As It Happens

N.Y. rabbi fears backlash against Orthodox community over unvaccinated minors ban

Rockland County has banned unvaccinated children from public spaces during the longest measles outbreak in decades — which has largely been concentrated in the Orthodox Jewish community.

'We live in such tense times,' says Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Signs about measles and the measles vaccine are displayed at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Read Story Transcript

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz agrees that something must be done to fight an outbreak of measles in his New York suburb — but he worries that a public ban could lead to retaliation against the Orthodox Jewish community.

On Tuesday, Rockland County declared a state of emergency over a measles outbreak that has infected more than 150 people since last fall.

Officials also took the drastic step of banning all unvaccinated children and teenagers from public spaces, including shopping malls, civic centers, schools, restaurants and even houses of worship, for 30 days. 

Rockland's outbreak has most heavily affected its Orthodox Jewish communities, in which vaccination rates tend to be lower.

Mr. Horowitz, who is also a retired founding dean of a yeshiva in the county, spoke with As It Happens guest host Megan Williams about the ban. Here is part of their conversation. 

What do you make of this state of emergency? Is it needed?

Well to be perfectly honest, I certainly understand the need to bring more attention to this and perhaps to really send a clear message that this is something that every single person needs to take seriously.

And in fairness to the county, you know, they said that more people are taking vaccines. But it's not enough.

So I certainly understand the need to up the ante, as it were, a little bit. But this move to ban unvaccinated children from public spaces, that just makes me very unsettled.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day announced a state of emergency that bars minors who were not vaccinated against measles from public spaces in Rockland County. Day said he was taking the action in hopes of reversing a recent uptick in cases. (Peter Carr/The Journal News/Associated Press)

Why?

I am an identifiably Orthodox Jew and clearly visibly seen as such. If I were to walk into the mall after this is, one could easily see someone — hopefully nicely or otherwise — coming over and saying, "Hey, what are you doing here?"

Now I vaccinated [my] children immediately. And as a school principal I absolutely insisted that all of our children, all of our students, be up to date on their vaccinations with absolutely no exception.

But … when we think about discrimination it's basically making a judgment on … an entire group of people because of what some people in that group do.

It really could lead to a lot of unpleasantness.

When you express concern about people making assumptions, I assume you're talking about the fact that the outbreak has occurred [largely] in Orthodox Jewish communities. Can you tell me why that is?

I think one of the causes is the nature of our families and our communities. We tend to have large families that we interact with often.

I'm just giving you an example … my wife and I were blessed with the birth of a grandson Saturday and two days from now will be his circumcision. So we have married kids coming from Baltimore, Los Angeles, and South Jersey. 

It's almost like a perfect storm. If there are a few children who are unvaccinated there and they wind up spreading it to others then they go back to their communities.

Those Orthodox Jewish families who are making the decision not to vaccinate their children, what are they basing that decision on? Is it a religious decision?

Well some feel that it's religious.

I'm a rabbi. My understanding of scripture and Jewish tradition ... very, very clearly states that the primacy of life and health goes above anything else and that we have an obligation to further our safety.

A sign explaining the local state of emergency is displayed at the Rockland County Health Department. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

The health commissioner of Rockland County says officials have encountered a lot of resistance from some Orthodox neighbourhoods  people hanging up on the phone or not opening doors. How can officials communicate with these communities to stop the spread of measles if they're refusing to interact with them?

So look I think that is absolutely unacceptable ... I hope it's a small percentage.

I did hear this from some government officials and physicians that I'm in contact with. And I think that's why they felt the need to up the ante a bit.

You know, to let people know that what we've been doing until now isn't working as well as it needs to. And this is an urgent matter and therefore we need to take the following steps.

And again I think that's appropriate.

The way it was rolled out in the public area, that is what really got me concerned especially because we live in such tense times, you know, and politically and socially there's so much going on.

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Associated Press. Interview with Rabbi Yakov Horowitz produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

now