Approximately 1,000 men and women turned out on Tuesday night at the Atrium Plaza in Monsey for what had been billed as a “highly informative night of science and discussion addressing your concerns, fears and doubts.”
The flyer for the event was released just 24 hours in advance and appeared to be deliberately vague, listing no date for the symposium and listing the sponsor as the United Jewish Community Council, a seemingly unknown entity.
It included pictures of the night’s speakers, which included well known voices against vaccination: Del Bigtree, who produced the anti-vaccine documentary Vaxxed; Rabbi Hillel Handler; Dr. Lawrence Palevsky; and Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a discredited physician whose study linking measles vaccinations and autism was later deemed fraudulent.
Also speaking at the event was attorney Michael Sussman, who successfully represented a group of parents whose unvaccinated children had been barred from attending a Rockland County school.
While the flyer did not in any way indicate that it was intended only for the Orthodox Jewish community, it included mention of a $20 raffle to win a weekend getaway at a strictly kosher hotel in New Hampshire and listed numbers to arrange complimentary transportation from Boro Park, Williamsburg, Kiryas Joel and Lakewood. (It also mentioned a suggested donation of $12.)
As of May 10, 225 confirmed cases of the measles have been reported in Rockland County, where the outbreak began in October. Rockland County Executive Ed Day, Town of Ramapo Supervisor Michael Specht, and Rabbi Chaim Schabes, whose synagogue bears signs warning that only vaccinated individuals may enter the premises, released a joint statement in the hours before the symposium. The statement categorized the information being presented as misinformation and noted, “This type of propaganda endangers the health and safety of children within our community and around the world and must be denounced in the strongest language possible.”
Four hundred and ninety-eight cases of the measles have been reported in New York City, and a Queens yeshiva, Yeshiva of Central Queens, was the ninth in the city to be shut down by the Department of Health for allowing unvaccinated students after a confirmed case of the measles was reported.
At the event, Handler, who in the past has compared vaccination to “child sacrifice,” said that according to “medical research,” if you are infected with “measles, mumps and chickenpox, your chances of getting cancer, heart disease, and strokes goes down 60 percent.”
He also said, “We chasidim have been chosen as the target in order to distract from the virulent diseases that are sweeping through the city from illegals.”
The event appeared to be well attended and Bigtree appeared to be touched when he was presented with a plaque and a gift by several chasidic participants and was later surrounded by a crowd of women with questions after the event. Outside, numerous protestors voiced their opposition to the symposium, with a petition calling for Monsey residents to contact the Atrium to protest what it called a campaign to “misinform and mislead the Jewish community,” garnering over 1,300 signatures in a matter of hours.
With community activists working hard to dispel the notion that the Orthodox Jewish community is responsible for the continued spread of the measles, holding the event in Monsey was extremely unsettling for many area residents.
“In no way does last night’s disturbing event reflect the majority of Rockland County Jews,” said Monsey resident Shoshana Bernstein. “Every single person I know was horrified that this took place here, in our backyard.”