Taking a Shot at a ‘Vexing’ Issue

measles vaccine, anti-vaxxers

A recent anti-vaccination rally attended by hundreds of members of the Jewish community elicited strong reaction from both sides of the vaccination debate, as well as extensive coverage by secular media.

The rally was held at The Atrium in Monsey, New York. It featured speakers including Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a pediatrician; Del Bigtree, a producer who made a documentary against vaccines; Andrew Wakefield, author of a later-discredited paper claiming a link between vaccines and autism, and who subsequently lost his medical license for unethical practices, appearing via Skype; and Rabbi Hillel Handler, activist.

Among the chorus who expressed indignation over what transpired at the event was Agudath Israel of America, which released a statement headlined, “Nonsense and Insults at a Recent Monsey Gathering.”

In the statement, the Agudah expressed “particular concern” over “assertions made by a presenter speaking as a rabbi, a long-time agitator on behalf of controversial causes.”

It described this speaker’s accusation that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was scapegoating chassidim, of being “a very, very sneaky fellow” and of having German heritage, as “nonsense” and “deeply offensive,” and declared it “unfortunate that he was allowed to share his imaginings with others.”

Hamodia spoke with several of the attendees, a speaker, and people and organizations for and against vaccines, to gauge reaction to this event.

While some of the interviewees agreed to speak on the record, others refused. One of them cited the fear of being “blacklisted” by the anti-vax movement, and being harassed for criticizing those who spoke at this event. Another refused even to reveal why anonymity was a precondition to an interview, leaving it up to our readers to speculate the real reason.

This feature is not intended as a comprehensive analysis of this most polarizing subject; rather it reports on the reactions to a very specific event.

measles vaccine
Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, M.D.

By Avraham Y. Heschel

Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD, is a noted infectious diseases specialist. In addition to his role as the chairman of the Department of Medicine and a hospital epidemiologist at South Nassau Communities Hospital, and clinical professor of Medicine at Mount Sinai, he also serves as the assistant Rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere.

In a conversation with Hamodia, he expressed his dismay about the gathering in Monsey of anti-vaxxers and what was presented there.

“It was an unbelievable chillul Hashem,” Dr. Glatt said.

“The vast majority of Jews who believe the rhetoric presented at this meeting are wonderful, ehrliche people who are being misguided,” he added. “It is the leadership who are turning this anti-vaccination mantra into almost an avodah zarah. This is like a cult.”

Rabbi Dr. Glatt pointed out that many of the leaders behind the movement within our community are mostly people who don’t identify themselves.

“At one point, it was a group called PEACH. Now they closed down and operate under a different organization name. We don’t know who these individuals are and why they are doing this.”

He expressed his concern about their motives, and pointed out that almost all of the nationally known anti-vaxxers are not from the Orthodox Jewish community, and they specifically target heimishe people for various reasons. He referred to articles on the topic that suggested that many of those outside our community seem to have some secondary gain and/or financial benefit from their endeavors, selling natural products, doing book tours, or going on national media programs. They even have publicists, he added.

Rabbi Dr. Glatt stressed that the anti-vax movement did not start within our community, but was brought into our community by people with beliefs that cannot be reconciled with the Torah view.

“The anti-vax movement originated in the 1800s and had many followers among religious Christians, including the local clergy, who believed that the vaccine was ‘unchristian’ because it came from an animal. PEACH followers also state that you can’t take the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine as it contains treif ingredients. This is of course against the Torah. The halachah is that one is obligated to be mechallel Shabbos to get medical treatment. Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l, in the Minchas Shlomo (siman 24) allows one to even be vaccinated on Shabbos if the vaccine will not otherwise be available.”

For other anti-vaccinators, their discontent with the smallpox vaccine reflected their general distrust in medicine, he said.

Rabbi Dr. Glatt expressed his concern that the attendees were being duped when he was asked about the speakers of the event. The speakers included Andrew Wakefield, who authored a paper in the medical journal the Lancet that was subsequently retracted by all of his co-authors and was then retracted by the publication.

