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Petition Calls On Ultra-Orthodox Group To Condemn Anti-Vaxxers Ahead Of Conference

An Orthodox girl getting a vaccine against polio in Israel in 2013. Image by Getty Images

A petition is calling for a major ultra-Orthodox umbrella group to condemn anti-vaccination on the eve of the group’s national convention.

An anonymous person calling themselves Dovid Fields started a peitition to get Agudath Israel of America to state that vaccines are not harmful. Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are popular in some segments of the ultra-Orthodox community. The petition has nearly 240 signatures as Tuesday midday, out of a hoped-for 500.

The petition notes that three members of Agudath Israel’s highest council on Jewish law, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, have supported anti-vaccine positions. The men include Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, who called vaccines “a hoax” in 2014, and Rabbi Malkiel Kotler, the head of one of the largest yeshivas in the country.

“This is an emergency and the most immediately pressing issue of the day,” Fields wrote in an email to the Forward. “[Agudath Israel’s] leaders have a hand in spreading actual risk of death and they should not be allowed to stand silently.”

Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel, wrote in an email that “the Agudah doesn’t routinely address medical matters, leaving them to constituents’ consultation with their doctors.”

The comments in the petition showcase many Orthodox Jews frustration with the men who have given support to anti-vaccine myths.

“The fact that we even have to do this is a disgrace,” wrote one commenter.

The petition comes after a major measles outbreak sickened over 1,400 in Israel and dozens in the U.S., almost exclusively in ultra-Orthodox communities. The outbreak hit Orthodox Brooklyn in late September.

Earlier this year, a group of people in the heavily Orthodox town of Lakewood, New Jersey, tried to form a “coalition” to force local yeshivas to admit students who had not been vaccinated. The coalition claimed they had the support of Kotler, the yeshiva leader. In New Jersey and 46 other states, families can claim religious exemptions for vaccines. American yeshivas have generally not admitted unvaccinated students.

Agudath Israel’s national convention, which happens annually over the Thanksgiving weekend, will be at a hotel in Stamford, Conn. The convention features talks and panels on addressing mental health issues and confronting technology.

Update, 11/20/18, 1:35 p.m. — This post has been updated with comments from a representative for Agudath Israel.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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