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Rabbi vaccinated at clinic under investigation says he asked if shot was legal

Hershel Schachter, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbi who received a COVID-19 vaccine Thursday at a clinic now under investigation for improperly administering the vaccine, said he was led to believe that the vaccination was above board.

Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, both head teachers at Yeshiva University and major authorities on Jewish law, were photographed getting the vaccine through ParCare Community Health Network, a network of clinics serving Orthodox communities in and around New York City. State health officials say ParCare gave the vaccine to members of the public before that was allowed and may have obtained the vaccines “fraudulently.”

ParCare is owned by a Hasidic man, and the company serves a number of Hasidic communities in Brooklyn and upstate New York. Throughout the pandemic, those Orthodox neighborhoods — such as Williamsburg, Borough Park and the village of Kiryas Joel — have drawn attention for having many people not wear masks and for holding large events such as weddings in violation of state rules.

Schachter said he and Willig were photographed receiving the shot in order to inspire confidence in it. Some Jewish communities are wary of vaccines, and low vaccination rates have led to measles outbreaks. Schachter had also said on a podcast that jumping the queue to obtain a vaccine was not permitted under Jewish law.

Yet the fact that health care workers and nursing home residents and staff are the first to receive the vaccines has been widely publicized. In New York State, only frontline health care workers and nursing home residents and staff are receiving the vaccines, and vaccinations are taking place at hospitals and nursing homes.

Before an online Torah lesson Sunday night, Schachter said he and Willig had both asked whether the vaccines they had been offered were legal and legitimate and that they hoped to encourage others to be vaccinated by publicizing their own vaccinations.

“We were led to believe that it was,” he said. He added, “If either of us would have been told that this was inappropriate, that it wasn’t legitimate, we would not have done that.”

Schachter, already a sought-after authority on matters of Jewish law for decades, became an outspoken leader urging compliance with pandemic guidelines early on in the crisis. He issued dozens of written Jewish legal opinions throughout the spring and summer, addressing a range of questions involving Jewish ritual and social distancing and has frequently encouraged mask wearing.

“You all realize that I feel it is very important we should all take this vaccine,” he said Sunday.

BoroPark24, a Yiddish news service, reported on Dec. 21 that ParCare had obtained 3,500 doses of the vaccine produced by Moderna and would vaccinate 500 people that day. ParCare’s CEO, a Hasidic businessman named Gary Schlesinger, told BoroPark24 that ParCare had gotten permission to vaccinate patients and that only people over 60 or with underlying conditions would be eligible at first. The next day, Schlesinger retweeted a picture of himself receiving the vaccine.

On Saturday, New York State Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said on Saturday that state police would investigate ParCare and people associated with it. Schlesinger deleted the photograph of his own vaccination sometime after that.

“We take this very seriously and DOH will be assisting State Police in a criminal investigation into this matter,” Zucker said in his statement. “Anyone found to have knowingly participated in this scheme will be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

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