“Wakefield has been totally discredited, and committed fraudulently research that has been totally disproven in multiple studies thereafter. He lost his medical license, and should be referred to as Mr. Wakefield despite being advertised as a doctor. People need to understand, there is one medical opinion when it comes to vaccinations. There is no discrepancy, there aren’t two opinions.

“In fact, the latest comprehensive study, published only last month, in which cases of 650,000 individuals were followed for over 10 years, proved that not only is there no link between the MMR and autism, but children who get vaccinated actually had lower rates of autism than those who don’t. I suppose you could suggest that getting vaccinated helps reduce autism.

“At the same time, measles is a dangerous — potentially fatal — disease, Rachmana litzlan. In the current epidemic alone, it has caused the deaths of two people in Eretz Yisrael, R”l, and hundreds of deaths worldwide in 2019 alone. There are children in ICUs, people with long-term neurological damage, and who knows how many will still chas v’shalom come down with some of the rare later complications of this preventable disease.

“According to halachah, when it comes to questions involving medical opinions whether to be mechallel Shabbos, the Shulchan Aruch states that one should rely on a rov — a majority, and on the most mumcheh — expert opinion. In this case, the vast majority of doctors, and, to the best of my knowledge, every mumcheh, every expert in infectious diseases, urges vaccinations,” Dr. Glatt continued. “If you look at the background of the supposed medical experts they quote, and the people who spoke at this event, you will see that they have no background in this field, no academic credentials and no publications in journals of stature.”

Dr. Glatt noted that the vast majority of Gedolei Yisrael (current and previous generations), including the Tiferes Yisroel in the 1800s, Harav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt”l, and, ybl”c, leading poskim and many great yeshivishe and chassidishe Gedolim strongly support and mandate vaccination against measles. He added that Harav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, Rosh Av Beis Din, Eidah Hachareidis; and Harav Asher Weiss, Av Beis Din, Minchas Asher and Rosh Yeshivah, Mosdos Minchas Asher, wrote teshuvos stating that it is an obligation to vaccinate.

While he acknowledged there are a small minority of Rabbanim who do not actively encourage vaccinations, “None of these Rabbanim were at this event. They don’t subscribe to the nonsense that was spouted there,” Rabbi Dr. Glatt said.

What he also found troubling was that many of the anti-vaxxers appeared to come from kehillos whose Rabbanim have strongly called for vaccination.

“Since when did we become a people who pasken on their own? Since when did we go against our own Rabbanim? Are these people following the Rabbanim they quote in any other area of halachah?” Rabbi Dr. Glatt demands to know.

“I am very concerned that there are people that read information presented by the anti-vaxxers. To the untrained eye, it seems professional and knowledgeable, but in reality it is sheker and outright unscientific.”

By Rafael Hoffman

The Hudson Valley Health Coalition (HVHC), a grassroots organization consisting of all medical providers, schools, and social services organizations in Kiryas Joel, was formed to counter misinformation about vaccination. One of its leading members, who asked to remain anonymous, discussed with Hamodia the recent event in Monsey, and the anti-vax campaign. He pointed out several phenomena that he saw behind the anti-vax movement’s efforts and what he saw as an effective means of combating them.

Several observers have labeled the movement’s efforts to make inroads in our community as a crusade manipulated by an outside cadre of ideologues, a premise that this official challenged.

“The national anti-vax movement didn’t come to Monsey for free; they were paid to speak there. It is quite well documented that these campaigns are being funded by a few individuals who have business interests in alternative health products and who see the anti-vax movement as a good way to build up their businesses,” he said. “They’ve studied spending patterns and see that the way to get people to pay for their products is to have an anti-doctor philosophy, and the anti-vax movement is a great way to build that up. Don’t be fooled. For the people who are really behind this, it’s a simple matter of business interests.”

The recent outbreak has placed under greater scrutiny the “religious exemption” used by most anti-vax parents to allow their children to attend schools. As the number of cases climbs, more states, including New York, are considering doing away with the exemption altogether, a move which the anti-vax groups are fighting against strongly. The political battle, the HVHC representative argued, was the true motivation behind the Monsey event.

