Jews have been associated with the medical profession for more than 1,000 years. The “physician’s prayer,” which decorates the walls of countless doctors of all faiths, is popularly believed to have been written by Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbi. Five hundred years ago, Jews comprised half the doctors in Europe and less than 1% of the population.
There’s even a joke about it: The first Jewish president is taking the oath of office, when his mother turns to her neighbor. “You should see my other son,” she says, “He’s a doctor.”
Yet a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews from Lakewood, New Jersey, is the latest to take up the anti-immunization banner in the “vaccine wars.” They are trying to form a “coalition” that would force yeshivas in the area to accept students who have not been vaccinated. The group sent out a mass email earlier this month, stating its intention to “provide support of ‘strength in numbers’ to pro-vaccine choice Lakewood families,” sparking a communal debate over what Jewish law says on the subject.
“It’s a form of avodah zora [idol worship] to believe in this anti-vaccine myth that all the doctors have this hidden agenda and we’re getting payoffs,” said Rabbi Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at South Nassau Communities Hospital and a spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America. “It’s almost its own religion.”
Lakewood is a densely Jewish area, with the Orthodox community accounting for nearly all of the township’s exponential population growth, from 60,000 people in 2000 to more than 100,000 today. It is home to hundreds of yeshivas and synagogues, many of which follow either Hasidic or Lithuanian traditions of ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
The Vaccine Coalition’s email has state law behind it. It called on local yeshivas to enroll students who have claimed a religious exemption from mandatory vaccinations. Such religious exemptions are law in New Jersey and 46 other states. The yeshivas, for their part, have vowed not to admit unvaccinated students.
The coalition did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Anti-vaccine sentiment has a relatively robust history in some Orthodox corners. In 2013, the worst measles outbreak in the United States in 17 years was determined to have spread through a few ultra-Orthodox families. Every one of the 58 people diagnosed with measles during the outbreak was a member of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Some ultra-Orthodox believe that there is a connection between vaccines and autism, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say there is none. In the spring of 2014, an anti-vaccination glossy called P.E.A.C.H. Magazine was distributed around ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey, including in Lakewood. Its most recent issue, which encourages readers to “decide for yourself,” appears to have been published last fall. A representative for P.E.A.C.H. did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Glatt guessed that for some of the families, especially those who have autistic children, the vaccine decision is mostly an emotional one. He said that even the rabbis and parents who advocate resistance to vaccines still come to him for referrals for cancer care and other medical treatment.
While the vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox world accepts the importance of vaccines, “anti-vaxxers” have always managed to find backing from some rabbinic authority features. In 2014, Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, a major Orthodox rabbi who lives in Philadelphia, called vaccines a “hoax.”
It’s just big business,” Kamenetzky told the Baltimore Jewish Times. Kamenetsky also suggested that if the diseases that vaccines prevented were a problem, kids would already be sick because school janitors “are mostly Mexican and are unvaccinated.”
But according to Rabbi Asher Bush, a teacher and rabbi at Congregation Ahavat Yisrael in Rockland County, New York, this is one instance where the Torah is fairly clear: Jews must act according to accepted medical fact. There are no conflicting sources in the Talmud, he said, that would suggest otherwise.
“This isn’t going to the Carvel and having chocolate or vanilla,” Bush said. “But if you read what they write, that’s how they frame it.”
Major Lakewood institutions have called out the Vaccine Coalition for being a fringe group. One of those institutions is the Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva in the United States The yeshiva, along with the Lakewood Vaad, an interorganizational board of rabbis, released a joint statement in support of vaccines, according to the Asbury Park Press.
“The overwhelming response is that it is irresponsible,” said Rabbi Moshe Z. Weisberg, a member of the Vaad. Weisberg sits on the committee of a group of 120 private Jewish schools in Lakewood Township. He told the Asbury Park Press that the schools do not accept unvaccinated children “as a matter of policy.”
Bush, echoing the sentiments of other rabbinic and medical experts interviewed for this story, said he was flummoxed by the response of this fringe part of the Orthodox world.
“These are very rulebook Orthodox people,” he said. “They don’t believe in personal autonomy, and all of a sudden they’re declaring their belief that this is a valid choice.”
Some have argued that not only are anti-vaccine Jews misusing the Torah — they are actively going against it. Glatt said that for Orthodox Jews’ to use the religious exemption for vaccinations constituted sheker, or fraudulent behavior outlawed by Jewish law. In a column published by Yeshiva World News, Rabbi Yair Hoffman, an expert in Jewish law, listed the possible commandements that anti-vaccine Jews were violating: saving another’s life; “not standing idly by” the blood of your neighbor; treating your neighbor as yourself.
Ironically, ultra-Orthodox Jews may be more vulnerable to infectious diseases than other communities are. A study published in 2012 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Orthodox Jews made up 97% of victims of mumps outbreaks in New York City and a few surrounding counties in 2009–2010. Nearly three-fourths of the teenage victims were men.
The researchers concluded that yeshivas were the main site of infection for the teenage boys, and pointed to the characteristic chevrutah, or “friendship,” learning style enshrined in yeshivas of all Jewish denominations. In chevrutah learning, two students sit across from each other, poring over books, loudly dissecting and arguing over the text. Over the course of a day-long session, which can last up to 15 hours, students may change partners multiple times. Researchers also noted that when a mumps outbreak occurred in Jerusalem in 2009, yeshiva boys were disproportionately affected.
“We’re the people of the book,” Glatt said. “We have to listen to what the book says.”