The vaxx wars

The vaxx wars

As a Monsey rally advocates against measles vaccines, local activists push back

Andrew Wakefield, who wrote the debunked study falsely connecting autism and the MMR vaccine, in London in 2010. He spoke by Skype at the rally in Monsey two weeks ago. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Andrew Wakefield, who wrote the debunked study falsely connecting autism and the MMR vaccine, in London in 2010. He spoke by Skype at the rally in Monsey two weeks ago. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

As the local measles outbreak continues, and as it remains particularly high in charedi neighborhoods in New York State, particularly in Rockland County, the anti-vaxxing movement continues to stress its opposition to the vaccination that would protect children and their families from the highly contagious, frequently dangerous, more-often-than-never fatal disease.

The anti-vaxxing initiative did not start in the chassidic or charedi worlds, and even in those tight-knit communities by far most parents have their children vaccinated, but the disease has spread there nonetheless.

On May 13, anti-vaxxers held a rally in a large ballroom, divided by a mechitzah, in Monsey, where both Jewish and non-Jewish speakers told them that the government was trying to harm them through the use of vaccines, and that they owed it to their families, their communities, and God to keep their children safe from those chemicals.

The speakers included Rabbi Hillel Handler of Monsey, a Satmar chasid and Holocaust survivor who the New York Times reported as having said “We chasidim have been chosen as the target,” and Andrew Wakefield. The English ex-doctor, who spoke by Skype, is responsible for creating the idea that there is a link between the MMR vaccination and autism; he first published that theory in the medical journal Lancet, which has disavowed it, and Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine as a result. Subsequent studies have shown no link; the fact that a child’s autism often manifests at the same time as the vaccine is given is an unfortunate coincidence, correlation not causation.

Rabbi Handler, too, is something other than he appears, perhaps someone darker. According to the New York Daily News, “Handler has fiercely attacked observant Jews for reporting child sex abuse to police, claiming such accusations should be handled by rabbinic authorities. He once even defended a rabbi who was convicted of raping his own daughter, saying the girl was lying about the abuse.”

That rabbi is Rabbi Yisroel Weingarten, who was convicted of rape and imprisoned in 2009.

In the Daily News, Rabbi Handler goes on to call New York City’s “Mayor de Blasio a ‘nasty German’ and claimed it was ‘in his DNA’ to hate Jews.

“Like the Fuhrer, he says: ‘Blame the Jews. They’re contaminating the whole city,’” the paper quotes Rabbi Handler.

Another speaker at the rally was Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a well-known anti-vaxxer who seems lighter on science than on incitement. He suggested that the vaccines were mutating and that the government was targeting the chasidic and charedi communities with vaccines that would sicken them.

Aside from the rally, the chasidic and charedi communities have been getting much of their information about vaccination from a group called Peach, for Parents Educating & Advocating for Children’s Health. Peach has put out a pamphlet containing legitimate-sounding untruths about vaccination, buttressed by robocalls making the same arguments.

L’via Weisinger of Teaneck is a registered nurse and a co-founder and former board member of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association. A modern Orthodox Jew, she a deeply committed member of the Orthodox community and she is fervently engaged in helping break down the beliefs that keep people from vaccinating their children.

Working with Blima Marcus, a nurse practitioner from Borough Park and another member of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, as well as others, she is spreading the word about a new organization — mainly nurses but some doctors as well — who are working to oppose anti-vaxxing theory and practice.

The group, called Emes — which means truth, in both Hebrew and Yiddish — has put together a pamphlet contesting Peach’s. It’s called Pie — “we made pie out of their peaches,” Ms. Weisinger said — it explains all the vaccinations children take, and it’ll be out soon. Slice of Pie, which looks only at the MMR vaccine (MMR is measles, mumps, and rubella), is available now, both in pdf form and already printed out. (For information about how to get hard copies, which Emes hopes will be distributed widely, email

There are good reasons for the chasidic and charedi communities to fall for the anti-vaxxers’ narrative. “It’s an insular community,” Ms. Weisinger said. “They have a lack of formal education that could allow them to tell the difference between science and pseudo-science. They are not on the internet. They are not reading mainstream news. They are getting their information from robocalls, from Peach, and until now we didn’t know how much of a problem it was.” But the outbreak of measles, and then the turnout for the rally, “showed us how effective they are, and how ineffective our response has been, because of our lack of information about how deep the problem is.”

The people who fall for the pseudo-science “aren’t stupid people,” she said. “They are very caring women, who are raising their children with beautiful values. They are clean, they take their children’s health very seriously, they take them to doctors, but they have been fed this anti-vaxx agenda for quite a while.” And until now it’s all been entirely below everyone else’s radar.

Word of the rally, like Peach’s arguments, has been spread mainly by word of mouth and through phone calls. There are anti-vaxx hotlines, where people who might be wavering can call to have their beliefs shored up. And there are robocalls, which seem to go to Brooklyn, Lakewood, and Monsey. They’re in Yiddish, which people in those communities speak. “I don’t get them,” Ms. Weisinger said. “I’m modern Orthodox, but I’m not in their demographic.” They don’t seem to go to Teaneck.