“Renting out the Atrium and making this whole thing is part of a lobbying campaign,” he stated. “They realize that if exemption is struck, the movement will die, because you won’t be able to send your kid to school without vaccinating. The bill is likely to get voted on soon, and it would be a terrible defeat for the anti-vaxxers if it passes. So they’re in a desperate mode, and they know that making such an event will get them coverage in every paper and on every channel.”

While noting the great importance of legal carve-outs for legitimate religious needs, the HVHC spokesman said that Kiryas Joel’s leaders would be happy to see this exemption struck from the books.

“The state realized that almost no religions, including Judaism, prohibit vaccination, and that the exemption is being wildly abused. It’s just being used as a loophole because there is no other way for an anti-vaxxer to get an exemption,” he said. “Our position is that this exemption only creates problems, because right now, if a family has it, the mosad has no choice but to take their unvaccinated children — which is why we have this outbreak in the first place.”

Among large Orthodox population centers, Kiryas Joel has been one of those less affected by the measles outbreak, with fewer than 30 confirmed cases since last fall. The HVHC member said that this low number is not a coincidence; rather, it is the result of a concerted effort by local officials and activists.

“Three years ago, when PEACH [Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health — Eds.] distributed a booklet to almost everyone in Kiryas Joel and set up their hotline, we realized that we had to be aggressive and that we could only counter this dangerous trend by getting people the legitimate information on the subject,” he said.

Out of those conversations, HVHC was formed. A year later, it published “Tzim Gezint,” a 52-page booklet with an extremely thorough treatment of the topic from both a medical and a Torah perspective. The pamphlet was partially sponsored by the state and is referenced by New York City’s Health Department.

“Our goal was to make a grassroots organization that could give people the tools to make educated decisions based on the real facts,” said the spokesman. “The fact that so many people have gotten sick and that this outbreak has put the community in such a bad light is terrible, but the silver lining might be that there will be more awareness of the issue. My hope is that other communities will also make coalitions like ours who can put a united face to this cause.”

measles vaccine
Rabbi Hillel Handler

By Reuvain Borchardt

Rabbi Hillel Handler, an anti-vaccine activist, in his remarks at the rally, said, “The people who are against us are not bad people, they are ignorant, they don’t know the facts … [due to public hysteria] they honestly believe that those of us who are not vaccinating are evil people.”

“They have been bamboozled … they have been sold a bill of goods by some very nasty people who have an agenda.”

Rabbi Handler encouraged the crowd to daven to “rely on Hashem and don’t rely on your own strength” and to avoid machlokes.

“We have to be very careful to respect each other … because each side … has Gedolei Torah who are recommending what to do.”

Handler also attacked New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for targeting Chassidim during the measles outbreak. In an email newsletter, Handler has referred to de Blasio as “an ethnic German, whose real name is Warren Wilhelm,” and who has “reverted back to his ethnic roots.”

At the event, Handler said that de Blasio has declared New York a sanctuary city, and that “hundreds of thousands are coming in to New York City carrying really serious diseases,” such as dengue fever and tuberculosis.

“New York City is flooded … with people who have all kinds of diseases, we know nothing about it … However, that is not discussed. What is discussed? The Chassidim.”

“We Chassidim have been chosen as a target in order to distract attention from the virulent diseases” being brought into the city by illegal immigrants.

Handler was born in Satmar in 1942, and survived the Holocaust. In an interview with Hamodia, he noted that he bears no ill will toward Latino immigrants, noting that they are generally more religious than Americans, have more of a family structure and are hardworking.

“I have no problem with them,” he said. “All I’m pointing out is that the mayor has targeted a particular group, segregated them, isolated them and demonized them.

“He is a fake, a phony and a fraud. He doesn’t really care about health. This is a political decision.”

Handler compares New York’s reaction to the measles outbreak with the magazine Der Stürmer, published by the Nazi Julius Streicher, with the cover line, “The Jews are our misfortune.” He says Streicher depicted a chassidic Jew, though German Jews were identifiably not chassidic, because it is politically easy to target a tiny minority.

