On Monday night in Monsey, the Atrium was packed with ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The ballroom of the massive catering hall usually hosts lively Hasidic weddings. This week it welcomed hundreds of people from around the New York City area who had come to this suburb — itself home to a large population of Haredim — to hear from people who believe that vaccines are harmful, and that anyone trying to get you to vaccinate your child is in the pocket of pharmaceutical corporations.
But while the audience was almost entirely religious, only one of the speakers at the “vaccine symposium” was: Rabbi Hillel Handler, who has become something of a poster child for the minority of Hasidic Jews who are rejecting calls from within their community and without to vaccinate their children for measles and other diseases.
It’s not Handler’s first time entering the spotlight as a lightning rod for controversy: He has defended numerous unpopular people, ideas and practices over the years.
“When something is unpopular or no one has the courage to say it, they come to me,” Handler told the Daily News. “If not me, who?”
Handler did not respond to multiple requests for comment left with his family.
The national measles outbreak is now close to the largest since the creation of the measles vaccine. It continues to spread in the Hasidic communities of upstate New York and New York City due to frequent travel of Hasidic Jews to Israel, where there is an even larger outbreak occurring, as well as the high density of Hasidic neighborhoods and the near-daily social gathering of children in schools and places of worship.
Handler lives in Brooklyn, and is a member of the Satmar Hasidic group. His views on vaccines fall into the same pattern as many of his other opinions: They are far from not only the political mainstream, but from the consensus beliefs of most Hasidic Jews.
He has defended metzitzah b’peh, a rare practice of orally cleaning the circumcision wound during a bris ceremony, and which has been linked to several cases of herpes among infants in the New York City area.
Handler also believes that crimes of sexual assault should be dealt with by rabbis, not the police, and defended Rabbi Yisroel Weingarten, a New York rabbi who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for molesting his daughter.
“He’s an extremist, and he’s amoral,” Shmarya Rosenberg, who blogged about the Hasidic world for years at his site Failed Messiah, told the Daily News. “He appears to be a gun for hire in the ultra-Orthodox community.”
Handler spoke in Monsey on Monday alongside secular saints of the anti-vaccine movement, including the disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who helped kickstart the modern anti-vaccine movement with a since-debunked study linking vaccinations to autism.
In his speech, Handler suggested that Hasidic Jews are being attacked in Brooklyn for simply sneezing on the sidewalk, and has falsely suggested that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is targeting Jews because he is secretly German. (Handler, 77, is reportedly a Holocaust survivor.)
“We Hasidim have been chosen as the target,” Handler said on Monday, according to The New York Times. “The campaign against us has been successful.”
Handler also made several erroneous statements about vaccines and the diseases they are meant to protect against. Measles vaccines are safe for the vast, vast majority of recipients, and there is no link between vaccination and autism.
I’m at a well attended anti-vaccine meeting in Monsey, New York. One speaker, Rabbi Hillel Handler, claims that getting measles, mumps and chicken pox reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke by 60%. No citation given.— Jaclyn Jeffrey-Wilensky (@jeffwilen) May 14, 2019
To be sure, Handler’s views are far outside the norm in the Hasidic world. While some schools in Rockland County, the suburban county north of New York that is home to several large Hasidic communities, have vaccination rates that barely reach two-thirds that of the state’s average rate, others have vaccination rates at or better than national averages. Hasidic rabbis have repeatedly encouraged their constituents to get themselves and their children vaccinated.
Rabbi Handler is an individual. He is in no way a community spokesman or representative of my Community. Below is the position of the super majority of Orthodox Jews in the United States. Have a question? Ask any one of these 500 doctors who treat our Community. pic.twitter.com/lSCIJVMraY— Chaskel Bennett (@ChaskelBennett) May 15, 2019
Handler has played into concerns among Hasidic Jews that government agencies are anti-religious and are determined to disrupt their highly traditional, often socially insular communities.
In a statement issued Wednesday titled “Nonsense and Insults at a Recent Monsey Gathering,” Agudath Israel of America, the largest Hasidic umbrella group, called Handler’s attack on de Blasio “deeply offensive.”
“It is unfortunate that he was allowed to share his imaginings with others,” the statement read.
Speaking to the New York Times on Tuesday, Handler appeared to walk back his opposition to vaccines somewhat.
“I don’t mind if someone takes a vaccine. It’s not my business,” he told a reporter. “What am I, a fascist? Am I going to bring down the law?”