Between Anti-vaxxers and anti-Semitism: N.Y.C.’s Orthodox Jews' War Against Measles

Relating anti-vaxxers to Judaism is ‘fake news,’ Jewish community leaders in Brooklyn tell Haaretz. So why is the outbreak being treated as a ‘Jewish issue,’ and will Passover make matters worse?

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, two days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency, April 11, 2019.
A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, two days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency, April 11, 2019. Credit: \ SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

NEW YORK — As Mayor Bill de Blasio was declaring a public health emergency last week over a measles outbreak in Brooklyn’s Jewish community, a heated debate on the issue broke out outside the news conference.

“How can you take away my religious liberty?” a young ultra-Orthodox mother, surrounded by friends, demanded to know of a Hasidic pediatrician on the sidewalk. Another declared: “We’re talking about the idea that God created all humans perfectly. Injecting them with something is like saying that God didn’t create a perfect design.”

“First of all, it has nothing to do with Yiddishkeit,” the doctor angrily replied, shaking his index finger at the group of mothers in front of him.

Voices were raised and local journalists who had just stepped out of the mayor’s announcement — in which he ordered unvaccinated individuals living in Williamsburg to receive the measles vaccine within two days — rushed to capture the standoff.

New York City has seen some 329 confirmed cases of measles since last October, all concentrated in the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Borough Park. The vast majority of victims are children. Although no deaths have been recorded thus far, complications have been as severe as brain swelling.

De Blasio’s emergency declaration ordered every child over 6 months of age living in four Brooklyn zip codes to get the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Those who do not have evidence of immunity could be fined $1,000.

Yeshivas and day care centers in those neighborhoods were required to only accept vaccinated children and to maintain medical and attendance records on site, as well as provide the authorities with immediate access or be shut down — as happened at Williamsburg’s United Talmudical Academy this week.

Another 23 yeshivas and day care programs have received notices of violations.

“I am perfectly fine with my children getting measles,” Esther, one of the anti-vaccination mothers involved in the confrontation, told cameras, adding that she would pay the fine if necessary.

Vocal minority

A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn in New York City, NY. April 11, 2019.Credit: \ SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS

In the past few months, while some have suggested religious beliefs as a cause of the outbreak, many in the Orthodox community have strongly disputed that, making clear that there is nothing Jewish about deciding not to vaccinate your children against measles.

>> Read more: Why Orthodox Jewish communities are at the center of a U.S. measles outbreakUnvaccinated children face public space ban in New York measles outbreak

“It’s actually quite the opposite — especially now when there is a breakout, every responsible and prominent rabbi or community leader will say: Go and vaccinate them, because otherwise you are endangering lives,” says Gary Schlesinger, the CEO of ParCare Health and Medical Center in Williamsburg and Borough Park.

“There is no official prominent rabbi who came out and wrote a letter stating any support for the ‘anti-vaxxers.’ It’s definitely not a religious issue, it’s misinformation,” he tells Haaretz.

Schlesinger adds that unlike some other faith communities, Jews shouldn’t need religious exemption from vaccinations. “The anti-vaxxer community is all over the world, it’s not just in Williamsburg,” he says. “You have very strong anti-vaxxer communities in Texas, in California, all different types of areas.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a news conference declaring a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn in response to a measles outbreak. April 9, 2019. Credit: \ SHANNON STAPLETON/ REUTERS

Relating the anti-vaxxers to Judaism is “fake news,” he complains. “It’s too bad that [the media] are making an issue about it, because just talking about it actually brings it to the forefront.”

Avi Greenstein, CEO of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council, notes that Jews are actually “obligated to do everything in their power to keep their body healthy. The anti-vaxxers are a minute of a minute sector who are part of our community. But rabbis, community leaders, heads of schools, heads of synagogues — every single one of those have come out strongly for vaccination.”

The Borough Park representative says schools in his neighborhood sent out letters several months ago informing parents that their children would not be allowed to attend class unless they were inoculated. He also points out that local rabbis issued proclamations in favor of vaccinations.

“Some people are very stubborn, reckless, and they are putting their children and other’s children in harm’s way. But this should not be seen as the community. By and large, nothing could be further from the truth,” Greenstein says.

Allison Josephs, founder of the Jew and the City group that aims to break down stereotypes about Orthodox Jews, concurs. “If you have religious Jews who bought into the anti-vax hysteria, they are not doing that out of religion,” she says.

A mother of four, Josephs decided to launch her organization in 2007 after becoming more observant herself and realizing she had been raised with a negative bias toward the Orthodox community. “I am trying to understand what motivates” the Jewish anti-vaxxers, she says. “It’s certainly them trying to be healthy, but it’s really misguided and shows a lack of critical thinking. They are directly going against their leaders to do this.

“It’s a little bit of a juicy story for the media to kind of latch onto: ‘Oh, look at what the Jews of Brooklyn are doing,’” Joseph adds.

‘Infectious hatred’

Jewish organizations and community leaders have also warned in recent weeks that associating the anti-vaxxer movement with Orthodox Judaism could have grave consequences — and even exacerbate anti-Semitic sentiments and violent acts. These have been on the rise over the past several years already, especially in Brooklyn.

