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Study: Largely secular reasons for low Israeli haredi COVID vaccinations

Social-work researchers at Hebrew University found that this segment of the population was motivated mostly by education levels, fear and logistics.

A COVID-19 vaccine at Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Modi'in, Dec. 24, 2020. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
A COVID-19 vaccine at Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Modi'in, Dec. 24, 2020. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.

The reasons that haredi Jews—whether of Lithuanian or Sephardic origins, or Chassidim—tended to vaccinate at lower rates for COVID-19 than the rest of the Israeli population “are not religious-framed but more related to lack of knowledge, fears, trust and logistics,” according to new research from Hebrew University scholars.

Writing on March 26 in the Journal of Religion and Health, Miriam Schiff and Nitzan Sharon-Lavi—both of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s social work and social welfare school—noted that haredi Israelis had the country’s highest rate of COVID infection and the nation’s lowest vaccination rates.

“The most prominent reasons for vaccine avoidance were perceived immunity based on prior infection by the virus and lack of trust in the vaccine’s safety,” the researchers wrote. “The study results call for better outreach to this community and specific psycho-education interventions tailored for its women.”

One reason that vaccination rates were lower for haredi women than they were for their male counterparts, according to the researchers, was “high rates of fear of harm the vaccine may cause to fertility, especially among women, which was indicated as a barrier to vaccination.”

“The significant barrier to the fear of harming fertility may be related to the high values the ultra-Orthodox society holds for large families, child-rearing and transmitting their religious values to the next generation,” the researchers added.

By the end of June 2021, 89% of non-haredi Jewish Israelis had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine, compared to 59% of haredim, according to the scholars.

The researchers describe Chassidim as gathering “around the court of the Rebbe—the movement’s spiritual leader who holds the community together”—and centering “on mysticism and devotion of the heart but divided by fidelity to their specific rabbinic leader.”

Meanwhile, Misnagdim—those of Lithuanian descent—“focused more rationally on cognitive powers and Torah study” and “are considered a leading Torah group in the ultra-Orthodox community and therefore have the authority to set the behavior norms in all,” per the paper. “Their devotion to Jewish law and tradition comes from their cognition rather than their heart.”

Sephardim, to the scholars, are “Jewish descendants from Spain and the Islamic countries and other areas of Sephardic settlement.”

“This subgroup gave rise to the Shas political movement established in 1984, and as a result, its power intensified in Israeli politics,” they added. “At the same time, the Sephardic subgroup remained rejected by other subgroups of the ultra-Orthodox society and therefore engaged in building their own cultural and educational institutions.”

The researchers claim that haredim’s “greater vulnerability was explained by crowded households, communal lifestyle and limited exposure to external information on protective measures.” They add that “the majority believed that the holy activity of Torah learning would protect them against the virus and that the protective measures imposed by the government contradicted their faith in almighty protection.”

“Even though the cumulative rate of infection among ultra-Orthodox communities was 2.5 times higher than in non-ultra-Orthodox ones,” they write, “the odds of vaccine uptake among the ultra-Orthodox community were lower by 19% than the odds among the general Jewish population.”

The research sample consisted of 623 people (338 men and 285 women) with an 85.3% response rate among the 730 self-identified haredim over the age of 18 who were approached. The scholars noted that one of the study’s limitations was its exclusion of a third of the haredi community “that refuses to use the Internet or smartphones for religious reasons.”

They found that 65.8% of participants were vaccinated, with 63.2% of those unvaccinated explaining that “I recovered from COVID-19, and I am immune.” Some 36% said “I still do not know enough about the harm that the vaccine may cause in the long run,” and 20.2% said that “COVID-19 is not dangerous for people of my age.” Nearly one-fifth (18.9%) said “I am afraid that the vaccine will harm my fertility.” Some 13.6% said “I’m pregnant/trying to get pregnant/nursing.”

“The risk of harming fertility may be perceived by ultra-Orthodox women as a potential violation of a major religious role and the core role of women in this community,” the researchers wrote. “Future studies should further examine this potential explanation.”

They also found different rates of vaccination among different kinds of haredim.

“The Lithuanian/Misnagdim subgroup had a higher rate of vaccination uptake and lower mistrust of its efficacy among those who were not vaccinated compared with the Chassidic and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox subgroups,” they wrote. “We can interpret this finding by the characteristics of the Misnagdim. They are oriented toward analytical thinking, and many are open to more secular information, such as scientific data and publications.”

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