Orthodox Jews decry public backlash over measles outbreak

As New York officials sound alarms this week about the measles outbreak in urban and suburban areas that include concentrations of Orthodox Jews, leaders of those communities are pushing back, saying that they are being stigmatized as being anti-vaccination and indifferent about public health.

“The knee-jerk reaction is it that it must be happening because ‘they don’t vaccinate their children the way others do,’” said Avrohom Weinstock, the associate director of education affairs for Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization. “There are some who don’t vaccinate, just like in any other community, but it’s a minority.”

Orthodox Jews say that contrary to public opinion, their faith does not push an anti-vaccination view.

“There’s no Eleventh Commandment that says ‘Thou Shall Not Vaccinate,’” said Weinstock, who has been in touch with New York health officials. “Part of the religion says that you should guard your soul, which is also interpreted as ‘Guard your body,’ that means we actually have a mandate to try to stay healthy.”

Health officials have documented more than 400 measles cases in New York since last fall. Most involve Hasidic Jews, according to The New York Times.

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The outbreak is traced to ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York who in October traveled to Israel, which was experiencing a measles outbreak then. The travelers included children who were not vaccinated and came back with the measles.

The ultra-Orthodox community, some leaders say, was particularly vulnerable, given its tight-knit nature, the close living quarters in urban neighborhoods, and the custom of having children in tow at gatherings at synagogues and other public places.

“If people don’t realize that it may be more complex than they’re saying,” Weinstock said, “they’re never going to get to the root of the cause of a medical problem if they’re misidentifying why this is.”

"While certainly, the county is trying to aggressively stem the tide of disease spread," Weinstock added, "we are concerned that an unintended consequence of this will be mistrust in an already strained community relationship. I’ve seen far too many horrific and offensive social media comments."

Dr. Sruly Zyskind, a pediatrician in Brooklyn -- the heart of the New York outbreak -- whose patients are predominately Orthodox Jews, said most of his patients are immunized, and their parents are concerned about the outbreak.

“There are some [in the community] who have been influenced by anti-vaxxers, but they are a small, very small, minority,” he said.

New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot acknowledged this week that the majority of religious leaders in the large Orthodox communities support vaccination efforts, but that rates have remained low in some areas because of a resistance "fueled by a small group of anti-vaxxers in these neighborhoods."

Anti-vaccination advocates have targeted ultra-Orthodox communities, dispensing literature warning against dangers of vaccines that many health experts say are baseless.

“It’s very clear that vaccines are important and they’re safe... Perhaps the most important breakthrough in medicine have been vaccines,” Zyskind said. “Anti-vaxxers haven’t seen what measles did 50, 60 years ago, when tens of thousands of Americans died from measles. They just didn’t see that.”