersey.

The outbreak has raised severe concerns for the councils and leaders of these communities, and has caused panic among parents from neighborhoods where vaccination rates have been low.

In some of these communities, steps have been taken to control the outbreak, including imposing excommunication on those who refuse to vaccinate; prohibiting whomever does not vaccinate their children from attending synagogue; and restricting unvaccinated school children from attending educational institutions.

Media reports are tying the outbreak in Haredi communities in the U.S. to cases of measles in Israel. The reports highlight the lethal case of a toddler who died in Jerusalem over a week ago.

Since the beginning of the year, 1,401 cases of measles have been diagnosed in Israel, according to the Israeli Health Ministry. The most major outbreaks have been in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and the West Bank settlement of Betar Ilit, comprising about 60 percent of all of the cases nationwide.

In response to the measles outbreak, Israeli heath officials have launched a vaccination drive aimed at boosting the vaccination rate among the country's ultra-Orthodox population from 55 percent to 95 percent, similar to the Israeli population as a whole.

>> N.Y. warns of measles outbreak in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community

Also last week, 11 new cases of measles were reported among babies and children, from the age of seven months to four years old, in the Hasidic communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn, bringing the number of such cases to 17.

In the wake of the outbreak, the New York State Department of Health is cautioning Brooklyn's Haredi communities and calling on parents to vaccinate their children. “Parents opposed to vaccination against measles and other diseases are not only putting their own children at risk, but endangering other children and families,” said New York City Councilmember Mark Levine, who also serves as the Chair of Council Committee on Health.

Fifty cases of measles have been reported by Yeshiva World News (YWN) in the Haredi communities in Monsey, Spring Valley, and New Square, in Rockland County, N.Y. Two children have been hospitalized.

Local councils are taking precautionary measures so that the disease does not continue to spread among children. At the Vizhnitz girls’ school, Vizhnitz Monsey, it was decided that unvaccinated pupils will not be admitted to school in the next 21 days. The school clarified that they will not accept those who are unvaccinated due to religious or ideological considerations: “Religious exemptions will not be recognized during the measles outbreak.”

The Hasidic community in Williamsburg in September.Credit: SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

According to the report, Rockland County is also at stake. Dr. Patricia Schnabel Ruppert announced that for schools in New Square, known as the first all-Hasidic village founded in the U.S., all unvaccinated children or babies who have yet to be vaccinated should stay home for 21 days since the first case of measles was reported in the county.

Several of the synagogues in the county announced to worshippers that whoever is not vaccinated will not be permitted entry. As a result, many Haredi families have checked the vaccination histories of their children.

In recent days, approximately 2,000 people from these Haredi communities have been vaccinated.

In Lakewood, N.J., home to the Lakewood Yeshiva, one of the two largest yeshivas in the world, at least four cases of measles have been diagnosed, according to reports. These cases were enough to cause alarm within the community and its councils. Hundreds of children were brought to pediatricians in recent days for vaccination after the reports. The county's Health Department, in cooperation with New Jersey’s Emergency Health Services (EMS), set up large medical tents equipped with approximately 1,500 vaccines. At least six schools and synagogues announced unvaccinated children and worshippers would not be allowed to enter.

Low rates of vaccination

The source of the outbreak in Haredi communities has been associated with Israel and the reciprocal visits to Israel and the U.S., by those who are unvaccinated and exposed to the disease, or had infected others.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the New York State Department of Health asserts that the first three cases of infection in New York were children who had visited Israel. “As Israel and other countries are facing outbreaks, the risk of measles acutely influences our communities in New York, especially in neighborhoods in which international travel is popular and frequent,” said Levine, adding “I highly recommend to all parents in the city to tend to their children and complete all recommended vaccinations.”

To counter this, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene enlisted community figures to encourage families to get the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR). Those who were enlisted include Rabbi David Niederman, president of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, and Rabbi Avi Greenstein, executive director of the Boro Park Jewish Community Council. “It says in the Torah ‘V’nishmartem Meod L’nafshoseichem,’ that a person must guard their health,” Niederman said in the DOHMH news release. “It is abundantly clear on the necessity for parents to ensure that their children are vaccinated, especially from measles.”

Reports appearing in the U.S. are disseminating data, which has been published recently in Israel, and emphasizing the many cases in Jerusalem, as well as the low rates of vaccination in Haredi neighborhoods. Prior to the outbreak, it was about 50%.

The rates of vaccination in Haredi communities in New York are low. According to a report in Newsweek, studies have shown that the last measles outbreak in Haredi communities was in 2013, which saw the largest outbreak since 1992.

There are also those who blame Trump for the measles outbreak.

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a rabbi and educator in Monsey, N.Y., known also in Israel as an activist leading the struggle against child sexual assault in Haredi society, argues in a published post that the U.S. president, through his attitude toward science and medicine, has also contributed to the measles outbreak.

“From my perspective, and after speaking with hundreds of well-intentioned parents who have opposed vaccination for years, the anti-vaccination movement rests on two principles: 1. Diminishing respect for science and research in order to emphasize emotions and feelings; 2. Belief in conspiracy theories. If you follow political life, you know well that President Trump trusts his basic instincts over anything else, over the value of science and the foundation of our government. He also embraces and frequently initiates wild conspiracy theories, and his relationship to the truth is intermittent.” Horowitz considers that the Haredi public in the U.S. is influenced by Trump’s attitude, related everything that has to do with vaccinations.

Correction (November 14, 2018): This article mistakenly attributed data to the Jewish Theological Seminary, instead of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and has since been amended.

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