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Ultra-Orthodox anti-vaxxers blame coronavirus shot for Rabbi Twerski’s death

In some corners of Ultra-Orthodox or Haredi social media, the beloved rabbi and psychiatrist Abraham Twerski died not of coronavirus, but of a man-made menace even worse than the virus itself: The COVID-19 vaccine.

“The rabbi Dr, was perfectly healthy” wrote a commenter on an article announcing Twerski’s death on the Haredi news site Yeshiva World on Sunday. “This is mass murder under the disguise of vaccine program!”

An audio “news report” from “Israel News Talk Radio” circulating on WhatsApp Monday morning said, without evidence, that Twerski “has died after reportedly receiving the COVID-19 vaccine,” continuing with a long list of Jews who had supposedly died after receiving the injection.

“Family says he died from the vaccine!” said one WhatsApp user Sunday night. Another, who forwarded that message, asked a group, “Any truth to this?”

The baseless rumor that the coronavirus vaccine killed the 90-year-old Twerski is part of a larger anti-vaccine misinformation campaign circulating on pashkevilim, or posters in synagogues, in WhatsApp messages and voice notes and in other forums in the Haredi world.

The tri-state area’s Haredi Jews lead an intentionally insular life with limited secular news consumption. That combined with the amplifying agent of WhatsApp, a favorite peer-to-peer messaging service, and existing skepticism about coronavirus restrictions, government intervention and vaccines has led some Haredi Jews to seize on falsehoods about adverse effects or even deaths from the vaccine.

That Israel is leading the world in vaccinations has upped the ante and increased the intensity of the debate.

In fact, Israel’s vaccine program has had better results than anticipated. One study found that two weeks after receiving their first shot, patients were 33% less likely to be infected.

But in synagogues in Borough Park, Williamsburg and Monsey, worshippers saw posters last weekend authored by the influential Haredi Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Karp from Kiryat Sefer, Israel, telling Jews to avoid the vaccine.

“Obviously whomever has a brain in his head won’t get one of these vaccines and will practice restraint and inaction until a good deal of time passes and we will be able to measure the effects and results,” wrote Karp in Hebrew peppered with Aramaic expressions.

The Haredi community in the New York metropolitan area is no stranger to vaccine misinformation. During a measles outbreak in April of 2019, anti-vaccine organizations circulated flyers and booklets full of false claims about the treyf, or unkosher, nature of vaccines. Without evidence, parents advised each other of the risk of sudden death from measles shots.

Now, to essentially stop the global pandemic from spreading from person to person, about 80% of the population will need to be vaccinated. Vaccine skepticism in the Haredi community, as well as in others, will likely prove an obstacle.

In one Haredi WhatsApp chat, Frum Conservatives, a user questioned on Sunday whether Twerski’s death was a “wake up call.”

“How low will we bow to the god of Pfizer for the salvation of its great vaccine?” the user said. “How long will it take us to wake up and recognize that Hashem is calling us to turn away from our false gods and our false notions and turn towards Him?”

Chana Pollack contributed reporting and translation.

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon.

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