The anti-vaccination movement has found itself a surprising home: a small portion of the frum Jewish community.
The recent measles outbreak has hit heavily-populated Jewish areas in Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Rockland County, and New Jersey, yet these same areas have also hosted multiple anti-vaccination (or “anti-vaxxer”) events. Anti-vaxxer parents believe not only that mandatory vaccinations infringe on their parental authority; they maintain many vaccines are harmful.
Rabbi Hillel Handler, who has spoken at several anti-vaxxer events, argues that people need not be vaccinated to avoid measles. “[A]ll diseases stem from neglect of the basic principles of hygiene, nutrition, and proper lifestyle, as outlined by the great Torah scholar and physician Moses Maimonides,” he writes in an essay on vaccines that he distributed to several media outlets. Rabbi Handler argues that measles, mumps, and chicken pox may even be “necessary for the healthy development of the child’s immune system.”
Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman, a resident of Lakewood and an anti-vaxxer, told The Jewish Press that he decided not to vaccinate his children after hearing a lecture about the dangers of vaccines from a doctor who had “35,000 patients all vaccinated, and not one child with autism in his practice.” There’s “surely a connection,” he argued.
“If the government has to coerce people to get vaccines, that means there’s a danger there that would make people not want to do it. That’s not a risk I want to take for my children,” he said.
While many join the anti-vaxxer movement based on information they’ve read or heard, others do so due to personal experience, said a parent from Lakewood, New Jersey, who wished to remain anonymous. They may have vaccinated their child and seen him or her develop an illness or disability not long after, he said.
“When I tell people I don’t vaccinate my children, they say I’m crazy. I say, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know the toxic ingredients in these things?’”
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt – associate rabbi of Congregation Anshei Chesed in Hewlett, NY, and hospital epidemiologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital – told The Jewish Press that there’s actually “a chiyuv to vaccinate from a medical and halachic perspective.” No posek, he said, “holds the anti-vaxx opinion.” The issue for him is simple: vaccines “prevent many sick children from dying.”
Many anti-vaxxers argue the measles vaccine causes autism. Rabbi Glatt, however, deems this claim bogus. In a recent letter to The Jewish Press, he wrote, “There are numerous studies showing that MMR is not at all related to autism. Indeed, the most recent large study – ongoing for more than a decade, involving 657,461 children born in Denmark – was just published in the April 2019 issue of the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine. This study, once again, demonstrated absolutely no connection between MMR and autism.”
Dr. Daniel Kimmel, assistant professor of sociology at Yeshiva University, told The Jewish Press that “there’s a short-term memory problem when it comes to measles and other diseases” because “we’ve taken care of them so effectively that people forget how easily widespread and dangerous these diseases can be.”
Measles, he said, “can be fatal or have damaging effects especially pertinent to the Jewish community – like fertility.”
Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president of Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ, told The Jewish Press that the anti-vaxxer movement “forgets that the reason measles may not be so widespread is because it has been almost eradicated from the U.S. as a result of vaccines.” He added that “there are so many horrible diseases, like polio, which many Jews had…that we need protection from.” Measles is “only minor in comparison” to these other diseases, he said.
According to Kimmel, vaccination rates are slightly lower in chassidic/charedi communities, possibly due to “a lack of hard science education.” Rabbi Gottesman added that “chassidishe communities in Monsey, Monroe, etc., have been taught from a young age to not put all their trust in academics – don’t trust someone just because they have a degree and a white lab coat.”
Another culprit may be disinformation that quickly spreads in tight-knit Jewish communities. One example is an anti-vaxx pamphlet put out by PEACH (Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health) that has been circulating in Orthodox communities for several years.
What these lower vaccination rates are not rooted in, said Rabbi Kotler, is Jewish law. “There’s no nexus whatsoever between Yiddishkeit and the anti-vaccination movement. The movement actually started many years ago with Christian scientists who were against the medical field,” he said.
Dr. Kimmel noted that the greatest concentration of anti-vaxxers is found. not in charedi neighborhoods, but in high-income, left leaning communities.” There are places that have “significantly higher [non-vaccination] rates like Washington and Oregon,” said Rabbi Kotler.
It’s true, Dr. Kimmel said, that the current measles epidemic has targeted many frum neighborhoods, but that does not necessarily reflect anti-vaxx ideology in these communities, he said. “It’s just that the rate is low enough to be problematic in a community where people travel back and forth to Israel, have family over, pray together, and live in close proximity to each other. Everything spreads more easily in this type of culture,” said Dr. Kimmel.
For precisely that reason, however, getting vaccinated is vital, he said. “If you’re community-minded, you should care about vaccines.”