In 2018, Jewish children and babies are contracting and dying from the measles.
In Jerusalem last week, an 18-month-old baby died of measles. The child had not been vaccinated, nor had its parents, who had already contracted the illness thanks to a massive and international outbreak of the illness, which until the anti-vaccine movement took hold, had almost been eradicated in the First World.
The parents of the first fatal case of the measles in Israel were members of the Neturei Karta sect of Judaism, a group so deeply suspicious of the Israeli government, that members avoid all government-funded health services, especially for preventative measures like vaccines.
With the outbreak raging in Israel, officials are beginning a vaccination campaign aimed at Orthodox neighborhoods where vaccination rates have dipped due to discredited beliefs about the dangers of shots, pernicious among some middle-class parents around the Western world.
How did these beliefs seep into Orthodox communities in the United States, England and Israel? A Hasidic resident of Brooklyn familiar with the anti-vaccine movement in his community told me it’s no different from the larger, international “anti-vaxx” movement. “According to everything in halacha, it should be obvious that every family should vaccinate. The reality is that the Hasidic community is far more integrated in the American scene than anyone, Hasidic or otherwise, may care to admit. As such, the same reasons college-educated, liberal minded and successful people in Manhattan, Beverly Hills and beyond have made the detrimental decision not to vaccinate, these families do the same. It’s Jenny McCarthy, with all the new age reasoning, just with a snood or a shtreimel.”
In Israel, officials are considering banning unvaccinated individuals from schools and sensitive hospital wards. In Lakewood, another outbreak hotspot, they’re ahead of the game: One of the largest schools in the community has told unvaccinated students to arrive with proof of the shot, or be sent home. The Lakewood Scoop (TLS) reported on one administrator’s comments: “We are not playing games. The children sit here all day and not at home — we cannot have them infect other children.”
This hardline in Lakewood isn’t just happening in schools; a local Jewish-owned gym also announced it would be banning unvaccinated members. Some synagogues in the community asked unvaccinated members of the community to stay home or go elsewhere this week as well.
This is nothing new from Lakewood, a community which recognizes the threats posed by unvaccinated children. At a local Passover carnival in April, attended by tens of thousands, unvaccinated children and parents were asked to stay away for fear of exposing thousands of their fellow Jews to highly contagious and dangerous diseases.
How should the Orthodox Jewish community address the anti-vaccine movement, which has taken hold and endangered the public health of every member of the community?
They should take a page from Lakewood’s handbook, which has over the last several years sent an unequivocal message to those who choose not to vaccinate: You can make your own choices, but you will not be granted entry into communal spaces. Orthodox Judaism is communal, and by breaking with the community on vaccines, you are breaking from the community.
After a school in Brooklyn was sued by an anti-vaccine family for not admitting their child, Rabbi Gil Student tweeted:
This is weird. What religious belief, Venishmartem? The parents are trying to infringe on the school’s religious belief of Venishmartem! https://t.co/nAsY4SsxAf— Gil Student (@GilStudent) November 1, 2018
Student here referred to Deutoronomy 4:15, which enjoins us to “watch over ourselves very carefully,” a verse which is widely interpreted to mean watching over one’s health, in order to serve God.
This is a message that should be spread across Orthodox communities by those with the power to influence: Public health is of the utmost importance.
Rabbis, educators and lay leaders ought to make clear the consequences of this choice to those making it: By not vaccinating your children, you are endangering not just your own health and that of your children, and not just the welfare and safety of everyone around you — you are breaking a biblical commandment of guarding over our lives, of keeping oneself and one’s community healthy. Making that choice should signal a clear statement from communal leadership: you are not welcome to participate in the community whilst you are a danger to it.
Bethany Mandel is a columnist for the Forward.