Top ultra-Orthodox rabbis recommend community vaccinate against COVID-19

Announcement comes amid fears health officials will face uphill battle to convince Haredi community to inoculate

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (front R) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Front C) attend a rally of the UTJ party to support the candidacy of Moshe Lion ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections, on October 25, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (front R) and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein (Front C) attend a rally of the UTJ party to support the candidacy of Moshe Lion ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections, on October 25, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Top ultra-Orthodox Rabbis Chaim Kanievsky, Gershon Edelstein and Shalom Cohen have recommended that their communities vaccinate against the coronavirus.

The three spiritual leaders asked for a medical opinion on the matter from Rabbi Elimelech Firer, who heads a prominent charitable medical organization. That opinion was released on Tuesday in the names of Kanievsky, Edelstein and Shalom, who conclude that “anyone who has the option of getting the vaccine should do it,” saying the shot has been proven safe under standard, accepted scientific methods.

Firer recommends in the medical opinion that those with allergies consult with their doctors before vaccinating, and cautions against inoculating children under 16 years old, since the vaccine hasn’t yet been tested on them.

The medical opinion will be published on Wednesday in the major Haredi newspapers in an effort to reach as many members of the ultra-Orthodox public as possible.

Kanievsky — who at 92 recovered from the coronavirus — and Edelstein are leaders of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) stream of ultra-Orthodoxy, while Cohen is the leading Sephardic authority of the community and member of the religious council advising the Shas party. It’s unclear whether Hasidic leaders will advise their followers to get the vaccine.

Screen capture from video of a meeting between health officials and lead ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the city of Bnei Brak aimed at encouraging coronavirus vaccination in the local community. (YouTube)

Israel is gearing up to begin a mass vaccination program next week, but health officials are concerned about public hesitance to be immunized.

The issue is particularly sensitive in the ultra-Orthodox community, where rabbinic leaders govern public attitudes. Adding to the problem has been the recent appearance in ultra-Orthodox areas of unsigned posters urging against taking the vaccine.

An initial virus outbreak earlier this year hit the community — especially Bnei Brak — hard after top rabbis advised against adopting Health Ministry orders that were aimed at curbing the virus spread but would have disrupted ultra-Orthodox community life. Pushback against some Health Ministry directives continues in some parts of the community.

On Sunday, top health officials held a meeting with leading rabbis in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in an effort to convince them to publicly back the national coronavirus vaccination program, but failed to get the support they wanted.

The face-to-face Sunday meeting was attended by Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy and national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, who faced, among others, the city’s Chief Rabbi Shevach Tzvi Rosenblatt and the head of a prominent rabbinical court, Rabbi Yehudah Silman.

Video from the gathering, broadcast by the Walla news site and the Kan public broadcaster, showed Levy and Ash sitting at a table but separated from the rabbis by clear plastic dividers as a precaution against the virus’ spread.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy in a press conference Thursday, December 3, 2020. (Screengrab: Mako)

Levy explained that the coronavirus is more harmful than influenza, and that the process of recovery, even for young patients, is much longer.

The coronavirus vaccine Israel will begin using works on the same principle as that of the flu inoculation, he told them.

While the rabbis backed the overall idea of vaccination, they also expressed some concerns, in particular that the trial period for available vaccines was too short to rule out long-term effects and any future problems that may arise.

Polls have shown that 50 to 75 percent of Israelis are leery of getting the coronavirus vaccine shot, apparently out of fears that the rush to produce an inoculation may have compromised its safety.

Israel is taking delivery of millions of vaccine shots, beginning with the Pfizer inoculation, which has been approved for use in the US by the FDA.

The Health Ministry on Monday told health maintenance organizations that Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination drive will kick off next week, with members of the general public to begin receiving vaccinations on December 23.

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