For many observant Jews, the weeks leading up to the Passover holiday are spent in a cleaning frenzy: The house is scrubbed from top to bottom in compliance with Jewish law, which dictates that Jews avoid leavened bread for the duration of the holiday.
This year, some members of Williamsburg’s Hasidic Jewish community will have one more task on their to-do list: get their kids vaccinated, or pay up. That was the choice presented to them Tuesday, when Mayor Bill de Blasio declared the enclave’s ongoing measles outbreak a public health emergency.
“The goal here is to send a message that people need to act immediately to get vaccinated, and that vaccination is available readily here in the neighborhood and throughout the city,” Mayor de Blasio said.
Along with the emergency declaration came an order: all parents in the affected zip codes must give their children the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Parents who don’t comply risk violations and fines of up to $1,000.
That message is being heard loud and clear in Williamsburg. But some say it’s too little, too late.
“$1,000 fines are a joke,” said one Hasidic father, who asked that his name not be shared in order to protect his privacy. “Lives are at risk.”
The father, whose son attends yeshiva in Williamsburg, was also skeptical of the city’s ability to enforce Monday’s Commissioner’s Orders forbidding area yeshivas from admitting unvaccinated students.
“When the outbreak started a few months ago, they should have literally shut down every noncompliant yeshiva,” he said. The father added that some of his neighbors in the community felt distrustful of the city government and secular doctors, complicating the outreach efforts mounted by the city and community leaders.
Other community members felt that the order was overly restrictive.
“It’s like abuse,” said Baila, a Hasidic mother who said she was unsure about whether vaccination was the right choice but respected those who did choose to vaccinate. “Why can’t we make our own decision?”
She added that she had vaccinated her oldest child, but was unsure about whether to vaccinate her younger children after her sister-in-law told her that vaccines could have negative health effects for young children.
Since September, at least 285 cases of measles have been reported to the Department of Health, most from the Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods. The figure, accurate as of April 8, was more than double the number reported in February of this year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the MMR vaccine is very safe. Common side effects are minor, and more serious side effects, like seizures, low platelet count, and allergic reactions, are extremely rare.
Still other community members fell somewhere in the middle when it came to mandatory vaccines.
“Maybe it’s a little too harsh, but I think it’s a good thing to get vaccinated,” said one mother, who declined to give her name, as she pushed a stroller across Lee Avenue in Williamsburg.
Jay Begun, founder of Kindercare Pediatrics in Williamsburg and an instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at Mount Sinai, is cautiously optimistic about the new order, especially in conjunction with the increased pressure on yeshivas to keep unvaccinated students at home.
“I think those who are anti-vaxxers in any community will try and resist some of these measures, but I believe the vast majority of people will comply with the health department’s recommendation,” he said. He added that he hoped that the health department wouldn’t have to resort to the punitive measures described in the emergency declaration.
“No one wants fines,” he said.
The announcement was well-timed: the upcoming Passover holiday could possibly cause a spike in measles cases. Family dinners and well-attended religious services could put many unvaccinated people in contact with one another.
“[Passover] in the Hasidic community happens to be an extremely sanitary holiday,” said Naftuli Moster, executive director of Yaffed, a group advocating for improved secular education of yeshiva students. “On the other hand, there are many opportunities for kids to get together and spread germs and disease.”
Health department commissioner Oxiris Barbot said that the department would be using contact tracing, a public health technique in which people who come into contact with an sick person are monitored for signs of infection, to target their efforts. If people get vaccinated within three days of exposure, they’ll be protected from the disease, Barbot explained.
“The point here is not fine people, but to make it easier for them to get vaccinated,” she said.
In the meantime, Mayor de Blasio said, the health department would continue its efforts to reach out to the community through local organizations. The Daily Beast previously reported that the city was working with the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn to educate parents on the importance of MMR vaccination, and to help bring yeshivas into compliance with the health department’s rules.
“They’ve been supportive of the pediatricians and they’re encouraging,” Begun said of the health department. “Aside from going to home to home with lists and forcibly immunizing children, I don’t know what the answer is.”