Some middle schoolers at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy (JKHA) spent weeks preparing for their debate tournament which was to be held Thursday, May 16, at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach (HALB) in Long Island. The day before the long-awaited event, students were told by their coach that as two participating schools pulled out, the competition would be canceled, according to a student at the meeting.
The reason for the last-minute cancelation? Fear of measles.
Four Orthodox Jewish day schools, including JKHA, were participating. One of those schools, Flushing’s Yeshiva of Central Queens, had been ordered closed by the city Health Department for failing to prevent unvaccinated students from attending class.
The school was closed from Monday to Wednesday and reopened last Thursday, the day of the debate contest.
But on Wednesday, May 15, Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, head of the Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, announced that his school would not be participating in the debate because of concerns raised by its school nurse.
“There had been talk among students, faculty, and parents, but our decision really had more to do with the view of our health professional,” he said. “She was aware of the closing of one of the other schools and she wanted to be cautious. We felt bad about the disruption.”
Outbreaks of the disease, declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, continue to make headlines and New tri-state Jewish communities are at the epicenter. On Monday, New York’s Rockland County Executive Edwin Day wrote to President Donald Trump asking his help in “fighting the longest current measles outbreak in the United States.”
“We have 233 confirmed cases since our outbreak began in October of 2019 with many more cases going unreported …,” he wrote. “Our outbreak began when seven travelers from overseas visited our country while they were infected with measles.”
Day then requested that either an executive order be issued or laws be passed that would require all visitors from other countries to present immunization certificates before being allowed entry into the country.
He acted just one week after a meeting was held in the Rockland County town of Monsey that promised to be a “highly informative night of science and discussion addressing your concerns, fears, and doubts” about the measles vaccine and feature experts on the subject. But the estimated 200 to 300 people in attendance — some having come to the event on free buses that originated from as far away as Brooklyn and New Jersey — heard instead from a disgraced British doctor who helped trigger the anti-vaccine movement with a fraudulent paper linking vaccines to autism that caused him to lose his medical license, and a rabbi who has long been against vaccinations.
The gathering caused the Agudath Israel of America, the largest charedi umbrella group, to issue a statement titled, “Nonsense and Insults at a Recent Monsey Gathering.” It noted that the gathering had been “heavily promoted in Orthodox Jewish areas [and] featured figures in the anti-vaccination circuit.” It said the rabbi’s assertions—
including his claim that Mayor Bill de Blasio was “scapegoating Hasidim” and being “a very, very sneaking fellow”—“are nonsense, and his personal attack on Mayor de Blasio is deeply offensive.”
Meanwhile, other rabbinic leaders in Monsey wrote a letter urging that “everybody should do their utmost to minimize this illness by getting the proper immunization for it.” It then quoted from a rabbinical court decision in Jerusalem directing people to be immunized and saying that “parents do not have a right to endanger their children, and through this other people’s health can also be impaired. It has been proven that these immunizations have mostly helped.”
Media reports about the measles outbreak — as well as extensive coverage of last week’s Monsey gathering — have given the erroneous impression that Jews were the cause of it all. As a result, it has reportedly triggered some anti-Semitic incidents in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Monsey, according to Evan Bernstein, New York/New Jersey regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“For us, this is something we see as a community health crisis, and laying blame on an entire religious group as the sole cause of the outbreak is unfair and wrong,” he said. “We urge sensitivity in discussing this issue. The average person equates the whole crisis to this one group, which can create anti-Semitism and canards that can metastasize.”
Efforts to counter the anti-vaccination movement included a discussion last week at the New Eichler’s in Borough Park, Brooklyn, by Ann Koffsky of her 2015 book about the importance of vaccination, “Judah the Maccabee Goes to the Doctor.”
She said she was prompted to write the book when she learned that Jewish parents were mistakenly claiming religious exemptions for their reason in not vaccinating their children.
“I couldn’t believe they were saying the Torah says, ‘Don’t vaccinate,’” she said.
“When my book first came out,” she told NJJN, “I was highly attacked by trolls on Amazon, who attacked the listing—they gave it a one-star rating and wrote nasty comments. It knocked the listing way down. Recently, pro-vaxxers fought back and gave my book lots of 5-star ratings and hundreds of positive comments. It was an all-out battle on Amazon.”
“It’s sad that my book is so relevant today — I couldn’t have anticipated this,” she added. “All we can do is fight back with information.… This is not the Orthodox community. This is a small segment of the community that is sadly misrepresenting the vast majority of our community.”
Even as Jewish community leaders and rabbis were telling people that vaccinations are safe, so-called “measles parties” continue to be held in Borough Park. Blimi Marcus, a leader of the pro-vaccination movement, said they attract parents who bring their non-immunized children to play with other children who have the measles in order to “naturally” immunize them.
“These parents have been told that going through the measles naturally will make their children stronger,” Marcus said. “The anti-vaxxer movement has preyed upon deep fears over their children’s safety and wellbeing.”
But at a press conference last month in Williamsburg, New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot said, “we don’t want children or adults to be unnecessarily exposed to measles because there are serious consequences to that.”
Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio observed that vaccines are a “much safer way to protect your children.” And she noted that the anti-vax movement has been “very aggressive … with pop-up phone numbers and conference calls where a lot of misinformation is being handed out. So I want to make sure that we make no mistake about it — there is a campaign with very intentional efforts to give misinformation and we’re here to correct the record. … Exposing your unvaccinated child to measles is very dangerous and it could even be deadly. We urge everyone to avoid this practice. This is a public health emergency.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. Hannah Dreyfus of The Jewish Week contributed reporting.