Last week, local media reported an incident in which a bus driver in Brooklyn initially refused to let an Orthodox woman onto his vehicle, shouting “measles” at her. And the New York Times published an article highlighting rising community tensions stemming from the outbreak.

Girls play in a yeshiva schoolyard, Tuesday, April 9, 2019, in the Williamsburg section of New York. Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP

“News reports unfairly singling out the Orthodox Jewish community as the sole responsible population ignore key factors, including the fact that those within the ultra-Orthodox community who do not vaccinate their children often do so for many of the same reasons as nonreligious people,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement, urging sensitivity.

The Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America, meanwhile, warned against what it dubbed “infectious hatred.”

“Our public discourse is debased when individuals and media outlets point the finger of blame for the spread of measles squarely — and sometimes viciously — at the ‘ultra-Orthodox’ community,” the group wrote. “Social media comments have been particularly appalling in this regard. This is a time to come together and collaborate to meet a challenge.”

The statement added: “There is no excuse to use a public health issue as a platform from which to spew poisonous anti-Semitic rhetoric.”

Greenstein warns that “when you look back in history, haters have ... always latched onto certain occurrences to say ‘This is the fault of the Jews’ — and that [resulted in] the most terrible tragedies we endured.”

A sign warning people of measles in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, two days after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency, April 11, 2019.Credit: \ Shannon Stapleton/ REUTERS

He adds that he and his wife did not hesitate to vaccinate their two children, and that there is only “a very small segment of the community” that is opposed to using the vaccine. “Unfortunately they are vocal, but that’s not the community by and large.” He calls it “shocking and hurtful” to read news stories that some people are using the crisis for anti-Semitic purposes.

During the last major measles outbreak in 2013, Josephs recalls receiving a shocking social media comment on her group’s website. “It said something like, ‘Get your kids vaccinated, you evil Jews!’” she recalls. “Who is to blame for the [latest] outbreak in Brooklyn?” she asks. “I would say the anti-vaxxers are. It’s not because they are Jews.”

Community opposition to the anti-vaxxers is actually so strong that, in a very unusual move last week that some have called “historic,” Yiddish newspaper Der Yid (a popular weekly publication associated with Satmar Hasidic Jews) published an editorial calling on people to vaccinate their children. Titled “Senseless! Heartless! Torah-less and Reckless,” it states: “We are not doctors; we have not studied medicine or statistics like the geniuses warning you about the dangers of vaccines. But we do know whom to trust when there is a serious health issue in the community. We are obliged by the Torah ‘Venishmartem meod l’nafshoseichem’ — to guard our health — and if the recognized experts are telling us to vaccinate, then we must do it.”

It added that the anti-vaccination mothers who spoke to the press as de Blasio was declaring a public health emergency “tarnished the image of observant Jews.”

“If you believe in those myths and if you want to go back in time to a hundred years ago when people weren’t vaccinating, then keep your children home as was the norm a century ago, and don’t make life more difficult for those suffering enough,” Der Yid concluded.

“The good news is that I’m seeing across the board now that schools, shuls and Jewish organizations are really doing the zero-tolerance rule,” Josephs observes. “I think we start as a community to say: Well, even if you have these ideas floating around your head, you can do that in your house but don’t expose us and our community to this.”

Passover danger

The recent measles outbreak is part of a larger resurgence of the disease. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a total of 387 cases of measles have been confirmed in 15 states from January 1 to March 28 — the second-largest number of reported cases since measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.

The Brooklyn outbreak began in October after a minor got infected during a trip to Israel, where it has also been a problem. The child infected unvaccinated people in his community when the family returned.

Such international travel to affected areas, the closely interrelated Orthodox groups and higher numbers of children per family are all factors that make the Orthodox Jewish community more susceptible to contracting contagious diseases, experts say.

“The outbreak is heavier in Williamsburg naturally, because it is a much more condensed area,” Schlesinger says. “Williamsburg has a lot of those tall tenement housing projects. They are 24 stories and you have almost 100 families in each building. So if there is a breakout like there is right now and you have unvaccinated children with vaccinated children playing together, you will see it much more heavily because of the way it is set up,” he adds.

When de Blasio and the city’s health department announced their emergency measures, they also warned that the Passover holiday could boost the spread of measles both in the community and outside of it. Just last week, 44 new cases of measles were reported in Brooklyn.

“As Passover is coming up, it is important that all New Yorkers get vaccinated, especially if they plan to travel overseas to Europe or Israel, or to areas in the United States that are experiencing large outbreaks,” Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said last week. “With Passover ... we’re going to be putting more people at risk.”

Josephs says that because many Passover seders will take place in people’s homes, ”they really need to check with their guests: ‘What’s your status? What’s your situation?’ Because that’s not something you want to play with.”

Some kosher hotels in the New York area preparing to host Jewish families over Passover have even said they won’t accept unvaccinated guests, according to a JTA report Wednesday.

Why be a Jewish anti-vaxxer?

In addressing the measles outbreak through her Jew and the City platform in recent months, Josephs says she has been trying to understand why opposing vaccinations may appeal — and even make sense — to some Jews, despite it going against the religious establishment.

