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Top rabbi says unvaccinated teachers not welcome in Haredi schools

Rabbi Kanievsky declares vaccines ‘from heaven’ and obligatory for teachers, as some Hasidic rebbes also embrace COVID booster shots for their followers

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka (left) talking to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky on 24 August, 2021 (Israel Health Ministry)
Coronavirus czar Salman Zarka (left) talking to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky on 24 August, 2021 (Israel Health Ministry)

Israel’s inoculation campaign has received a significant boost in the ultra-Orthodox sector, with one of the country’s top rabbis declaring that unvaccinated teachers aren’t welcome in his community.

Chaim Kanievsky is the leader of a large section of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, and his relationship with authorities during the pandemic has been complicated. For example, at times he okayed the opening of schools in violation of national rules.

But he has now unequivocally thrown his weight behind the government’s vaccination push, telling coronavirus czar Salman Zarka late Tuesday that he wants principals to suspend teachers who aren’t vaccinated.

“A teacher or an educator who hasn’t been vaccinated won’t come to teach,” said Kanievsky, suggesting that vaccines fulfill the Jewish value of safeguarding life.

Notably, his stance goes further than the government’s position on vaccinations and teachers, which permits regular testing instead of vaccination. Under the government’s plan to reopen schools nationwide on September 1, teachers must present a “Green Pass” in order to enter schools; such a pass is granted to those who are vaccinated, recovered or who present a negative COVID test from the past 72 hours.

Yehoshua Pfeffer, head of the Haredi Israel division at the Tikvah Fund, a philanthropic foundation focused on education, said: “In a way it can be seen as an attempt to make amends for not taking a strong enough stance in the first waves, which made a very bad impression with the media and the general population.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attends a campaign event for the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party in the northern city of Safed on February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Authorities believe pushing for vaccination in the Haredi community, which has been particularly prone to infection in past waves and which is slightly more hesitant about vaccines, to be very important.

This is especially the case now, as the main Haredi cities of Elad, Beitar Illit, Bnei Brak and Modiin Illit have all become “red,” indicating high infection rates. Still, high infections are not translating to high rates of serious illness at this point, and serious cases in the Haredi community are actually disproportionately low, apparently because there is a large proportion of young people.

Mani Hadad, spokesman on the Health Ministry’s Haredi desk, told The Times of Israel: “We knew this would happen and there would be an increase in cases in the community, given people live in high-density settings and as Haredi schools have already restarted, but we are not worried at this stage. Vaccination levels are high, and people are open to boosters.”

In Kanievsky’s meeting with Zarka, who comes from Israel’s Druze minority, the latter asked the rabbi for a blessing for the general vaccination campaign and for the ongoing distribution of booster shots. Kanievsky said that vaccines are b’siyata dishmaya, an Aramaic phrase suggesting they have come about with the “help of heaven.”

Kanievsky leads the non-Hasidic part of the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazic community. But there is also growing enthusiasm for vaccinations among Hasidim. The rebbes or grand rabbis of the Belz, Gur, and Viznitz communities have all called upon their followers to get a third COVID shot as part of the booster campaign.

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