An unwelcome package arrived in the mailboxes of many members of Pittsburgh’s Orthodox community last month — a 40-page anti-vaccination booklet titled “The Vaccine Safety Handbook,” published by a purported Jewish organization called PEACH (Parents Teaching and Advocating for Children’s Health).
The pamphlet, whose authors and editors hide behind pseudonyms, is filled with spurious “facts” that refute hard scientific studies, including long-refuted claims that vaccines are linked to autism.
Pittsburghers took to social media to complain, with posts on Jewish Pittsburgh’s Facebook page calling out the anti-vaccine propaganda as dangerous and querying how PEACH obtained a mailing list that included a comprehensive directory of Pittsburgh families affiliated with various branches of Orthodoxy.
The final page of the handbook bears an inscription of dedication to a child who “passed away from SIDS three days after her DTaP vaccine.”
Attempts by the Chronicle to reach PEACH for comment were unsuccessful. In a curt email response, a representative from the organization referred only to the handbook, calling it “comprehensive” and did not respond to an inquiry as to how it obtained its Pittsburgh mailing list.
The extensive booklet not only cites various rabbis questioning the obligation to vaccinate children, but also advances anecdotes and statistics in an attempt to connect vaccinations to physical harm and death.
“Many of us received this in yesterday’s mail,” Butler posted on Facebook. “As the mother of a child who died and two sons with autism, I would never be so perversely evil as to endanger other people’s children with baseless scare tactics, factual distortions and outright lies. What’s worse — these nameless cowards produced this under the pretense of Jewish authority. Nauseating.”
In an email to the Chronicle, Butler called the motivation behind the movement “pathetic.”
“Parents of a child who dies or a child with autism may take their grief and channel it to looking for explanations — someone or something to scapegoat for their pain,” Butler said. “Thankfully, most people soon learn that that path is as futile as it is unfulfilling.” The booklet distributed last month, she said, appeared to be the work of “grieving parents [who] latched onto a crazy idea that will actually hurt children and families.
“Although I empathize with their grief, this pamphlet was not only filled with twisted distortions, but it also reflected a breathtaking level of selfishness — and even cruelty by intentionally misleading others in order to explain away their situation,” she continued.
The Pittsburgh Jewish community, as a whole, has embraced vaccination, and all three local day schools — Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, Hillel Academy, and Community Day School — require their students to be vaccinated in accordance with regulations set forth by the Allegheny County Health Department.
“In Halachah (Jewish law), there is an imperative to follow the best medical expertise that exists,” said Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of the Orthodox Poale Zedeck Congregation. “I’m not a medical expert, but as a layperson, I understand that there is no scientific support for the anti-vaccination position.”
The safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccines is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the overwhelming majority of medical professionals based on dozens of studies involving millions of children.
Both the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America have called on all Jewish parents to vaccinate their children, according to the timetable recommended by their pediatricians, as has the haredi Agudas Harabonim-Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada.
There is, however, a noticeable decline in vaccination rates in some religious Jewish communities in North America and a rise in religious exemptions at some Jewish day schools. A measles outbreak in Los Angeles in 2017 centered on the Orthodox Jewish community, and a 2015 wave of pertussis, or whooping cough, appeared in the Brooklyn haredi Orthodox communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park.
“About 90 percent of the cases are among people who are unvaccinated,” said Dr. Akiva Turner, director of the doctoral program in health science at Nova Southeastern University and former communicable disease director for the Broward County Health Department, and an ordained Orthodox rabbi.
“We’ve been involved in the issue of vaccination for the Foundation almost since we opened our doors in the early 1990s,” said Nancy Zionts, COO and chief program officer at the JHF. “What was so frustrating about this piece that was put out is that it was not based in science and — from what I heard from people in the Orthodox community — was an absolute misinterpretation and hijacking of text-based [halachic] information to make their case.”
In 2014, she said, the JHF hired physician Jonathan Weinkle and Butler to work with Pittsburgh’s Jewish day schools, camps and Jewish youth organizations to incorporate “scientific discovery into health and lifestyle decision-making for young people.”
As part of that campaign, Butler interviewed several area rabbis, who were recorded on video speaking on “the halachic responsibility of taking advantage of the good science for vaccination so we would be contributing to the overall health of the community,” as well as the health of one’s own children, said Zionts.
“We have good science,” she continued. “There are some people who can’t get vaccines. If you are immunocompromised because you have cancer, etc., your family counts on the rest of the community to be your safety net, for them to be vaccinated, so that you are also protected even if you are not fortunate enough to get a vaccination yourself. Where good science and halachah come together, it’s a no-brainer.” PJC
JTA contributed to this story.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at