(April 15, 2019 / JNS) In response to a measles outbreak that was pinpointed to an unvaccinated child contracting the disease while visiting Israel, causing New York City to declare a public health emergency last week, Jewish institutions are issuing warnings, while also condemning others who are pointing the blame at the Jewish community, especially among the ultra-Orthodox community.
New York City also told yeshivahs in the Brooklyn section of Williamsburg that students must be vaccinated or the schools will face violations and even closure.
Agudath Israel, an ultra-Orthodox organization, expressed alarm at the outbreak, but asserted that most Jewish children are already vaccinated.
“Countless rabbinical figures and leaders, including leading rabbis in the Agudath Israel movement and doctors serving these communities, have repeatedly encouraged vaccination in the strongest possible terms,” leaders said in a statement. “Indeed, the overwhelming majority of children enrolled in Jewish schools are vaccinated.”
Moreover, the agency slammed those who spread “infectious hatred” amid the outbreak.
“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,” they said. “Social-media comments have been particularly appalling in this regard. This is a time to come together and collaborate to meet a challenge.
“There is no excuse to use a public-health issue, an outbreak we are suffering from, as a platform from which to spew poisonous anti-Semitic rhetoric,” they continued. “The motive behind this hatred becomes readily apparent in light of statistics evidencing that acute Orthodox Jewish outbreak areas have vaccination rates rivaling those of many other municipalities.”
In an email to Kesher Israel, a synagogue in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood, Rabbi Hyim Shafner and board president Andrew Cooper wrote, “We wish to take this opportunity to state unequivocally that getting vaccinated according to recommended guidelines is not only vital for the health of both our community and the public at large, but it is also our halachic obligation.
“Therefore, effective immediately, any child or adult who is not vaccinated is prohibited from entering any of Kesher’s facilities or attending any other public gathering sponsored by Kesher Israel,” they added. “We and the board have unanimously agreed that such a policy is necessary to protect the many young children and any immunosuppressed members in our community.”
The situation has also seen instances of real alarm. The Minute Clinic of a CVS store in Livingston, N.J., closed down for the day on April 7 because someone who was seen had symptoms related to measles. That turned out not to be the case, but it caused the staff to chase out customers and react.
Measles has also spiked in Rockland County, N.Y., and Oak Park, Michigan, areas with high ultra-Orthodox populations.
Near the nation’s capital, in Pikesville, Md., the first case of measles was reported last week.
Kemp Mill Synagogue in the heavily populated Jewish community of Silver Spring, Md., sent a similar email to the community, saying “the situation is of grave concern to all of us.”
“A core value of Torah is the importance of protecting and preserving our health, well-being and safety,” stated the email, sent by Rabbi Brahm Weinberg, president Saul Newman and Dr. Jeremy Brown, the synagogue’s vice president of the Limmud Torah program. “We are enjoined to do everything that we can do to protect life.”
They emphasized that “vaccination is not only an obligation to protect the health of our children and ourselves, but it is a responsibility we have towards others and their well-being.”
The synagogue warned that “as a matter of policy, no child is allowed on the premises of KMS (including the playground area) unless they are in full compliance with the vaccination recommendations of the State of Maryland.”
Anecdotally, other gatherings at synagogues and Jewish community centers, such as brit milah and baby-naming ceremonies, have come with explicitly written instructions on invitations to keep unvaccinated children home.
American Jewish Committee chief legal officer Marc Stern told JNS, “The government can insist on vaccination, and it and other institutions within the community should make every effort to increase vaccinations rates to as close to universal as possible. Almost every substantial institution and rabbinic leader within even the haredi community has insisted on vaccination.”
Stern said that “it is unfortunate that the few exceptions are both endangering children and adults in their ignorance and damaging the reputation of the Jewish community. But it is also important that public officials not demonize the Orthodox community or act in ways that leads others to do so, as has already occurred in Rockland County.”
As of April 4, there have been 465 reported cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.