One of the country’s most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis has condemned vaccines as a “hoax” in an interview with a local Jewish newspaper.
“I see vaccinations as the problem,” Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky 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.”
Kamenetzky argued that schools should not exclude unvaccinated students, as they currently do under public health laws. He also claimed that school janitors would be spreading disease if vaccines worked. “They are mostly Mexican and are unvaccinated,” the rabbi said. “If there was a problem, the children would already have gotten sick.”
Kamenetzky is dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia and a member of the rabbinical board that guides Agudath Israel of America, the leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella organization. He spoke at the umbrella group’s annual gala in May. His wife, Temi Kamenetzky, gives lectures opposing vaccines.
Other prominent opponents of childhood vaccinations include former Playboy Playmate and talk show host Jenny McCarthy and Alicia Silvertsone, star of the 1995 film “Clueless.” The Centers for Disease Control says there is no link between vaccines and the development of autism, one common fear.
While Kamenetzky’s opposition to vaccinations does not appear to be widespread among the ultra-Orthodox, he’s also not alone.
“It’s a matter of some contention, but that’s true of the broader society as well,” said Rabbi Dovid Zwiebel, executive director of Agudath Israel. “There is a small, but not insignificant, part of the populace that is persuaded that vaccination can be a dangerous thing… Some rabbis may be part of that population also.”
Zwiebel’s group has not taken a position on vaccines.
A 2013 measles outbreak that sickened dozens in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Boro Park and Williamsburg was caused, in part, by ultra-Orthodox parents who had refused to vaccinate their children, according to an alert issued by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior faculty member at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school and an expert on bioethics, said that some rabbinic sources argue that rabbis should not make medical decisions. “This is an area in which medicine has made such tremendous progress for the benefit of humanity,” Tendler said. “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.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.