Vaccinate or else: Jewish day schools value their responsibility to good health

Vaccinate or else: Jewish day schools value their responsibility to good health

Contracting preventable diseases “happens all the time. And it happens because people don’t vaccinate or don’t re-vaccinate,” says Dr. Jonathan Weinkle. (Photo provided by
Contracting preventable diseases “happens all the time. And it happens because people don’t vaccinate or don’t re-vaccinate,” says Dr. Jonathan Weinkle. (Photo provided by

Gazing out the window at the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s office overlooking Heinz Field, Nina Butler was reminded of the words of Dr. Anne Schuchat: “You can bring the measles virus into an arena, and anyone who is not vaccinated in that arena who’s never had measles is going to get that virus,” Butler recounted the director of the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases saying.

Butler, a professional educator, along with Dr. Jonathan Weinkle, a pediatrician and internist who provides primary care and chronic disease management at the Squirrel Hill Health Center — armed with a $45,000 grant from the JHF — have been creating a 10-day curriculum for the three local Jewish day schools that will educate children in middle school and high school on the importance of vaccination as well as on Jewish genetic diseases.

The curriculum, which will likely be rolled out this semester, is particularly timely in light of the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in California last December and has seen at least 155 cases in 16 states, including at least one in Pennsylvania.

Butler believes that instructing students on the imperative of being vaccinated and the dire consequences for the greater society when some members choose not to be vaccinated may help increase the vaccination rate over time, she said. The curriculum, “Personal Responsibility for Health in Judaism,” will address measles in the Jewish community, among other topics.

“What we have created is a resource bank for educators to use,” said Butler.

Included in the resource bank are 50 different video clips of local rabbis talking about topics related to Jewish laws pertaining to health care. Rabbis Levi Langer of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center; Shimon Silver of Young Israel; Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah; Jamie Gibson of Temple Sinai; Chuck Diamond of Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha; Ron Symons of Temple Sinai; and Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom participated in the video’s production.

The clips of the rabbis emphasize there is “a Jewish value to being responsible for your health,” Butler said.

Butler hopes the new curriculum is eventually adopted by Jewish supplementary schools and camps as well.

Although the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania allows children to be exempt from public school vaccination requirements for either medical or religious reasons, all three Jewish day schools here — Community Day School, Hillel Academy and Yeshiva Schools — do not permit a religious exemption to vaccinations.

“We applaud the day schools fulfilling their obligations to keep students safe and healthy,” Weinkle said. “That’s their religious mandate. By schools requiring vaccinations, the whole community becomes safer. If a school says, ‘You have to vaccinate or not send your kid here,’ that is a powerful motivating factor.”

The risk of contracting diseases that are preventable through vaccination is “not theoretical,” Weinkle emphasized. “It happens all the time. And it happens because people don’t vaccinate or don’t revaccinate.”

The safety concerns of some parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are unfounded, according to Weinkle.

“Vaccines are so safe,” he said, adding that the curriculum he has developed with Butler stresses science as well as religious beliefs and responsibilities. “We want the students to get good, correct science so they understand that there is no scientific reason and no [Jewish] religious reason to not be vaccinated.”

The risk of adverse events following vaccination is minuscule, according to Dr. Rachel Levine, acting Pennsylvania Physician’s General.

A previous study showing a connection between autism and vaccination was proven to be fraudulent, she pointed out, and the article was withdrawn. The author of the study subsequently lost his license to practice medicine.

“The public can be reassured about the safety of vaccines,” she said.

The current outbreak of measles was “completely preventable,” according to Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist and a Pennsylvania Medical Society member.

The Disneyland outbreak originated from a visitor from abroad where measles still occurs.

“If the vaccination rate in the U.S. had been higher, that’s as far as it would have gone,” Goldman said. “If the vaccination rate had been 95 percent, we wouldn’t have seen anything further.”

But there are parts of California, he said, where the non-vaccination rate is 50 percent, and measles is an “extremely contagious” disease.

“You can get measles by walking into a room where someone with measles was three hours before,” he said.

The vaccination rate among kindergartners in Pennsylvania is only 87 percent, one of the lowest rates in the country. By seventh grade, that rate rises to 95 percent.

“If you make the decision to not vaccinate your child, you are also putting other kids at risk,” Goldman said, because some children cannot be vaccinated because of legitimate medical reasons, such as undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

In addition to funding the development of the new curriculum, the JHF has taken additional measures to increase vaccination rates, including working with hundreds of medical practices in Western Pennsylvania to help develop systems in their offices to ensure that patients have accurate information about vaccines, according to Dr. Bruce Block, chief medical and informatics officer at JHF.

The JHF is also part of an effort in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to build a statewide electronic registry recording the immunizations of each and every resident, he added.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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