This week, it was reported that the number of people infected with measles in 2019 has exceeded the highest number of cases in a single year since 2000, when measles was declared “eliminated” in our country. At least 673 cases of measles have been reported in 22 states this year. The largest outbreak is among ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn where 334 cases have been reported in 2019 – 31 of these cases were reported just this past week. The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Rockland County, NY has also been hit with an outbreak.
The United States is not the only nation struggling with measles. The World Health Organization reports that 170 countries have confirmed more than 112,000 cases so far in 2019. Given that only 1 in 10 cases are reported to the WHO, the numbers are actually much higher than this.
Israel is in the midst of a very bad measles outbreak. There were 4,000 cases reported last year compared to only 30 reported in 2017. Israel does not require citizens to get vaccinations. When it comes to the measles vaccine, two million Israelis are either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. But there is legislation being worked on that would prohibit children from going to school and fine parents/guardians who refuse to immunize their children.
Given the fact that measles is infecting people across the globe, we know that the disease is being brought into the US from various countries. This being said, the outbreak of measles within ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in America is certainly linked to the outbreak in Israel. Measles is highly contagious. A trip to Israel, which is not uncommon for ultra-Orthodox folks who live in the affected Jewish communities in the US, a visiting Israeli family member or friend who is infected with measles, these can put someone who is not properly immune to the disease at risk.
97% of people who receive the measles vaccine are immune to the disease. Most, but certainly not all, Jews here in the United States, in Israel and across the globe do not have a problem with vaccines. There is no Jewish prohibition against getting immunized. If anything, Judaism urges us to do everything in our power to protect ourselves and those we love against dangerous diseases. Vaccinations are seen an integral part of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish concept that the preservation of life takes precedence over virtually everything else. In November 2018, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America issued a Joint Statement on Vaccinations. They “strongly urge[d] all parents to vaccinate their healthy children on the timetable recommended by their pediatrician.” “Jewish law” they wrote, “defers to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to illness and prevention.” They continued: “…the consensus of major poskim (halachic decisors) supports the vaccination of children to protect them from disease, to eradicate illness from the larger community through so-called herd immunity, and thus to protect others who may be vulnerable.”
Despite the push within the Orthodox Jewish community to vaccinate, some ultra-Orthodox Jews are not doing so. There are those who believe that vaccinations are dangerous. There are those who, according to Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at Queens College who has written several books on the Orthodox Judaism, believe the ways of the modern world are not their ways. And, there are those, especially those who are busy raising many children, who just overlook the immunization process.
It is important to point out that within the non-Orthodox Jewish world there are those who are opposed to vaccinations. As has been addressed, there are no Jewish teachings that support this opposition. On the contrary, Judaism pushes us to do everything in our power to protect ourselves and those we love from illness. The 16th-century rabbi, Moshe Isserles, taught that when a plague breaks out in a city, the inhabitants of the city must flee as soon as the outbreak begins. By sitting around and waiting, you put yourself at risk. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, who was a leading Jewish scholar in the late 16th and early 17thcenturies, taught that a parent who does not move his child out of a city plagued by an epidemic is responsible for the child’s fate. Let’s remember that both of these scholars were teaching before the advent of vaccinations. If there was a way to protect oneself and one’s children from a plague without having to flee, most certainly this would have been embraced by both of these sages. As the measles outbreak continues to grow, their lessons are part of the powerful voice of our tradition that implores us not to ignore the threat – but to take action to protect ourselves and those we love.
To learn more about measles and the vaccine, please click here.