Handler said that a measles outbreak in Williamsburg warrants health officials meeting with community leaders, but when the mayor called a press conference last month to announce his mandatory vaccination order, “something clicked in my mind, hey, this is what Julius Streicher did in Der Stürmer, ‘The Jews are our misfortune, to all of Germany.”

So, does he believe de Blasio is an anti-Semite? “Not overtly; it might be in his DNA,” says Handler. But he believes the mayor is doing this for political gain.

“It’s a no-cost political move,” says Handler. “Maybe in preparation for running for president. ‘Here I am fighting for health to protect the city.’ Make yourself into a hero, try to save the whole city from the scourge of the Red Death that is centered in Williamsburg.

Handler says there is a connection between the mayor’s actions and the recent series of attacks on Jews in Williamsburg.

“As a precursor to taking them to the gas chamber in Nazi Germany, first you had to demonize them, and then when they become subhumans, you have Hitler’s ‘willing executioners’ — consent among the German people.

“De Blasio is not trying to throw Jews in gas chambers. He did it to be a hero to the city, but in the process of being a hero he made the Williamsburg community into devils.”

At the rally, Handler said that if Orthodox media outlets were truly concerned about the welfare of children, they would print “full-page ads” instructing people what to do if they do get the measles, like taking Vitamin A and Vitamin C. That they haven’t printed this information is “criminal negligence on the part of Yated Ne’eman, Hamodia, all these papers,” said Handler, as the crowd applauded. “They’re not doing their job.”

In his interview with Hamodia, Handler said another reason he is upset with the papers is that “by constantly emphasizing and repeating what the city says — that measles is dangerous — you are whipping up sinas chinam. The net result of repeating what the city is saying is demonization and machlokes.”

You have an “achrayus to stop the machlokes by showing that eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chayim,” he said.

Handler says he bears no ill will toward pro-vaccine parents, “You cannot criticize a person who is in pain, in fear,” he says. “Why should I attack them? They are trying to protect their children. They are scared. Just like anti-vaccine people are trying to protect their kids.”

By Rafael Hoffman

Rabbi Moshe Dovid Niederman, President of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, has been at the forefront of efforts to stem the spread of the measles outbreak in his Williamsburg neighborhood for several months now.

As was the case with most communal leaders and advocates who heard of the controversial statements made at the event held last week in Monsey — such as the assertion that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strong response to the outbreak was an attempt to divert attention from illnesses allegedly being spread by illegal immigrants — Rabbi Niederman was shocked.

Klal Yisrael should shudder from such tactics,” he told Hamodia. “It’s very important to understand that to say such things about the mayor is not only a chillul Hashem, it’s irresponsible and dangerous.”

While most public officials and media have been increasingly careful to emphasize that anti-vaxxers represent a small fringe element of the Orthodox world, Rabbi Niederman said that the extent to which Monday’s event was reported, and the unusual comments made there, makes clarifying this point all the more necessary.

“It behooves us to say that this asifah was organized by people who represent their own individual views and not those of the kehillah,” he said. “Our Rabbanim and Monsey’s Rabbanim all say to vaccinate, and these people are only pretending to speak on behalf of the tzibbur.”

The present outbreak has overwhelmingly affected Orthodox communities, with the greatest number of cases in Williamsburg and Monsey. Rabbi Niederman reiterated a point that has been emphasized by many community advocates: that the number is not due to a higher percentage of unvaccinated children in those communities, but rather it is due to the overall number of children and to the communal nature of Orthodox life.

Despite efforts by askanim, schools, and several organizations, since New York City’s crackdown on vaccination in affected areas, several Williamsburg mosdos have been temporarily closed by the Health Department for non-compliance. Rabbi Niederman said that these incidents have not been the result of a desire to skirt stricter standards, but merely the result of a quickly rolled out plan that called for major changes.