“Part of me wonders if there is some holdover from not trusting non-Jews,” she says. “Maybe because the non-Jewish governments rounded up their ancestors? It could be that that’s what appeals to them.”

In general, she adds, the idea of getting the best medical care for children is very widespread in the community and local doctors are generally “revered.”

“I think there is some distrust, or at least some nervous feelings, the more insular you go. But again, if you look at any of the top hospitals around the New York City area, you always find tons of Hasidic Jews there — so it’s pretty much a mystery to me.

“I would say that it’s kind of a Jewish idea to not just accept the universal thinking as automatic truth,” Josephs speculates, pointing out that in the Bible Avraham decided to go against idolatry despite it being commonly accepted.

In recent weeks, Josephs says she has learned of anti-vaccination pamphlets and robot calls going around the community.

“When you speak to the [community] leaders — both the rabbis and the political leaders — they don’t actually know who is doing this,” she says. “They don’t understand how people got so crazed by this.”

That polarization could close people off from the debate, she warns.

“I think that, unfortunately, for some of them it’s become almost do or die — and for Jewish matters of life and death, we would basically break anything in order to survive,” Josephs says. “You have situations of people who have gone rogue against their own rebbes.”

Greenstein stresses that even those who violently oppose vaccination do so because they believe that “the harm and toxicity of these vaccinations could be more harmful to their children than that of the measles.

“We know that’s not true, but we need to work toward getting to them in a way they will accept,” he adds. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight.”

Greenstein believes that in order to convince anti-vaxxers to vaccinate their families, they have to be included in the fight. Because people think, ‘OK, [the authorities] think I don’t care for my children. Obviously they don’t get me, so why should I accept help from them?’

“That’s why it’s so important to work with the community,” he says. “Helping them understand that we are not belittling them, we are respecting them. We are giving them new information upon which they can make a new decision.”

Forceful approach

During his announcement in Williamsburg, de Blasio tried to convey a sense of urgency, saying the city will reluctantly issue fines to those who fail to comply with the vaccination order.

“We have a situation now where children are in danger. We have to take this seriously. Every one of us should feel responsibility for the situation,” he said. “There’s no question that vaccines are safe, effective and life-saving.”

Schlesinger says he already noticed an increase in the number of people coming to his clinics asking about the measles vaccine the next day following the mayor’s plea.

“That tells me there is a certain amount of parents out there who weren’t sure, who were on the sidelines, and these are the types of people this announcement will help,” he says. “This strong reaction from the mayor and health commissioner pushed them” to vaccinate.

On Wednesday, New York City health officials said that 16,000 measles vaccines had been administered since de Blasio’s declaration, but that more than 3,300 kids remain unvaccinated in affected areas.

“You’re always going to have people who think they are smarter than the doctors and the medical establishment,” Schlesinger says. “These are people who, as much as you want to talk to them, you will not convince them.”

Schlesinger and his staff have also decided to take steps to eradicate the outbreak. “The pediatricians in my center are very clear: If a parent comes in, they are being asked about vaccinations. If they say they don’t vaccinate, my doctors will tell them to go look for a different health center,” he says. “We can’t endanger our patients. If you endanger people, you don’t belong here. You can’t pick and choose: If you believe in doctors, you gotta believe in them.” In Rockland County, just north of New York City, on Tuesday officials ordered that all unvaccinated people exposed to the disease be barred from public spaces for up to three weeks, including houses of worship.

However, some in the community believe these somewhat unusual approaches are the wrong way of tackling the outbreak and containing it.

“The health officials from the city of New York and the state of New York have done a dismal job with getting the message across in the right, proper way — a message that can actually achieve the mutually desired results,” warns Greenstein. “They poured in a lot of money for advertisements, but those were Google-translated documents of English to Yiddish: No sensitivity to how Yiddish works, the lingo, what is the right way” of saying things.

Despite heading Borough Park’s Jewish Community Council, Greenstein says he has not received a single call asking him to convene the group leaders, yeshiva heads or rabbis.

“I could easily put this together — this is what I’ve done for other issues,” he says. “I received a phone call asking me for a quote from the mayor’s office about the importance of vaccination, which I gave them. Just for the press they reached out, but not to really truly work with me and with the community. I believe that is the only way to make an impact.”

In addition, he says, there is a years-long “antagonistic relationship” between health officials and the Orthodox Jewish community, one that requires extra sensitivity.

“They mean well, I truly believe that,” Greenstein says about the authorities. “But that’s not the approach that’s going to achieve the results we all want. I think the most important thing is for city officials to work with us on a plan [of] how we could include the health officials and doctors and rabbis sitting around the table with community leaders.

“Let’s do it together, let’s do it smartly,” Greenstein adds. “Not just pour out ads that are ineffective and then say, ‘Well, we did our job.’”

For Josephs, too, there is no question that working with the community is the key to tackling the outbreak. “I understand that New York City is nervous about this going any further, and I think they are right in feeling nervous,” she says. “But this is definitely a community that does better with their own leadership than outside leadership.”

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