Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler of Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David (AABJ&D) in West Orange sent an email on April 12 to members of his modern Orthodox congregation that reads, in part, “Those children and adults who are not vaccinated may not enter our Shul building at any time.”
Congregation Israel, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Springfield, released a two-page statement on Tuesday which states in part that “No child or adult is allowed on the premises … unless they are up to date and in full compliance with the vaccination requirements.” It adds a list of preventative health recommendations for children and adults, and underscores that “Individuals (including children over the age of 6 months) who have not been vaccinated should NOT come to shul.”
As the measles outbreak continues to spread in N.J. and N.Y. — there are 13 confirmed cases in New Jersey, according to the state’s Department of Health — these and other local Orthodox congregations are releasing vaccination policies in advance of Passover. Others haven’t issued policy statements and are instead relying on the common sense of their membership. “In our community, it’s clearly understood and accepted that everyone gets vaccinated, so I didn’t think it was necessary,” Rabbi Elie Mischel of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston wrote in an email. And the leadership of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston held “internal discussions,” but chose not to release a statement, according to Rabbi Samuel Klibanoff.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there have been 555 individual measles cases in 20 states since the beginning of 2019, and outbreaks of the highly contagious disease are ongoing in five states. In addition to New Jersey — where the outbreak is centered in Ocean County — they include New York, Washington, California, and Michigan.
According to the N.J. Department of Health, the first dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine can be administered as early as 12 months and is required at 15 months. A second vaccine is given at 4 to 6 years.
Measles symptoms include fever, rash, runny nose, and red eyes. Complications can include life-threatening pneumonia and encephalitis. For exposed pregnant women, the disease can cause premature birth or low-birth-weight babies.
Rabbi Mendel Solomon of Chabad at Short Hills in Livingston said he announced a few weeks ago that “Everyone has to have a vaccine.” The Chabad at Short Hills Hebrew School requires parents to “confirm” that their children have been vaccinated, although parents are not required to show paperwork.
Solomon, whose own children are vaccinated, feels strongly about the safety of the community. He has asked that everyone who comes to the shul for services or any public program be vaccinated, and that “In the event someone is exposed, they must take caution and not come until they have been medically cleared.” He acknowledged, however, that except for the Hebrew school population, there is no way to enforce such policies. “But we ask that, for the safety of others, to be extra considerate,” Solomon told NJJN. He said the fear of measles has impacted ritual practices, and recalled that a family chose to hire a new mohel to perform their son’s circumcision when their initial hire couldn’t produce his own vaccination records.
Chabad of Millburn does not have a policy on vaccination, nor does the Maplewood Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation led by Chabad Rabbi Sholom Bogomilsky and his wife Frumie Bogomilsky.
At Chabad of Millburn, Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky (Sholom’s brother), who has vaccinated his own children, takes the same approach as Mischel. “Our people are all college educated, many professionals, and many in the health profession, all send their children to the local public or private schools, and I am not aware of anybody that does not vaccinate,” he wrote to NJJN in an email.
At the Maplewood Jewish Center, Christine Moses, the synagogue secretary, wrote in an email, “We don’t have a policy for the synagogue as this is an individual decision for each family and doesn’t have anything to do with religious practice.”
However, the pre-school is handled differently. “We do not accept children that are not immunized unless providing a medical exemption,” she wrote.
Most institutional vaccine policies include exceptions for those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. And few vaccination policies involving public programs are enforceable. “Reality is the policy cannot be enforced, but hopefully it will be respected,” said Zwickler of AABJ&D.
Before this recent spate of policies, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Elizabeth was among the first local religious bodies to take a firm stance on the importance of measles vaccinations. A November letter to community members mentioned the “alarming spike” of measles cases in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Elazar Teitz, head rabbi of Elizabeth, wrote that “[C]hoosing not to vaccinate does not only endanger one’s family, it endangers our entire community.” He called choosing not to vaccinate “a violation of Torah law,” and added that any parent choosing not to vaccinate has an “obligation” to inform parents in any program or social setting where other community members might come in contact with them, and that such families would not be permitted to enter any Jewish Educational Center facilities. The letter was signed by all the Orthodox rabbis of the community.
None of the three Reform and Conservative congregations that responded to a request for comment have issued new policies. At Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue in Springfield, Rabbi Mark Mallach viewed the issue strictly through the school and said his response is “Simple: We don’t allow non-vaccinated [children] to enroll.”
But asked how that policy works for ensuring the safety of the congregation at services or other public events, he said, “We have no way to control such situations, made more difficult if someone had been exposed, not aware, and not yet symptomatic.”
Local day schools including the Orthodox Joseph Kushner Yeshiva/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School (JKHA/RKYHS) in Livingston, Conservative Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and non-denominational RTW Gottesman Academy in Randolph haven’t made changes, either. All three told NJJN they have strict policies that only fully vaccinated children may enroll and they do not accept religious exemptions.
The Sinai School, a separate entity operating within JKHA/RKYHS, follows the same policy, according to JKHA/RKYHS Head of School Rabbi Eliezer Rubin.
The Orthodox JEC in Elizabeth also requires all students to be immunized. And in January, it also began requiring employees and resident contractors to present “presumptive evidence” of immunity to measles, according to Steve Karp, JEC’s executive director.
The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, two major umbrella groups governing the Orthodox community, issued a joint statement urging parents “to vaccinate their healthy children on the timetable recommended by their pediatrician.”
Underscoring the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving human life, the statement reminds followers that prayers alone are insufficient in the face of illness.
“[P]rayers must go hand-in-hand with availing oneself of medical science, including vaccination.” It continues: “Jewish law defers to the consensus of medical experts.”