“The city made a major shift from one minute to the next,” he said. “All mosdos have kids that had exemptions for one reason or another, and now schools with hundreds — and some with thousands — of students were told that they could not let any unvaccinated child attend, even with an exemption. On top of that, there was a lot of new paperwork that was demanded on short notice. Everybody is doing their best to comply, but the mosdos are confused about some points, and the Department of Health’s own staff is confused too. We ended up in the center of the storm, and a lot of schools simply were not able to respond as quickly as they were being asked to.”

Noting that speakers at the Monsey event were high-profile members of the international anti-vax movement and that much of the information that discourages vaccination has come from similar sources, Rabbi Niederman emphasized the importance of listening to professionals who have a long history of commitment to the community’s health and well-being.

“We don’t need anybody coming from the outside to teach us about what’s healthy even if they would be doing it with truth, and certainly not these people who are using lies and twisted facts to make their points,” he said. “We have doctors who are ehrliche Yidden who have served us for decades, who all say you are obligated to vaccinate. Hatzalah, whose members are moser nefesh to save lives even on Shabbos and Yom Tov when we are sitting comfortably with our families, says you have to vaccinate. Doesn’t it make more sense for us to listen to them than to some organization set on indoctrinating us with their debunked claims?”

By Reuvain Borchardt

Dina, a registered nurse from Monsey, is pro-vaccine. She attended the rally — her first ever anti-vaccination rally — to hear their arguments.

“What got me so upset more than the actual things they were saying — like fear tactics, uncorroborated studies, conspiracy theories — was that the atmosphere was one that I would not expect from a chassidishe crowd,” Dina says. “There was a lot of cheering on the women’s side, and whooping, when speakers were introduced. This would never be acceptable at any other gathering. And who were they whooping for? A lowlife secular social-media star, Del Bigtree. And when Bigtree asked who had watched his documentary, I would say 75 percent of the women’s hands went up. A society that does not allow you to even watch a kosher video is suddenly allowed to watch a video just because it is anti-vaccination?!”

Dina says there were medical claims made at the rally that had no basis in fact or medical literature.

“Handler said medical research shows that if you had measles, mumps, chicken pox, then you reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer by 60 percent,” she recalls. “There is no such medical research.”

Dina noted that there were many other vague mentions of “studies” by other speakers at the event, for which no citations or statistics were given, “and people were swallowing it hook, line and sinker.”

The anti-vaccine movement claims that the pro-vaccine movement is being led, albeit unwittingly, by the pharmaceutical industry, which makes billions off vaccines. “What do the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, if they are so wrong, have to gain from opposing vaccines?” she is asked.

“There is always a segment of society that reaps satisfaction from going ‘against the system’ and having a following that rallies around them,” Dina replies. “Sort of like conspiracy theorists.”

“They are making money off it and attracting followings. The looks in these women’s eyes were like those of crazed fans. All their values were out the window, and it almost seemed like the ideas of anti-vaxxers became like an avodah zarah.”

By Reuvain Borchardt

“There were some very important and prominent people” at the rally, said Melissa Goldman, an anti-vaccination mother of two from Westchester, who attended the rally. She specifically went to hear filmmaker and producer Del Bigtree. (Bigtree has become a leader in the anti-vaccination movement after releasing a documentary in 2016 on this topic.)

Mrs. Goldman said that the information is available for anyone who wants to educate themselves. “As brilliant as Bigtree was,” she remarked, “everything he said is already available to people who read CDC reports.”

Bigtree explained that, while it may be unproven that vaccines cause autism, that is because no proper studies have been done, Mrs. Goldman said, adding, “I think the correlation is so incredibly intense that to constantly deny it is to do humanity a disservice.”

Bigtree gained particular notoriety in pro-vaccine circles when he read the “First they came …” poem and donned a yellow Jewish star at a rally in Texas, to demonstrate solidarity with Jews in Rockland County, whom he said were being targeted. (Rabbi Hillel Handler also referenced Nazi Germany in his remarks at Monday’s rally.)

Mrs. Goldman was asked whether she thinks it appropriate for the anti-vaccine movement to link itself with the Holocaust.

