Measles Outbreak Has Atlanta Rabbis Concerned

Measles Outbreak Has Atlanta Rabbis Concerned

Concern about a measles outbreak affecting primarily Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel and in the New York-New Jersey area has spread to Atlanta.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Concern about a measles outbreak affecting primarily Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel and in the New York-New Jersey area has spread to Atlanta. While no cases of the potentially-fatal disease are known to have been reported locally, some congregations and schools are taking steps to protect congregants and students.

Rabbis interviewed by the Atlanta Jewish Times agreed that Jewish law, known as halacha, clearly supports requiring vaccinations.

Schools are seeking new guidelines for navigating the protection of students while the state of Georgia allows an exception for vaccinations based on religious objections.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Measles is a disease that can lead to serious complications, such as pneumonia (infection of the lungs) and even death. It is caused by a highly contagious virus that is spread through the air by breathing, coughing or sneezing. Signs and symptoms of measles include rash, high fever, cough, runny nose, and red, watery eyes.”

While non-Orthodox Jews may be less aware of the outbreak, “Anybody who’s not talking about it is being short-sighted,” said Rabbi Ari Leubitz, head of school at Atlanta Jewish Academy.

The first to issue a statement locally appears to have been Rabbi Ilan Feldman of Beth Jacob Atlanta, who wrote a letter Nov. 16 to about 520-member families of the Orthodox synagogue.

My purpose in this letter is to state unequivocally that any child who is not vaccinated is prohibited from attending shul or any other public gathering sponsored by Beth Jacob,” Feldman wrote, using bold-faced type for emphasis. “Furthermore, parents of non-vaccinated children should inform others, including parents of classmates and playmates of their children, that their children are not vaccinated.”

Feldman made clear who is responsible for the problem.

“This outbreak is due primarily to a small minority of people who refuse to vaccinate their children, despite the overwhelming recommendations to do so from the medical community as well as halachic rulings by leading authorities that doing so is a religious obligation, and not vaccinating is a violation of several halachos. …

“It is not my intention, in so stating, to stigmatize anyone. Rather, it is to make a clear halachic statement in order to mitigate a potential public health hazard to our community. Our collective commitment in this area will help ensure that coming to Shul involves no risk of infection for us or our children,” he wrote.

Rabbi Yitzchok Tendler, executive director of Beth Jacob, said that Feldman’s message was shared more than 3,000 times after being posted on Facebook.

Feldman’s letter recognizes the frequency with which members of Beth Jacob and the wider Orthodox community travel to family events or visit relatives in Israel and the New York-New Jersey area.

“It’s definitely being discussed,” Tendler said. “People are nervous.”

Beth Jacob’s pre-school requires vaccination records, but because children in daycare during Shabbat services may come from non-member families, the congregation is working on a process for visitors.

“In my extended circle … there’s very little discussion about this in terms of whether it’s appropriate not to immunize,” Leubitz said. Atlanta Jewish Academy has 475 students.

“There’s absolutely no Jewish rationale for not immunizing your children,” unless a medical reason exists, he said.

Leubitz wrote Nov. 19 to parents and staff: “Our office is completing an internal audit to verify all forms are present and current. Our audit thus far confirms that less than a handful of our students have filed for the religious exemption. While it has been our historical practice to accept unimmunized students with religious exemptions for vaccinations, this is now under legal review for the upcoming academic year.”

Leubitz told the AJT that “of those families, they were informed … should they travel to a destination that currently is in an outbreak or should Atlanta come to a situation where the CDC calls it a local outbreak, they will be asked to stay home for up to 21 days or as long as health officials recommend,” he said.

“I’m not judging or labeling anyone who’s made that decision” not to immunize their children. My job as head of school is to make sure that every child is as safe as can possibly be,” Leubitz said.

“Parents have called. Absolutely,” Rabbi Meir Cohen, head of school at Torah Day School Atlanta, told the AJT.

Cohen said that a small number of Torah Day’s 340 students are not immunized. A policy change was issued Nov. 26.

“Therefore, effective immediately, every child attending TDSA is required to be vaccinated for measles, unless they supply a medical exemption provided by their pediatrician certifying that vaccination for measles is medically contra-indicated,” Cohen said in a letter to parents and staff.

“The leadership team will continue to review our overall vaccine policy, which currently complies with Georgia law: each child either needs proof of vaccination or a certified exemption … We understand that there are families who will object to this policy, but we feel it represents a fair and balanced approach towards protecting all students,” Cohen wrote.    

In its latest report, the Atlanta-based CDC reported that 220 individual cases of measles had been confirmed in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Georgia was not one of those states.

According to press reports, more than 120 confirmed cases have been reported in the New York-New Jersey area, more than half in Rockland County, N.Y., and the remainder in the borough of Brooklyn, and in Lakewood, N.J.

Israel’s Ministry of Health recently reported more than 2,000 cases of measles this year, nearly 43 percent in Jerusalem, with significant numbers also in Beit Shemesh, Safed, and Bnei Brak. Thirty percent of the cases were children ages 1 to 4 years old, and nearly 20 percent ages 5 to 9.

CNN reported earlier this month that the Ministry “believes that the disease was imported by tourists and visitors who infected an unvaccinated population, largely among the nation’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.”

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Nov. 21 that “U.S. public health authorities say the current outbreak started when Haredi families visited Israel last Sukkot and brought the illness back to their communities.”

The CDC has issued a level-one travel notice for Israel, cautioning that “Travelers to Israel should make sure they are vaccinated against measles with the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine.”

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