Measles outbreak pits Orthodox media against anti-vaxxer movement

Orthodox anti-vaxxers speak with the press outside Mayor de Blasio's April 9 news conference. Screenshot from Voz Iz Neias? footage.

On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a public health emergency in select ZIP codes in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a part of New York with a large Orthodox Jewish community where 228 cases of measles have been confirmed since October. The outbreak, the New York Department of Health said, originated with people who had traveled to Israel, where as of this past November, there were over 1,000 cases. Health officials want to curb the spread of the virus before Passover, when they anticipate mass travel to Israel, Europe, upstate New York, and other parts of the US. The city ordered mandatory vaccinations for anybody who had been in contact with infected people; violators face a fine of up to $1,000.

De Blasio’s measles mandate has tested the information ecosystem in Williamsburg, where many in the Orthodox community eschew traditional news coverage, sometimes deeming it biased against them. That, in turn, has opened the gates for targeted, and often misleading, information about measles and the vaccine. The issue has become so contentious nationwide that last month Facebook announced it would limit the spread of anti-vaccine hoaxes and groups, Instagram blocked anti-vaccine hashtags like #vaccinescauseautism and #vaccinesarepoison, and YouTube banned monetization on anti-vaccine videos.

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These measures, however, may not reach the Orthodox communities where measles has taken hold. The mandate is a waste of time, says a mother who is a member of an Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. “Honestly most Hasidim in Williamsburg don’t have access to the news or social media,” she told me in a text message on Tuesday. “It’s a completely insular community, I don’t even know anyone in Williamsburg. So unless they poster everywhere it will be a lost cause.”

On March 29, I met with the mother in her apartment. She paged through Tzim Gezint (For Health), a glossy magazine-style brochure she picked up at her pediatrician’s office that urges parents to vaccinate their children. The mother doesn’t live in Williamsburg, but she is active in the anti-vaxxer (she prefers the term “pro-informed choice”) movement, and neither of her toddlers have been vaccinated for measles.

The mother is a rarity in her congregation. Soon after New York County issued its March 26 ban on unvaccinated children in public spaces, she received a congregation-wide email from her rabbi, saying that he had consulted with rabbinical and medical authorities, and asking that anyone who chooses not to vaccinate themselves or their children not attend services or any community events until the health crisis ends. The mother and her husband hide their decision not to vaccinate from the rest of the community for fear of being shunned and shut out of local private schools.

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Like most congregants in the mother’s sect, she does not own a television. The more traditional members of her community don’t use smartphones. Community print and online papers in Yiddish and English exist—but she gets most of her news from WhatsApp. “It’s like our craigslist,” the mother says. “There’s always free food and free clothes on offer.”

Her access to health media, too, is selective. She reads scientific studies on vaccines at a pace—she estimates over one hundred in the past three years. She first heard about the current measles outbreak on an anti-vaxxer WhatsApp group of roughly 50 other women she belongs to. (There is a counterpart group for fathers as well.)

While she receives publications encouraging vaccines and explaining the science behind them, the mother reads them, but doesn’t believe what they say, and calls them “condescending.” Tzim Gezint, the publication produced by the Hudson Valley Health Coalition and the New York State Department of Health to target the local Jewish community, she says, is “propaganda based on emotion to scare people, basically brainwashing.” Tzim Gezint was originally sent to every household in Monroe County and is now distributed in local pediatricians’ offices in New York’s Orthodox communities. It is one of the only publications Orthodox families have access to when deciding whether or not to vaccinate their children. “Just imagine how you would feel if your unvaccinated child was the one to put a young cancer patient’s life at risk,” the mother reads, mocking the brochure.

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The mother also shows me a strongly pro-vax opinion piece by Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD in one of the papers she reads, The Lakewood Scoop, which is run out of Ocean County, New Jersey. Anti-vaxxers in the mother’s community explain their concerns in religious terms, in part as a rabbinical dispute over the principle in Jewish law of “pikuach nefesh,” or that “saving a life” is more important than any other religious consideration. The mother takes that to mean she is required to maintain the purity of the body; to try to improve on it is to question God’s work.  Glatt, on the other hand, writes that “it is a mitzvah [good deed] and chiyuv [requirement] to get vaccinated. . . . I feel compelled to publicly speak out against ‘non-vaccinated assisted death.’”

Others in Brooklyn are outspoken advocates for vaccinations in the Jewish community. Albert Friedman, who is Hasidic Orthodox and the publisher and editor of Di Zeitung, an independent Yiddish language paper, says he has published regular articles about the measles outbreak since news of it broke in October. He prints about 9,000 copies of his paper a week and does not track online page views, though he says he has readers as far off as Israel and Australia. On Tuesday afternoon he rushed to meet deadline on content covering de Blasio’s mandate and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s response questioning the legality of the move. Di Zeitung encourages vaccination, though Friedman receives occasional complaints from anti-vax mothers. “Listen, there is zero religious reason not to vaccinate,” he says. “I tell them get me a letter against vaccines from any rabbi and I’ll publish it. I never got any letter yet.” (The mother’s rabbi, she says, is easy-going about refraining from vaccinations.)

Orthodox Jewish nurses also recently spoke to WNYC about their frustration over the “Vaccine Safety Handbook: A Handbook for Parents,” more commonly known as Peach magazine, which disseminates conspiracy theories about vaccines—including that they contain tissue from live, aborted human fetuses—to the community. Peach landed on community doorsteps over two year ago and the Hudson Valley Health Coalition published Tzim Gezint in response in 2017. Some vaccines are grown using animal cells, but then they run through a purification process that most prominent Orthodox rabbis consider kosher. Anti-vaxxers remain skeptical; Peach references the Nuremberg trials in its comparison of vaccines to medical experimentation.

The editor of Voz Iz Neias? (What Is News?), a New York-based news blog, says the Orthodox anti-vax movement is an iteration of the larger anti-vax movement in the US. “There is no such thing as a religious reason for not being vaccinated,” the editor, who is Charedi Orthodox and protects his identity from the community, says. He also uses his platform to give the outbreak “maximum coverage, so the community can be informed of the danger.” However, he does voice concern that the Rockland County ban on unvaccinated minors in public places will increase prejudice against the Jewish community.

Meanwhile, the conflict has grown heated within the community. In an interview outside de Blasio’s press conference yesterday, the editor of Voz Iz Neias? recorded a confrontation between an Orthodox pediatrician, named only as Dr. Adler, and Orthodox anti-vaxxer women. “How can you take away my religious exemption?” one mother asked him. “The research you’re doing is coming from lies,” Adler said.

As for the mother I visited? If authorities learn that the mother is not vaccinating her children, she says she will simply pay the $1,000 fine. “I will move out of New York if it will mean I can live my religious life in peace,” she says.

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Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @akdarrach.