“I don’t find it inappropriate at a meeting [of anti-vaccination people], because they are singling out unvaccinated children as something to be afraid of and feared,” she replied. “And so that’s why the symbolism is there. At a protest rally there’s a point to it — that an unvaccinated child is not to be feared. But they are being singled out.” Authorities are not closing Jewish schools in her own community, noted Mrs. Goldman, but were “going after specifically chassidic schools.”

By Avraham Y. Heschel

Rabbi Nosson Leiter, a Monsey-based activist who attended Monday night’s event, expressed his deep concern over both the collection of speakers and what they said.

He cited Del Bigtree, a film producer who was named as an authority on the vaccination issue by Greg Mitchell.

“Mr. Mitchell is a lobbyist who is the official advocate for the New Age cult Scientology,” Rabbi Leiter pointed out. “In his remarks, Bigtree misused VAERS [Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a national vaccine-safety surveillance program co-sponsored by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] statistics, scaring naive parents. He did so by citing a Harvard study showing that reports to VAERS may be just one percent of actual events. But clearly that statistic doesn’t apply to fatalities, which, if anything, would be over-reported, not underreported.” Rabbi Leiter countered.

“In his speech, Bigtree remarked about the motivation behind aspects of the pro-vaccine approach, saying, “It’s not the money, it’s the religion, the belief system,” Rabbi Leiter continued. “Well, the religious exemptions many anti-vaccination people use are clearly based on a very non-Jewish, New-Age ‘natural is always best’ worldview, one that Dell himself articulated at the end of his sermon at the gathering on Monday night.

“He quoted pesukim, and darshened on chet eitz haDaas, and then declared ‘since G-d made us perfect’ — ‘who told us we need 72 vaccines?’ His remarks echoed the view of [governor of ancient Rome] Turnus Rufus, in opposition to those of Judaism, explained by Rabbi Akiva, as elaborated by the Mabit in the beginning of his sefer Beis Elokim and in and in Bereishis Rabbah (11:5,6). The repeated applause during his speech, a terrible chillul Hashem, reflected the cluelessly naive, cultish atmosphere.”

After the event, Rabbi Leiter confronted Bigtree, and asked him, “Why do anti-vaxxers refuse to extend the same consideration to the lives of others that they so vocally demand for themselves? Not only do they refuse MMR vaccinations in the midst of a measles outbreak, they also insist on exposing the public to the threat the extremely contagious disease of measles (by traveling freely), knowing that they may be extremely contagious with measles, while not even knowing that they’ve contracted it?”

Rabbi Leiter related that Bigtree, after repeatedly trying to evade these questions, got upset and walked away. “It was clear that their attitude is deadly cavalier. They expect those for whom measles could easily be fatal to quarantine themselves. In fact, the Monsey event was itself a major measles health hazard, bringing anti-vaccination people — and presumably many unvaccinated people — from various measles outbreak areas into an enclosed area for hours.”

Rabbi Leiter was equally dismissive of the pediatrician who spoke.

“Palevsky is absolutely not a scientific authority; he believes in — and even practices — Reiki, homeopathy, etc. The forum fraudulently misrepresented him to naive, heimishe parents as if he were an authority on medical science. Additionally, they did not even disclose that he’s a New-Age practitioner and subscribes to a worldview that has been identified by many Rabbanim as one based on avodah zara/kefirah. For example, see the sefer Rav Belsky on Alternative Medicine, New Age Medicine, Energy Healing for some statements of various Rabbanim on these practices and their foreign ideologies. Furthermore, if they have genuine science backing up their anti-vaccination claims, why do they need to conjure up such New-Age quacks?” Rabbi Leiter asked.

By Reuvain Borchardt

Ruchel, an anti-vaccination Mother from Williamsburg, who attended the rally in Monsey, says Chassidim have been targeted.

“Before a single case of measles was reported in my children’s school, unvaccinated children were banned from the school,” she says, referring to the Health Department’s order in early December that Williamsburg and Boro Park yeshivos had to ban unvaccinated children. At the time, the New York outbreak totaled 39 cases, almost all of them in Boro Park and Williamsburg. “My children were thrown out because as a chassidishe school we were considered carriers of germs, even without any exposure, just because we are ‘dirty Jews.’”

