JTA – When Rivka Taub Rivera decided to apply for a religious exemption for New York City’s teacher vaccination mandate, she did not turn to the rabbis of Borough Park, the Orthodox neighborhood of Brooklyn where she lives.
Instead, she asked Michoel Green, a rabbi in Chabad who has openly opposed vaccination, to submit the required letter from a pastor. Based in Massachusetts, Green was disaffiliated by a Chabad organization because of his anti-vaccination posts on social media and has become a folk hero for some orthodox Jews who oppose vaccines.
“I’m not going to lie when the Chabad community, when the political establishment goes against you for speaking out and for having a unique voice, then you’re probably doing something right,” said Rivera, who teaches physical exercise at an elementary school in an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Rivera is part of a vocal minority of Jews who argue that their religious beliefs prevent them from being vaccinated, even though leaders within all major Jewish denominations have approved the COVID-19 vaccines.
The city’s education department had not ruled on her request for exemption before Sunday, and Rivera, who is nine months pregnant, had not changed her mind about being vaccinated. That meant she became one of potentially thousands of city teachers barred from their classrooms when the vaccine mandate, the most comprehensive in the country, went into effect Monday.
The vast majority of New York City educators were vaccinated before Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the mandate on August 23, and most of the rest have been vaccinated since. But thousands of teachers were still unvaccinated last Friday when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor refused to consider a lawsuit on their behalf, meaning that if they did not get their first shot at the weekend, they should either go on unpaid leave or resign resignation.
While teachers can apply for religious exemptions for the vaccine mandate, an option that their union has sought, city officials made it clear they did not intend to approve them freely. Exemption seekers must submit a letter from a clergyman, and a binding agreement between the city and the union states that “requests must be rejected where the leader of the religious organization has spoken publicly in favor of the vaccine … or where the objection is personal, political or philosophical. ”
These guidelines are more complicated to apply when it comes to Judaism than in some religions, such as Catholicism, where doctrine is central. (The Pope has approved vaccination requirements.) In Judaism, major denominations issue guidelines for their members, but individual rabbis make decisions for their communities, and disagreements are common.
All the major non-Orthodox denominations have issued statements supporting COVID-19 vaccines. In the Orthodox world, where public health guidelines related to COVID-19 have been more discussed, a list of Orthodox rabbis who have opposed vaccination either publicly or privately, including some in Borough Park, has circulated on social media. But many more Orthodox rabbis have gone on record in approving vaccinations, including through concerted campaigns aimed at raising vaccination rates in Orthodox communities; Yeshiva University, the flagship school of modern orthodoxy, demands that its students and staff be vaccinated.
It does not affect Stephanie Edmonds, a 10th grade Jewish global teacher who does not want to be vaccinated.
“I do not believe that Judaism is a monolith, and I do not believe that really any religious leader of any faith can speak for all people within that religion,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Saturday night. “Absolutely for Judaism, there is no singular voice that can speak for any individual’s relationship with God.”
Edmonds was in tears Friday afternoon when she spoke to CNN from her Bronx classroom, where she said she was teaching what she expected would be her last class at an elementary school in New York. She told CNN she would take part in a class action lawsuit filed by teachers against the city over the mandates.
She said she had come to the decision not to be vaccinated after much prayer, although she said she acknowledged that there was no principle in Judaism that forbade vaccination. “I have a deep religious objection. I think it goes against my faith, ”she said.
Edmonds told JTA she grew up attending a reform synagogue in her home state of Connecticut and celebrated her bat mitzvah there. She was later involved with Hillel at the University of Connecticut and lived a semester during college in Israel, where she chose dates at a kibbutz near Eilat.
I do not feel I should justify my religious practice in front of a panel or in front of the public
But recently, she has not been involved in a synagogue or any kind of organized Jewish life – which put her in line with a large portion of American Jews. So she did not send a letter from a rabbi in her request for exemption, which is appealed after initially being rejected. Last week, Edmonds was asked to explain her anti-vaccination view in more detail during a hearing for her appeal, an experience she said she did not appreciate.