But friends of Ms. Weisinger did get them, as voicemails, and she was able to listen to them. “She” — the unidentified voice on the line — “was spouting studies and I was thinking that if I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t know how to refute it. I would totally fall for it. It is scary.”

New Square is included in Rockland’s measles cluster. (Uriel Heilman)

If you don’t know the science, she said, there is no real way to tell real science from official sounding fake science; if you build a structure of logic based on that unreal base, it will continue to seem real — until you or someone you know gets measles.

And this is picking up on a larger cultural problem, the assault on science and the attack on truth that has become a miasma through which all of us struggle. If science isn’t real, if lies are as good as truth, then who knows what to believe?

But viruses don’t care. They just look for human beachheads.

The phone calls and voicemails and pamphlets and now the rally find a receptive audience, Ms. Weisinger said, because the target audience “truly believes that there is a conspiracy, that the CDC” — that’s the Centers for Disease Control, a federal agency — “is hiding stuff, that Big Pharma is making money from it. They believe that they don’t need ‘artificial immunity.’”

Another reason why measles poses a particular risk to the chasidic and charedi community, despite parents vaccinating their children “at the same percentage as the rest of the population — and records show that in the rest of the Orthodox community the rates of vaccination are higher than the average — because of the insularity and the large families and all the simchas that everyone goes to and all the shopping in all the crowded stores, everyone mingles a lot. It is a very connected community. That’s why measles spreads like wildfire.”

Another reason for the way measles has attacked that community is that specialists believe that this outbreak came there from Israel and from Russia, she added. There’s a low vaccination rate in Russia, so there’s a risk there.

Emes is trying to fight this outbreak. “We want to educate people,” Ms. Weisinger said. “We want to give the evidence-based science to those people who have been misinformed. We want to allay their fears, show them the real story, meet them where they are. We want to validate their fears, hear their concerns, listen to what they are saying instead of making fun of them.

“We acknowledge that yes, there are some risks, but the risks are far smaller than they have been led to believe.

“We do parlor meetings, we go into the communities, we do presentations, we invite people who have questions to come talk to us.

“We want to teach people how to discern between truth and fiction.”

What can the average, vaccinated person do to help?

For one thing, talk. Talk to your family and friends.

For another, take care of yourself too. “The CDC recommends that anyone born from 1957 through 1980 should get their titers (the amount of antibodies in a person’s blood) checked; some health departments in high risk areas are recommending to skip the titers and just get the booster,” Ms. Weisinger said. “There is no risk to doing it. But if you have documents showing that you’ve had two injections, you should be okay.”

That’s because “three to five percent of people don’t seroconvert,” Ms. Weisinger said. Getting it the second time reduces that percentage even further; by then, if everyone is vaccinated but the vaccination isn’t effective for a miniscule percentage of those people, herd immunity would kick in.

But in order to have herd immunity, you need a herd.

Why else would you have to worry about it, if you’re not in an affected neighborhood? Because, among many other reasons, “there are doctors here who may not realize how much at risk this community is,” she said. “They don’t realize that their patients are going to a wedding in Borough Park or in Lakewood, or going to Rockland to go shopping.” The parents almost definitely have been vaccinated, but they might need a booster. “The average secular or Reform or Conservative Jew in town reads the newspaper, goes to a non-Jewish doctor, and it doesn’t even occur to them that they are at risk,” she added.

Dr. Maury Buchalter is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics; he works in the Fort Lee and Clifton offices.

“Based on our recent outbreak, we decided to enforce the pro-vaccination status of our practice,” he said. “So we informed our patients by email and newsletter that we are insisting that they get the MRR vaccine on time.

“In the past, we have let patients defer it up to a point, say for example someone wanted to get it at 2 instead of at 1, we said that as long as it was prior to school entrance, that was okay. But we have stopped doing that. Now we insist that patients get their vaccine on time, which is one year of age for the initial one. If parents refuse, we ask them kindly to go somewhere else.

“The recommended routing schedule for the MRR vaccine has been the first one at 1 and the second at 4.”

Of course, children with medical exemptions do not get vaccinated, but there are very few such exemptions.

Sometimes the practice gives the vaccine early. Babies cannot get it until they are six months old, but if they are between six as 12 months and about to go to a high-risk area, such as Israel, they can get it then. That means that they’ll eventually have to get two more, because a vaccine administered before a baby is about 1 doesn’t have the same long-term benefits.

“It is very important to know that the MRR vaccine is very safe,” Dr. Buchalter said. “It is a very good vaccine, and measles is potentially a very dangerous disease.

“I have heard that some parents who don’t vaccinate — particularly in Rockland — are doing measles parties.” That’s when parents bring their children to spend time with a child who has been diagnosed with the disease, hoping that they’ll catch it then, and get it over with. (As bad as it is for children to get communicable childhood disease, it’s often even worse if they get them as adults.)

“That is a very dangerous thing to do,” Dr. Buchalter said.

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