“Is it because you are ‘dirty Jews’? Perhaps it is because you are unvaccinated?” she is asked. “And unvaccinated must be ‘dirty germ carriers,’” she replies.

Pediatrician Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, in his remarks, presented the possibility that some of the communities where the outbreaks are centered had received “bad lots” of the vaccine. Ruchel says she did not think Palesvky was implying that Jewish communities were given these lots intentionally, but rather that he believes it is a possibility that some communities had accidentally received bad lots. She notes that she and four of her sisters contracted the measles even after having been vaccinated as youngsters, and had received booster shots as adults.

Ruchel says the order to exclude unvaccinated children who could not show immunity to the measles is what actually led to the outbreak.

“Once we were banned from the schools unless we could show immunity, many mothers took their kids to Monsey — which had its own measles outbreak — for a ‘measles party’ so that they would get the disease and have immunity that way,” Ruchel says. “A large percentage of the infected kids in Williamsburg came from those whose parents had it spread to them intentionally. My own kids got the measles because they were exposed to a kid who had gone to one of these measles parties in Monsey.”

Ruchel says that she actually tried to warn the Health Department of this. “I called them and said, ‘I have heard of mothers planning measles parties if they don’t get an end date — a date by which the school-exclusion order would be lifted, because they didn’t want to have their kids excluded indefinitely.

“And the Health Department said to me, ‘No mother is crazy enough to do that.’

“Well, they were wrong.”

measles vaccine
Dr. Peter Hotez

by Rafael Hoffman

Dr. Peter Hotez, Professor and Dean at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Co-Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, has closely followed the anti-vax movement for many years.

Acts and outrageous statements from the recent anti-vax event in Monsey aside, Dr. Hotez said that what he identified as a campaign of misinformation targeting the Orthodox community is very much in step with the movement’s history.

“This is their modus operandi,” he said. “They use pamphlets, teleconferences and town hall meetings like this one to spread deliberately misleading information. It’s the same thing they did in 2017 when they targeted a group of Somalian immigrants in Minneapolis and engineered a measles outbreak there. They’re doing the same thing here in targeting the Orthodox through P.E.A.C.H. [Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health – Eds.], which peddles the same arguments built on lies and on zero science. Now they are encouraging the Jewish community to be defiant of doctors and health officials, even though the outbreak has already landed six Jewish kids in the ICU.”

Dr. Hotez said that he sees those in the Orthodox community who have signed on to the anti-vax ideology as having been “victimized” by the movement. He surmised that the Orthodox lifestyle, which seeks to limit exposure to secular media and the like, seemed an easy target for anti-vax campaigners.

“I think they saw [the Orthodox community] as vulnerable and ripe for the picking — a close-knit, insular community with less outside influences, where they could more easily manipulate the information being fed.”

Dr. Hotez also surmised that leaders of the movement decided to focus on the Orthodox community in order to carry on a high-profile campaign in New York City and surrounding areas, where it would garner far more attention.

Since the movement began in the late 1990s, Dr. Hotez has charted its growth and tactics, and has worked to refute its claims. Among his writings is a book that focuses on his own autistic daughter, and which goes to great lengths to explain the lack of connection between vaccines and autism, contrary to anti-vax ideology.

While many have labeled the anti-vax movement a “cult,” Dr. Hotez said that, although the description was apt when it first began, its growth has brought it far closer to the mainstream.

“Unfortunately, it has grown to have its own media presence. They have around 500 websites and dominate Facebook and Amazon. … Now the movement is being reorganized under Bobby Kennedy [Jr.] and his Children’s Health Defense — which is anything but what its name claims,” Dr. Hotez said.

While Dr. Hotez said it is clear that anti-vax campaigns are funded by “millions of dollars” on a yearly basis, the sources of funding are largely unknown and motivations are varied.

“I don’t know what their motivation is,” he said. “Some are looking for financial gain, trying to peddle different products. … Some of the leaders are desperate for relevance, trying to remain or become important, and in doing so, they’ve gone over to the dark side.”