“I do not feel I should justify my religious practice in front of a panel or in front of the public,” she said.
Rivera, who grew up in Hasidic but now prefers ordinary Orthodox synagogues, said she had no objections to explaining her opposition to being vaccinated in Jewish terms, though she said her objections run deeper than that. She said she knew people who had become seriously ill due to COVID-19 and by people she believed had been rescued after receiving treatments discredited by the medical establishment, including the medicine cocktail being promoted by a Jewish doctor named Vladimir Zelenko.
“In Torah law, you are not allowed to inject yourself with a vaccine that does not provide any significant medical healing benefit to the patient, even though it is supposedly good for others,” she claimed. “We have been told to get this vaccine because you know it is for the greater good, yet you can still get and transmit COVID. I do not think Hashem wanted me to sacrifice my bodily autonomy for this. ”
Even rabbinical leaders in the denomination in which Green was ordained, Chabad, deviate from this position. Rabbi Yehuda Sherpin, who writes a column on Jewish law for Chabad.org, noted that the Torah requires individuals to take life-saving measures, such as vaccines, in times of plague. “Maintaining your own health not only makes sense, it’s actually a mitzvah,” he wrote in a column, “What does Jewish law say about vaccination?”, Which does not directly address COVID-19. “It means that even if you do not want to do it, for whatever reason, you are still obligated to do it.”
Rivera said she had COVID-19 in the spring and felt confident she was protected by antibodies she developed in response to this infection, citing a local doctor who she said refused to write a letter stating approves a medical exemption for fear of retaliation. The view that previous exposure to COVID-19 may serve as adequate protection against the virus is widespread in many Orthodox communities, which were hit early and hard during the pandemic last year; Orthodox media have pressured the Blasio administration into data on natural immunity.
“There has not been a pandemic in Borough Park in the last year,” Rivera said.
Rivera also said she was nervous about how the vaccine would affect her unborn baby. The Centers for Disease Control advises pregnant women to be vaccinated, citing a high incidence of complications among pregnant patients receiving COVID and data showing the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Only about a third of pregnant women are vaccinated, reflecting widespread anxiety and misinformation about the impact of vaccines on fertility. These concerns have been particularly prevalent in Orthodox societies where fertility is valued; in response, several Orthodox rabbis in Long Island and Baltimore stressed that the vaccines had no observable adverse effect on fertility when they collaborated this year on a Rosh Hashanah video urging their communities to be vaccinated.
Right now, she is avoiding the vaccination mandate by starting her maternity leave early. The teachers’ association recently negotiated paid leave for educators, so she gets paid for six weeks and then can take a vacation for another six. At that point, she said, she hopes the mandate will be eased, either because the pandemic has subsided or because a new mayor joins and lifts the vaccine requirement. (Eric Adams, who is likely to win the mayoral election in November, has not spoken in detail about vaccine mandates, but said in August prior to the mandate for teachers that he thought de Blasio “went in the right direction” on the issue.)
If the mandate remains in force, Rivera said she does not know what she will do. She really does not want to be vaccinated, but her husband is currently without income after closing his kosher restaurant, a fried chicken joint called Krispy Nuggets, because he could not hire enough workers.
That was before de Blasio announced that vaccination would be required for people who ate at restaurants in the city, a mandate that has put pressure on kosher restaurants whose clientele includes a significant portion who are against vaccination. “It could have been a blessing in disguise honestly because we would never have enforced separation,” she said.
Rivera said some of the other Jewish elementary school teachers she knew who had not wanted to be vaccinated had received the vaccines in recent weeks when it became clear they had to do so to keep getting paid. She said she also knows teachers who work in yeshivas in Brooklyn who have not been vaccinated.
“For the most part, the other Jewish educators, as far as I know, are in private school,” she said. “And it does not really hang over their heads as if it were ours.”