More than 400 people in Brooklyn and Queens have been infected by measles this year, according to the city’s health department. And that’s a pretty significant stat considering the disease was considered eradicated in the United States back in 2000.
Yet the highly contagious rash-like condition has hit some of the city’s Orthodox Jewish communities hard, prompting not only some lawmakers like Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz to stand up against religious exemptions to required vaccinations like measles, but now even some high-profile Jewish schools, like Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy and SAR High School.
The two Modern Orthodox schools announced just before the Passover holiday they would not only deny entry for students who haven’t been vaccinated, but re-enforced that vaccination is an obligation under Jewish law to those who are medically able.
Rabbi Binyamin Krauss and Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, principals of the day school and high school respectively, wrote to parents that neither school will allow unvaccinated students through its doors without a valid medical exemption.
“We, as the principals and religious decisions for SAR, take seriously our commitment to our students’ health and safety,” the principals wrote in the email. “In light of the current measles outbreak, we have decided to implement the below policy that rests on our understanding of the halachot of self-preservation.”
Halachot are Jewish laws based on the Talmud. In the email, the Rabbis cited Devarim 4:15, which they translated as “be very careful about your lives.”
The decision came after an April 9 order from the city health commissioner requiring every person who works or lives in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg community be immunized with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Of the 423 cases reported in the city, only one has come from the Bronx, according to health officials. Another 200 or so cases were reported in Rockland County.
Dinowitz introduced a bill in the Assembly last January that would eliminate the religious exemption for vaccines from state law. Currently, parents can choose not to vaccinate their kids if they “hold genuine and sincere religious beliefs.” Dinowitz says the religious exemption renders vaccination requirements “virtually meaningless.”
“I believe that parents who deliberately choose not to vaccinate their children are acting recklessly and irresponsibly,” Dinowitz told The Riverdale Press. “So I applaud SAR for taking the stand that they did. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the safe thing to do.”
This isn’t the first time Dinowitz has tried to pass such a bill, but in the past met resistance from Gov. Andrew Cuomo who feared First Amendment implications designed to protect religious expression. But with the current outbreak, there may be enough political will to get it done.
“Nobody else’s life should be endangered because you believe in what is nonsense,” Dinowitz said.
The senate version of the bill was introduced by Manhattan’s Brad Hoylman, and includes Sen. Alessandra Biaggi among its co-sponsors. Neither bill, however, has moved past committee.
Dinowitz was joined by Rockland County executive Ed Day, a Republican, on Monday to push the legislation. That came soon after Day extended a state of emergency in Rockland over a measles outbreak.
“We need to address this now,” Day said. “A few months ago, there was no such conversation of a measles outbreak except in pockets of Rockland County and Washington. Now we have 22 states affected. Immediacy of action is critical.”
Dinowitz and other legislators supporting his bill believe the only exemption to vaccinations is medical. Vaccines work through what is known as “herd immunity” — the more people vaccinated, the less likely the disease is to spread, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. If the only people who are not vaccinated are those with severe allergies or compromised immune systems, then a community (or country) is less likely to see the emergence of preventable diseases.
The measles outbreak among the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and Queens has sparked a national conversation on the decreasing rates of vaccinations.
The city believes the outbreak began after an infected child returned from a trip to Israel, a country where measles cases have spiked from 30 to almost 4,000 in just the last two years, according to Israeli officials.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 700 people have been infected with measles nationwide, a 25-year high that predates what was supposed to be its American eradication.
While officials have tied city measles cases with predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, the New York/New Jersey chapter of the Anti-Defamation League argues the outbreak is not a result of the Jewish faith.
“Those within the Ultra-Orthodox community who do not vaccinate their children often do so for many of the same reasons as non-religious people,” the ADL said in an April 1 statement.
Measles has made a comeback in recent years thanks primarily to what is known as the anti-vaccination movement. Parents groups have spread beliefs that vaccines cause autism, while those on the other side of the argument say a 1998 paper that made this claim has since been debunked. In the ultra-Orthodox community, misinformation about side effects and potential health risks has spread.
But Dinowitz had a message for all choosing not to get vaccinated: “Nobody else’s life should be endangered because you believe in what is nonsense.”