At the height of a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and around the country, a major ultra-Orthodox Jewish umbrella group headquartered in New York issued a statement urging parents to vaccinate their children.

The Agudath Israel of America, “in the strongest possible terms,” encouraged parents on April 10 to get their children inoculated against the viral disease. But the influential organization has a rabbi, Shmuel Kamenetsky, on its supreme rabbinical policy-making council who has called vaccines a “hoax.”

Kamenetsky, the founder and head of a prestigious yeshiva in Philadelphia, is a member of the Moetzes of Agudath Israel. Rabbis on the esteemed Moetzes, or council, set all kinds of policies for the organization, its members and hundreds of affiliated synagogues. The ten council members are typically appointed for life.

On April 9, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a public health emergency in four zip codes in Brooklyn where many ultra-Orthodox Jews reside. Every adult and child who lives or works in those areas must be vaccinated, according to an order from the city’s health commissioner.

There were 523 reported cases of measles as of Monday, according to the city Health Department. Nine private Jewish schools were closed for failing to follow regulations but all have since been reopened.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a public health emergency in parts of Williamsburg in response to measles outbreak, on April 9, 2019. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

A spokesperson for the Agudath — which receives city and state funds for a myriad of social service programs — defended Kamenetsky.

“Rabbinic authorities are entitled to their social issue opinions no less than anyone,” said Agudath’s Avi Shafran. “The issue of admitting unvaccinated children to schools when there are no immunocompromised students in them is one that has two eminently arguable sides.”

Some are frustrated by that divided stance.

“The problem here is the baseline assumption that there are two sides to this long settled medical issue, or that this is a matter of debatable social policy. It is not,” said Menashe Shapiro, a political consultant with strong ties to the Jewish community.

“The obligation to safeguard the health and well-being of children and to protect oneself is basic and sacrosanct — and you don’t need a separate directive from any council of sages to know that,” the Upper West Side resident added.

Claims of a ‘Hoax’

In a 2014 interview with the Baltimore Jewish Times, Kamenetsky called vaccines a “hoax” and his wife, Temi, has been a figure on the anti-vax circuit, according to reports. A year later, the rabbi signed a letter authorizing a major yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J. to admit unvaccinated children.

“What about the people who clean and sweep in the school?” he told the Baltimore Jewish Times. “They are mostly Mexican and are unvaccinated. If there was a problem, the children would already have gotten sick.”

There is no validity to allegations that South and Central American immigrants are vaccinated at a lower rate than the rest of the U.S. population.

Some Hasidic anti-vaxxers have cited Kamenetsky’s comments highlighted in an online pamphlet circulating in the community. They point out he’s a member of the esteemed Moetzes and considered one of the leading rabbis of this generation.

Parents and children walk through South Williamsburg on May 21, 2019. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Meanwhile, a petition last year noted Kamenetzky’s role on the Moetzes and urged the Agudath Israel to “take a clear stand on this issue.” The petition, which had 354 digital signatures as of mid May, was first reported by The Forward.

Agudath Israel advocates for services for private schools and helps defend religious rights. It also operates job training centers and lobbies against physician-assisted suicide.

In 2014, de Blasio spoke at Agudath Israel’s 92nd annual dinner, praising the organization and its social service operations. All told, the organization has received about $8 million in city funds to distribute for social service programs since then.

Kamenetsky declined to comment. Agudath Israel officials, meanwhile, say they are leading the way to combat the measles outbreak.

A Push for Vaccinations

Last week, the group, in conjunction with other organizations, led a “vaccination drive” where more than 200 people were inoculated. The Agudath Israel also issued a statement slamming an anti-vaxxer gathering in Monsey, Rockland County.

“Countless rabbinical figures and leaders, including leading rabbis in the Agudath Israel movement and doctors serving these communities, have repeatedly encouraged vaccination in the strongest possible terms,” the statement said.

Alexander Rapaport, who operates kosher soup kitchens in Brooklyn, encourages community members to get vaccinated, and even narrated a film with that message for the mayor’s office.

“We should tolerate that some people in very influential positions have minority opinions,” he said. “I’m pro vaccines but I can tolerate a smart person who comes down otherwise. The beauty of freedom of speech is it comes with a cost.”

Rapaport argued that Kamenetsky has zero influence over Hasidim living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or in other parts of the city.

Ultra-orthodox Jews in Williamsburg are largely members of the Satmar Hasidic sect and follow that group’s leader, he added.

Anti-vaxxers have been denounced by many community leaders and medical professionals. Citing years of research, they argue that Kamenetsky and others spread misinformation that endangers children.

“The anti-vaccination message is dangerous and the science is clear: Vaccines save lives,” said mayoral spokesperson Marcy Miranda. “When someone chooses not to get a vaccine, not only do they endanger themselves, but they unfairly endanger those that cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons. We should listen to medical professionals urging everyone to get vaccinated.”

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