A prominent haredi rabbi in Philadelphia made headlines calling vaccinations "a hoax," but how representative is he of local Jewish views on the issue?
One of Philadelphia’s most respected haredi Orthodox rabbis made national headlines last year when he described vaccinations as a hoax. But he does not appear to represent the views of other Orthodox leaders in the area, though some seem reluctant to speak publicly about the issue.
Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, the dean of the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, told the Baltimore Jewish Times in August that he sees vaccinations, rather than the diseases they prevent, as the problem.
“It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine” against polio “is a hoax. It is just big business.”
With renewed concerns about measles because of the current outbreak, public health officials have spoken out against secular and religious leaders like Kamenetsky who express their opposition to vaccinations and, in doing so, they say, could put people who look to them for guidance at increased risk.
But it is not clear how much of an influence Kamenetsky, a haredi rabbi who received a standing ovation from across the Jewish community at a fundraising dinner for a new Orthodox boys high school on the Main Line in November, has had in this regard. He did not return multiple requests for comment.
The directors of several Chabad early education programs also declined to comment when asked about their vaccination policies. But Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, a longtime leader in the local Chabad community who co-founded the Jewish Relief Agency and is the executive director of the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania, said opposition to vaccinations “is not an opinion of our community,” though he said he does know a few people who don’t vaccinate their children.
“Doctors have research,” Schmidt said, adding that his own five children were all immunized. “Medicine is one of God’s tools with which God gives us the privilege of being his partner in healing.”
Indeed, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, supported vaccinations as well.
“Needless to say, while there is no getting away now from the need of therapeutic medicine, preventive medicine is, ideally, the more desirable method,” Schneerson once wrote in correspondence, according to Chabad.org. “For preventive medicine to be most successful and effective, it is necessary to start it from earliest childhood — beginning with vaccination, brushing one’s teeth to prevent cavities, a balanced diet, and so forth.”
Pennsylvania is one of 48 states that allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for religious reasons, and it is one of 20 states that also allow philosophical exemptions, according to the Immunization Action Coalition, a national nonprofit organization that acts as a clearinghouse for information on the subject.
The state law, along with local ordinances, appears to guide many of the local Jewish educational institutions.
Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, an Orthodox day school in Wynnewood, follows the policy of Lower Merion School District, which, according to its website, allows for the exemptions. When asked about parents’ concerns with regard to immunizations, Stuart Gasner, Torah Academy’s communications director, responded in an email that the school “respects individual privacy and does not discuss specific student or parent issues with the media.”
But Congregation Beth Solomon, an Orthodox synagogue that operates two early education programs in the Northeast, requires that parents immunize their children as part of the enrollment process.
Director Rivka Isaacson, who grew up in the Orthodox community of Borough Park in Brooklyn, said she has never seen an association between being religious and opposition to vaccines.
“It has nothing to do with Orthodox Jews. I never heard anything” about vaccines being a hoax, Isaacson said. “The only resistance we’ve had is with families that came from Russia.”
Beth Solomon serves a large Russian-speaking community, and Isaacson said she often talks with families from Russia who “are a little bit nervous about the” shots. She suggested they could be reluctant to immunize their children because they worry the vaccines are unsafe.
“You talk with them about the importance” of immunizing their children and “once we actually demand” the immunization as part of enrollment, the parents comply, she said.
Outside the Orthodox community, a number of early educational programs surveyed say they allow for religious and philosophical exemptions in compliance with state law.
Federation Early Learning Services, which operates eight day care and preschool centers around the Philadelphia metropolitan area, follows the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on vaccinations as well as state law, both of which allow for exemptions, according to CEO Maddy Mallis. She said that on “rare occasions,” FELS has enrolled children with a written exemption, but in all cases they were for medical, rather than religious or physical reasons. And, she added in her email response, “As noted by a pediatrician, with the majority of the population immunized, it becomes extremely unlikely that any child might contract one of these illnesses because all of the other kids prevent the spread of those infections.”
Meanwhile, schools are not the only institutions concerned about the outbreak of disease.
Camp Ramah in the Poconos, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, requires that children be immunized in order to attend, said director Joel Seltzer.
“While individual parents may choose to defer the vaccination of their children for personal reasons,” wrote Seltzer in an email, “Camp Ramah in the Poconos does not see this as an issue of individual rights and choice, but rather as an issue of public health and policy, as we strive to create the safest possible environment for all of our campers and staff.”