CLOSE

Shoshana Bernstein has “Proud to Vaccinate” magnet on her car to illustrate that not all Orthodox Jews are against vaccinations in Monsey April 12, 2019.
Carucha L. Meuse, cmeuse@lohud.com

As measles cases in New York climb, leaders within the Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish community, where most cases in the metropolitan area have been concentrated, fear something else is also spreading — anti-Semitism.

With upcoming Passover travel, there is concern that both could get worse.

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, an infectious diseases specialist and respected Jewish scholar, wrote about the dual concerns of measles and backlash recently for the Rabbinical Alliance of America.

“Why are precious children unnecessarily exposed to lethal illnesses?” he wrote. “How could we cause ‘Orthodox Jews Cause Disease’ to be the lead story on major print and other news media? Why are health departments and governments … talking about fining Jews and closing Yeshivas?” 

A headline in Der Yid, an influential newspaper published by the Satmar Hasidic community, called the anti-vaccination movement: “Senseless! Heartless! Torah-less and Reckless.” 

“It’s very scary,” said Rivkie Feiner, a Monsey resident who works on behalf of various Orthodox causes. “As an Orthodox family, my kids wear yarmulkes, we are being marked.”

Buy Photo

A sign in Yiddish outside Compare Supermarket in Spring Valley, where a person with measles visited in November. Signs in English, Spanish, French Creole and Yiddish explained the possible exposure to the virus. (Photo: Nancy Cutler/The Journal News)

‘Halachic obligation’

Feiner recounted stories on social media of people declining to board an elevator at the Palisades Center with an Orthodox woman and children inside. She pointed to comments on social media blasting the Orthodox community for putting people at risk.  “The majority of us are vaccinated,” Feiner said on Thursday. “My kids’ school was 100 percent.” 

Rabbi Ari Zahtz, the assistant rabbi at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck and a Talmud professor at the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University in Manhattan, said no Jewish text supports vaccine avoidance.

ROCKLAND: Up to 180 confirmed measles cases, warning of exposures

CUOMO: Ending religious exemptions for vaccines ‘is legally questionable’

ED DAY: ‘I’m fighting New York’s measles outbreak from the inside’

“The Torah commands us to protect and preserve our health,” he said. “Vaccination is unquestionably a halachic (Jewish law) obligation to protect the health of our children and ourselves and a responsibility we have towards others. There is no room for equivocation on this religious and moral obligation.”

Agudath Israel of America, a major Orthodox organization, maintains that the measles outbreak is being used by the media and others as a stalking horse for anti-Semitism.

“Our public discourse is debased when individuals and media outlets point the finger of blame for the spread of measles squarely — and sometimes viciously — at the “ultra-Orthodox” community. Social media comments have been particularly appalling in this regard,” said a statement from the group.

#proudvaxxer

Shoshana Bernstein said she started hearing an anti-Jewish backlash as Rockland’s outbreak grew. “You can’t help but hear what the comments have been,” the Monsey resident said. “It’s been horrifying.”

Bernstein, who is Orthodox, said she knows that most of the Orthodox community vaccinates: “I literally wrote the book on it.” 

A freelance writer with a background in marketing, she worked on a publication about vaccinations with the state Health Department that was geared toward the Orthodox community. 

Bernstein recently decided to develop a “visible tangible means to sway the erroneous public perceptions.”

She created a car magnet. “I’m proud to vaccinate,” the magnet says, with the hashtag “#proudvaxxer.”

“If an Orthodox Jew or Hasidic Jew walks out of a car with this magnet, people will say, ‘Hey, maybe it’s not just the Jewish community,’” she said Friday.

Compliance growing

Rockland County Executive Ed Day said he had been cognizant of concerns about backlash. The Republican said that negative responses against the Orthodox community have been “muted” compared to what could have occurred.

He credits, in part, efforts to underscore cooperation from Jewish leaders. “We have had the cooperation of the rabbis, the rabbinical council, the Jewish press,” he said Friday. “I have been repeating this over and over and over again.”

Rockland has confirmed 180 cases of measles since October, although officials have said they believe more cases have gone unreported.

“The yeshivas’ rules had been loosey goosey,” Day said. “But we have had tremendous compliance.” 

Day also said backlash over his decision to order a state of emergency on March 26 —later blocked by a legal challenge — changed the dialogue. “On Facebook, the attacks were from anti-vaxxers outside Rockland. It wasn’t from or about the Orthodox community.”

The legal challenge that led to a court decision freezing Rockland’s state of emergency also had nothing to do with the Jewish community, Day said. Parents of unvaccinated students who attend nondenominational private schools initiated the action.

Feiner said vaccine resistance is “a national thing, whether it’s the hippies in L.A. or the movement that somehow caught on among some in the Hasidic community.”

Travel broadens risk

Public health officials have worried the measles outbreak could get worse during Easter and Passover amid large family and community gatherings and a spike in international travel.

Day said the holidays were a major reason for the timing of his state of emergency. He pointed out that the Rockland outbreak was traced to seven people traveling from Israel to New York for the holiday of Sukkot.

In Westchester County, which recently confirmed eight cases, Health Commissioner Sherlita Amler was concerned that holiday travel could create conditions for the disease to spread.

She urged vaccinations for those not up to date. “Only you can protect you,” she said.

Measles outbreaks continue in Israel and areas of Europe.

Some Jewish leaders have expressed concern that more cases could feed anti-Semitism.

“I don’t want people to feel there’s an issue of Jews or other specific group that might be anti-vaccine,” said Teaneck Councilman Keith Kaplan, who describes himself as Modern Orthodox. “As a group we are very concerned that we don’t spread the disease.” 

Kaplan said he’s not worried Passover visitors from Rockland County could spread measles in his New Jersey township. “We require vaccination for school, camp, and recreational programs and we find that only a very very, small number of people have asked for an exemption over the years, and herd immunity is alive and well in Teaneck,” he said.

There have been 285 documented cases in Brooklyn since October and 13 cases in New Jersey so far in 2019. 

“Maybe the federal government should start doing its job,” Day said, “and enforce vaccination for visitors.”

Feiner said she believes education efforts will pay off with more vaccinations and fewer measles cases. 

“Younger people today have not seen a friend or family member with the measles and don’t know how serious it could be,” said Feiner. “When’s the last time we had an outbreak? They didn’t think they could hurt someone.”

CLOSE

An animated explanation of the measles.
Chris Brown, cbrown2@lohud.com

Read or Share this story: https://www.lohud.com/story/news/local/rockland/2019/04/12/measles-outbreak-backlash-passover/3435172002/