There’s a concept in the Jewish tradition known as a Chillul Hashem — an embarrassment to God’s name. When a Jew acts in a way that gives a bad reputation to the Jewish people as a whole, they have committed a Chillul Hashem.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Chillul Hashems in the wake of the measles outbreaks in Williamsburg and Rockland County and the ways in which the public has chosen to respond to them. I am an Orthodox Jew, as is the majority of my extended family. My immediate family and I identify as Modern Orthodox, while some of my cousins, who live in Brooklyn, lean more toward the ultra-Orthodox. While my family members are vaccinated — I find it strange that I have to say that — some of my cousins’ neighbors are not.
Something else that I find strange is how often I’ve been finding the need to tell people that the Torah requires one to vaccinate their children. Though the Torah’s commandments are myriad, one surpasses almost all others: “Live by them.” The commandments of the Torah only matter insofar as one is alive to observe them. Rabbis overwhelmingly rule that parents should vaccinate their children, and anti-vaxxer rabbis, like anti-vaxxers in general, are outliers. One who chooses not to vaccinate their children violates the commandments of the Torah. Hasidic Jews are staunch observers of the Torah’s commandments; they would not intentionally violate its laws.
However, I’ve barely been seeing these facts in the articles I’ve read about the measles outbreak. I’ve heard about a supposed financial influence that the Jews hold on Mayor Bill de Blasio, which allegedly caused him to delay his condemnation of anti-vaxxers, but I’ve heard almost nothing about the specific process that led to an overwhelming amount of people from these two distinct communities choosing to not vaccinate their children. I have heard that the Jews “did it to themselves” by living in such a tightly-packed neighborhood, but I have not heard about the reasons why they live so close together. Using an anti-Semitic trope and blaming the victims instead of sparking intellectual debate about the true reasons behind these outbreaks is harmful — not only to the Jewish people, who are directly impacted by this rhetoric, but also to those looking to prevent another outbreak.
Tight-knit communities like Williamsburg and Rockland County often fall victim to misinformation, and as a result, outbreaks. The Somali American community in Minnesota, the Amish community in Ohio and the Russian-speaking community in Washington state have all faced measles outbreaks due to this pattern. When a community is as closely packed as these ones are, information spreads quickly whether or not it’s correct.
The Hasidic community of Williamsburg lives so close together because their lives revolve around their religion. Their children attend the yeshiva for school, they pray at the local synagogue three times a day and they buy their food from the kosher supermarket. The commandments of the Torah pose so many restrictions that they almost force an Orthodox Jew to live in a Jewish community so as to not make their life any more complicated.
The Jewish community in Williamsburg mainly speaks Yiddish; Hebrew and English are known but less familiar. When a Yiddish anti-vaccination pamphlet was distributed throughout the neighborhood, the Jews of Williamsburg did not have an understandable counterargument that could be distributed as easily as its predecessor — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website is easily accessible to the majority of the American people, but it’s in English, not Yiddish, and many Williamsburg residents avoid the internet for religious reasons. Parents stopped vaccinating their children not due to any Jewish law, but because they didn’t know any other way.
Many of my Orthodox friends, peers and mentors have been describing the measles outbreak as a Chillul Hashem. Many of my non-Orthodox friends, peers and mentors have been using the outbreak as a reason to decry organized religion and its cult-like characteristics. I cannot in good conscience agree with either of them. The Jewish communities of Williamsburg and Rockland County fell victim to something much larger than themselves; they were on the receiving end of a hoax that has so far claimed 359 victims. To treat them with anything but sympathy is disgraceful — a true Chillul Hashem.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 22, 2019, print edition. Email Abby Hofstetter at [email protected]