Amid a spreading measles outbreak that is hitting certain Jewish communities particularly hard, two Washington synagogues are taking measles prevention into their own hands.
Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue and Kesher Israel, both modern Orthodox congregations, last week announced that they will prohibit families who choose not to vaccinate their children from entering.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 555 reported cases of measles across 20 states this year, the highest number since 2014, when there were 667 cases reported in the whole calendar year. But diagnoses have been heavily concentrated in haredi Orthodox Jewish communities like the one in Rockland County, N.Y., where there have been 285 confirmed cases this year.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Kesher Israel in Georgetown said congregants began coming to him with concerns after hearing stories of measles outbreaks inside Orthodox communities in Brooklyn and Baltimore among unvaccinated children.
Located near downtown Washington, the synagogue is visited by tourists from all over the world. During Passover, Shafner said, as many as 300 tourists may visit the synagogue in a day. The synagogue plans to post signs this week in English, Hebrew and Yiddish that the
unvaccinated may not enter, the rabbi said.
“Our primary worry is not the averageperson in Georgetown. It’s the folks coming from places that may not be vaccinating,” Shafner said.
In New York City, the problem of non-vaccination has gotten so bad that Mayor Bill DeBlasio declared a public health emergency requiring everyone who has not been vaccinated in
Williamsburg (home to a large haredi Orthodox community) to do so. A small number of rabbis in certain haredi Orthodox communities have questioned the safety of vaccines, citing a false link between vaccination and other developmental disorders. Shafner said that not only is vaccinating safe and necessary, it’s against Jewish law not to do so.
“Rabbis across the board have come out and said it’s totally against Jewish law to not vaccinate,” Shafner said. “You’re not allowed to endanger your own life and you’re certainly not allowed to endanger others. It’s so totally against Jewish thought.”
Shafner said the need for a vaccination policy only became more urgent when a case of measles was reported in Pikesville in early April. Shortly after the case was confirmed, rabbis from the Jewish community urged caution when traveling to areas with a high concentration of reported outbreaks and one nearby synagogue gave out free vaccinations last week.
According to Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Ohev Sholom has had a mandatory vaccination policy with regards to its summer camp and religious school since 2012. He said the school lost some families when the policy was instituted. But last week, as concerns among some congregants grew, the synagogue decided to take an additional step.
“Effective immediately, no child or adult is permitted on synagogue premises or may participate in synagogue-sponsored activities outside of our building unless they are in full compliance with the vaccination recommendations of the District of Columbia Department of Health,” synagogue officials wrote in a statement.
“It’s nonsense to claim thatthere’s any basis whatsoever in Jewish law for not vaccinating,” Herzfeld said. “If you want to say you’re against vaccinations and you don’t want to vaccinate your children, my message to you is find another synagogue.”
According to the CDC, measles causes fever, rash, red and watery eyes. Complications can lead to pneumonia, brain damage and death. And two doses of the measles, mumps and
rubella vaccine is about 97 percent effective at preventing measles. But the vaccine
is only licensed for use with children 12 months to 12 years old, meaning that infants must rely on what’s known as “herd immunity,” by which the rest of the community (being vaccinated) prevents measles from spreading.
At Kesher Israel, Shafner said the vaccination policy will remain in place indefinitely.
“We rely on medicine and science,” he said. “We don’t only rely on rabbis. We’re not Christian Scientists.”