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In Lakewood, Pushback Against Anti-Vaxxers Is Going Strong

A friend of mine was recently blessed with the birth of a son.

A prominent Rosh Yeshiva in the ultra-Orthodox town of Monsey, New York wished him Mazal Tov — and then swiftly advised him to avoid immunizing the newborn. “The needles are very bad,” the rabbi told him. “Immunizations inject lead into your body.” The rabbi explained that “doctors don’t know anything, and want to make money, and don’t vaccinate themselves.”

In the ultra-Orthodox community, sadly, this is no anomaly, despite the recent measles outbreak, which already claimed the life of a child in Jerusalem.

In Brooklyn, according to a Vox report, Orthodox rabbi William Handler has been proclaiming a (well-debunked) link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. He has told Vox that parents who “placate the gods of vaccination” are engaging in “child sacrifice.”

And it’s not just a New York-area issue, either. In Philadelphia, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky, dean of the city’s Talmudical Yeshiva and a member of the Agudath Israel of America rabbinical board, was quoted in an interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times saying that vaccines are a “hoax.” “It’s just big business,” he said. These views have not affected his standing in the community in the least; he spoke at the Agudah gala this past May, while his wife, Temi Kamenetzky, continues to give lectures opposing vaccines.

These are classic examples of a rhetoric that is still rampant throughout ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Brooklyn, Monsey, New Square and Baltimore.

There are two notable exceptions. One is Kiryas Joel, which boasts a 93% vaccination rate and not a single case of the measles in this latest outbreak — largely due to the community’s pro-vaccine pediatrician Dr. Allen Wertzberger.)

And another community that seems to be bucking the trends of anti-vaccination campaigns — perhaps surprisingly — is Lakewood, New Jersey. Home to the largest yeshiva in the United States — with over 6,500 students — and the fastest-growing town in New Jersey, Lakewood is a leader in the larger Orthodox world, often determining the community’s socio-religious norms.

While some Haredi leaders continue to spread materials about the dangers of vaccines, I have observed more and more leaders in Lakewood coming out in support of the science behind vaccination, and also against those spreading misinformation.

Rabbi Uren Reich, a rosh yeshiva in Lakewood, spoke out against the anti-vaxxers. “Don’t send your [anti-vaccine] garbage to my mailbox,” he said. “Don’t try and waste your money and your time because you have some sick agenda. If you hold that [vaccines are detrimental]… I don’t want to read it and I don’t want to hear it.” Reich explained the importance of respect for authority within Orthodox Judaism; in this case, he said, the authorities are doctors insisting on vaccines. “If you don’t like it [being told to vaccinate], take your child out of the school,” he said.

Letter from Rabbi Morgenstern, citing Rabbi Elyashiv’s policy on vaccinations.

Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kanarek, who runs six of Lakewood’s largest schools, shared a statement from Rabbi Aryeh Morgenstern, a student of the influential Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, saying that Elyashiv believed that schools are required to exclude unvaccinated children “because that will probably cause damage to them.” Morgenstern’s letter also deemed people who don’t vaccinate as “personally [and actively] harmful” to others.

And while Lakewood’s Rabbi Malkiel Kotler continues to support the Lakewood Vaccine Coalition, defending the rights of parents to not immunize their children, the coalition’s website has since been taken down, and anger from community members over Kotler’s silence is reaching a feverish height, via online forums and WhatsApp groups.

“I dare anyone to show me the precedent in Choshen Mishpat [book of Jewish law] in which the owner of a school is REQUIRED to allow dangerous children who were born to gullible, irresponsible, and generally stupid parents, to attend their private institutions even if it causes them a loss,” one Internet commenter wrote.

“When a childhood disease occurs because of this irresponsible policy, will they blame lack of Tzniut [modesty] or will they blame the internet for the tragedy?” another commenter quipped.

Even Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch, a powerful Haredi rabbi in Jerusalem, wrote a detailed letter to Kotler, urging him to change his stance: “Since it is proven that vaccines are effective to prevent the spread of disease, it is an obligation upon every father to vaccinate his children to prevent spread of the disease – as is the law of the Torah to follow the majority view of experts.”

And it’s not just rabbis, educators and parents who are speaking up — perhaps most importantly, Lakewood’s philanthropic leaders are speaking out, too.

Rich Roberts, a pharmaceutical executive and one of Lakewood’s most influential philanthropists, asked a local law firm to publicly address the issue from a legal perspective. “From the reported literature, it is very common among the anti-vaxxers to make wild claims about the effectiveness of alternative remedies,” Jeffrey I. Pasek of Cozen O’Conner wrote, in a letter that was distributed widely by Roberts. “Many of those claims have been proven to be false, and spreading them to induce people to buy products or services that are of no medical effectiveness may be seen as fraudulent statements which are intended to deceive others.”

While pro-vaccination advocacy has always been strong in this community, the most recent measles outbreak, community members tell me, with 14 cases in Lakewood alone, was a brutal wake-up call for the community. And as a staunch immunization advocate, I certainly hope so.

“The outbreak has done two things: It’s motivated the mainstream to take steps they hadn’t been ready to take when the debate was mostly theoretical,” one Lakewood rabbi told me. “The establishment has come to a point where they feel as though they’ve been bullied too much by the anti-vaxxers, who had always been dictating the terms of the ‘debate,’ and now they’re finally pushing back.”

Bethany Mandel is a columnist for the Forward.

Editor’s note: The original headline, “Is This Orthodox Town Finally Getting The Message About Vaccination?,” was inaccurate — the Lakewood community has a history of strong, pro-immunization advocates, as detailed above.

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