A prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi has drawn criticism for calling vaccines a “hoax,” but his beliefs are not uncommon in Orthodox circles.
“I see vaccinations as the problem,” Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky told the Baltimore Jewish Times in a story published in late August. “It’s a hoax. Even the Salk [polio] vaccine is a hoax. It’s just big business.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews who declined to vaccinate their children have been at the center of a handful of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in recent years, including one large measles outbreak in Brooklyn in 2013, another in London the same year and an earlier outbreak in Jerusalem in 2007.
An anti-vaccine Orthodox glossy called P.E.A.CH. Magazine launched in April in English, with copies distributed in Orthodox neighborhoods in Brooklyn. “We have heard what the pro-vaccine side has to say, and we are decidedly opposed to their largely unfounded claims,” an introduction on the issue’s second page reads.
It’s unclear how many ultra-Orthodox parents skip vaccinations for their children. A representative for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that 96% of students at yeshivas in Brooklyn are vaccinated, and ultra-Orthodox insiders in Brooklyn say that vaccinations are near-universal in the community.
“Because we have so many kids, and we are concerned that if something happens… it can affect the entire family, people are going to (get) vaccinations in droves,” said Isaac Sofer, a Satmar leader in Williamsburg.
In Philadelphia, where Kamenetsky runs the prominent Talmudical Yeshiva, a spokesman for the city Department of Public Health said that the agency had a good relationship with the Orthodox community, and that during a 2011 mumps outbreak, city health workers were welcomed into an Orthodox boarding school to set up a vaccine clinic.
Yet, a letter from researchers that was published in the medical journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in October 2013 reported that ultra-Orthodox 2-year-olds in Hackney, London are vaccinated at far lower rates than the general population.
Agudath Israel of America, the leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group, does not promote or oppose vaccinations. Kamenetsky sits on the group’s rabbinical board.
“It’s a matter of some contention,” said Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel. “There is a small, but not insignificant, part of the populace that is persuaded that vaccination can be a dangerous thing.”
Epidemiologists say that a failure to vaccinate can be dangerous, too. “If a population were entirely self-contained, like living on an island with a force field around it, then refusing vaccination against things like polio would be totally reasonable,” said Christopher Gill, who is an associate professor at Boston University’s Center for Global Health & Development and a specialist in infectious diseases and vaccines. Such populations don’t exist in the modern world, Gill said. “No community is entirely self-contained. No one actually lives on that island.”
Vaccines work on the theory of herd immunity, the notion that disease outbreaks can be prevented if a population has a high proportion of people who are immune to a given disease. Large numbers of people who opt out of vaccination lower a population’s level of herd immunity. “If you have a community where the herd immunity is very, very low and also if there’s crowding or very, very large families… then the disease could spread rapidly,” Gill said.
That appears to be what happened in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn in 2013, when 58 people were sickened in the largest measles outbreak since 1996. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the incident, nearly 80% of the people who fell ill in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn were members of “three extended families whose members declined use of measles vaccine.” Nine of those who got sick in Williamsburg had also refused vaccination.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Hackney experienced a measles outbreak in 2013 that also spread among unvaccinated young people.
“Vaccination coverage within this community is lower than in the general population of London, causing low herd immunity and outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases,” read the letter from researchers that was published in the infectious disease journal, a CDC publication. Eighty-seven percent of the people infected in the first three months of the outbreak had never been vaccinated for measles. “This ongoing outbreak highlights continued health risks in communities with low vaccination coverage,” the researchers concluded.
One Orthodox rabbi condemned Kamenetsky’s position. “This is an area in which medicine has made such tremendous progress for the benefit of humanity,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior faculty member at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and an expert on bioethics. “I believe that there may very well be rabbis who agree with Kamenetsky, but they are not speaking under their authority as rabbis, they are speaking simply as uninformed laymen.
“I’m hoping that Rabbi Kamenetsky was misquoted,” Tendler said.
The Forward tried multiple times to reach Kamenetsky for comment, but he was not available.
Orthodox opposition to vaccines, where it exists, does not appear to be based on religious objections. Some vaccines do include gelatin, which is made from pig tissue. But Jewish law does not ban the injection of nonkosher meat such as pork, it bans actual consumption of it, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, who runs the kosher division of the Orthodox Union.
Instead, ultra-Orthodox anti-vaccine advocates use language similar to that of secular anti-vaccine activists, such as former Playboy Playmate and talk show host Jenny McCarthy.
In his interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Kamenetsky suggested that vaccines don’t work, claiming that if they did, students would be getting diseases from school janitors. “They are mostly Mexican and are unvaccinated,” the rabbi said. “If there was a problem, the children would already have gotten sick.”
P.E.A.C.H. Magazine, which on its masthead lists a post office box and email address but no phone number,, focuses on “vaccine safety” and skepticism of the medical profession. The issue carries one article titled “The Autism Mystery” and another called “How To Prevent Your Children From Being Damaged by Vaccines.”
In the introductory note, the editors write: “Do not allow anyone to inject anything into your child unless all of your questions are answered…. You can always vaccinate later, you can never un-vaccinate.”
The magazine did not respond to an email sent to its listed address. The Centers for Disease Control says there is no link between vaccines and the development of autism.
Orthodox embrace of vaccine skepticism could be connected to a broader ultra-Orthodox cultural suspicion of the government at large, according to one expert.
“My impression is, from my research, that there are many ultra-Orthodox Jews who are interested in alternative medical treatments, including chiropracting and vitamins,” said Ayala Fader, an associate professor of anthropology at Fordham University who has done extensive fieldwork in ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn. “The language is not necessarily halachic, it’s more anxiety with the state — distrust of the state,” she said.
Additional reporting by Frimet Goldberger
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joshnathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.