For Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, the question of whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has a simple answer.
“I, and many other rabbis, feel very strongly that it’s something that as soon as we have the opportunity — the fortunate opportunity, I would even say the miraculous opportunity — to benefit from it, let’s go for it and get rid of this horrible issue that has been going on for quite a while, unfortunately, with so many people dying,” said Rosenfeld, head shaliach of Western Pennsylvania and the rabbi of the Lubavitch Center of Pittsburgh.
Virtually all Orthodox leaders are encouraging their communities to trust the medical consensus and take the vaccine when it becomes available, and in Israel, many are already publicly sharing their own vaccinations.
Yet some Orthodox health professionals and communal leaders do worry that a vocal minority of their community won’t heed their guidance. They point to skepticism regarding the vaccine in the overall population because of anti-vaccine sentiments, as well as nervousness with the speed at which the vaccines were developed and the politicization of the virus.
They also point to the pernicious effects of misinformation in an era when communication and newsgathering takes place on messaging networks like WhatsApp. And they fear that mistaken notions that Chasidim in both Brooklyn and the haredi town of Bnei Brak in Israel have achieved herd immunity will make people feel that a vaccine is unnecessary.
“The imperative of Jewish law,” said Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Poale Zedeck, a modern Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill, “is to seek out expert medical counsel and to follow it.”
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt has been providing medical counsel on COVID-19. He is both an assistant rabbi at Young Israel of Woodmere, a large Orthodox synagogue in Woodmere, New York, and the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island. He gives a weekly COVID video update targeted to a largely Orthodox audience.
“The majority have [said], ‘How do I get on the list?’” Glatt said. “A significant minority have reasonable, legitimate concerns about the vaccine, and this is even seen in younger health care professionals. Then you have a very small but vocal group that will not take the vaccine, no matter what. There’s no way to convince them. I can’t convince them, and I hope God protects them.”
Rabbi Amy Bardack, director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, believes it important that the silent minority Glatt refers to understands that the vaccine is kosher and adheres to halacha.
“The two Orthodox rabbinical bodies, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, issued a joint statement that there’s a Torah obligation to receive the vaccine as soon as it’s available,” Bardack said. “They trust the medical professionals who deemed it to be safe and effective. You know, the commandment to preserve life and not cause harm is a very serious directive.”
Rosenfeld, too, points to the directive to preserve life as a mandate to get vaccinated.
“When it comes to saving a life, nothing gets in the way,” Rosenfeld said. “We’re all familiar that on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we fast. [But] the Torah tells us when it comes to saving a life, eat on Yom Kippur, do whatever is necessary to save a life.”
While there has been some concern online about gelatin made from pork used to stabilize the vaccine, Yolkut said those concerns are misplaced.
“Jewish law prohibits consuming pork in food,” Yolkut said. “There is no concern about the idea of injecting something made of any kind of non-kosher substance. This represents someone ignorant to Jewish law.”
In a video message posted earlier this month, Dr. Stuart Ditchek, an Orthodox pediatrician in Brooklyn who, like Glatt, has offered frequent updates on COVID-19 research and treatments targeted to an Orthodox audience, warned people away from getting their medical information from social media or messaging apps.
“The best thing we can do is to crush the misinformation mill,” Ditchek said. “Don’t believe a headline because it appears on a website. Don’t believe a WhatsApp video because somebody put it out.”
Orthodox leaders said the anti-vaccination movement among some Orthodox Jews mirrors a parallel problem in society at large. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the percentage of Americans willing to take a COVID vaccine is rising. But 27% still said they probably or definitely wouldn’t get the vaccine.
“We can have full faith in the scientific community about the safety and effectiveness, and the necessity of the vaccine,” said Bardack.
In fact, whether to get the vaccine may be the easiest question to answer when it comes to COVID-19-related matters, according to Bardack.
“The Conservative movement is going to be coming out with a paper through the Law Committee next week that will actually deal with much fuzzier ethical considerations like, is it ethical for a business or a congregation to require people to be vaccinated before they can enter a building, or to require people to be vaccinated in order to be members?” she said. “Those are really interesting, ethical questions that are far less clear than whether the vaccine should be taken.”
There are no legitimate concerns that should stop a person from getting vaccinated, Yolkut stressed.
“Certainly, my understanding, based on what I’ve heard from my teachers, is that barring some unusual circumstances, it is absolutely imperative to go out and make sure that you’re available to be vaccinated appropriately,” he said. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.