On the plane from Brussels back to the U.S., a young Orthodox Jewish couple boarded, the man decked out in his black clothes and tallit, the woman wearing a wig. They had a young child, and when I saw it I thought, “That kid doesn’t have a chance.” It will likely grow up either an uneducated but hyper-religious man, or a subservient and perpetually pregnant woman. It will be brainwashed, its options in life severely limited by religion. At that time I didn’t know it might also have had its health endangered by its parents’ faith.
The latest measles outbreak in the U.S., and it’s a serious one, is in Brooklyn, New York, and is largely spread by unvaccinated ultra-Orthodox Jews—Hasidic ones. According to the NYT article below, the virus was carried by American Jews who visited Israel, where there was an outbreak last fall, back to the U.S. Since then most of the 300 cases in New York City have been among the Hasidim.
The main reason for the lack of vaccination among the Haredim is misinformation, spread by those who may know they’re lying. Here are some bogus excuses for not getting kids vaccinated:
a. The vaccinations may not be kosher:
“The Vaccine Safety Handbook” appears innocuous, a slick magazine for parents who want to raise healthy children. But tucked inside its 40 pages are false warnings that vaccines cause autism and contain cells from aborted human fetuses.
“It is our belief that there is no greater threat to public health than vaccines,” the publication concludes, contradicting the scientific consensus that vaccines are generally safe and highly effective.
The handbook, created by a group called Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health, or Peach, is targeted at ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose expanding and insular communities are at the epicenter of one of the largest measles outbreaks in the United States in decades.
On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in parts of Brooklyn in an effort to contain the spread of measles in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods there. He said unvaccinated individuals would be required to receive the measles vaccine — or be subjected to a fine — as the city escalated its campaign to stem the outbreak.
Peach’s handbook — with letters signed by rabbis and sections like “Halachic Points of Interest” — has become one of the main vehicles for misinformation among ultra-Orthodox groups, including Hasidim. Its message is being shared on hotlines and in group text messages.
“Vaccines contain monkey, rat and pig DNA as well as cow-serum blood, all of which are forbidden for consumption according to kosher dietary law,” Moishe Kahan, a contributing editor for Peach magazine, said in an email.
Vaccines are often grown in a broth of animal cells, but the final product is highly purified. Most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis agree that vaccines are kosher, and urge observant Jews to be immunized.
b. The vaccinations may be dangerous:
A Hasidic mother who lives in Rockland County and participated in the call told The New York Times that none of her three children were vaccinated, and all of them recently had measles. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that she did not report the cases to doctors and that the children recovered in a matter of days.
“The body is not a machine,” she said. “The body is something that reacts to toxins in certain ways. I’ve heard firsthand of cases of SIDS after children getting a vaccine,” she added, referring to sudden infant death syndrome. Many studies have concluded that vaccines do not cause SIDS.
b. Seeking answers in religious scripture:
Yosef Rapaport, a Hasidic journalist in Borough Park who has written about the importance of vaccination, said parents who do not want to immunize their children will seek rabbinical counsel that aligns with their views.
“You make up your mind and then try to find the interpretation in the Talmud,” he said. “You can always find some rabbi who will express doubt.”
c. Fear of the authorities.
Some Hasidim have said that longstanding tension between members of the ultra-Orthodox community and the government have made them wary of officials’ efforts to contain the outbreak.
The past persecution of the Jewish people is still a factor, they said. And more recently, quarrels with secular leaders over a circumcision ritual that has transmitted fatal herpes infections to infants and the government’s oversight of ultra-Orthodox Jewish private schools known as yeshivas have only soured relations.
d. Lack of proper science education. Many Hasidim get almost no formal education, and what they get is largely religious in nature. Many of them don’t accept either evolution or vaccination:
“The lack of a comprehensive secular education has raised a generation of some parents who do not appreciate modern science and do not have trust in the health system,” said Dov Bleich, a Hasidic father of two who lives in Monsey and emphasized that most rabbis are supportive of vaccines.
“It’s leaving them vulnerable to the anti-vaccine crusade.”
e. The claim that measles is not dangerous.
. . . opponents of vaccination ardently maintain that diseases like measles are not dangerous.
“The adverse events from getting measles, they’re very, very, very low,” Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a pediatrician in New York, said on the recent conference call. There have been no reported deaths in New York State linked to the recent outbreak. But measles killed 110,000 people globally in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.
But these Jews put a much larger (and non-Jewish) population at risk, though the risk is attenuated because Hasidic children don’t mingle much with kids from outside the faith. But it doesn’t take much to spread the virus, and there are now fines mandated for parents who won’t vaccinate their kids. In this case, as in Quebec, the interests of the country as a whole supersede adherence to dogma. And an unvaccinated Hasidic child doesn’t have a choice.
To be fair, most Hasids do accept science and do get their kids vaccinated. But it’s clear that what is causing this outbreak is fear bred by religion.