Rocking babies and munching on cake, hundreds of people—many of them members of New York’s Orthodox Jewish community—gathered late Monday night at an anti-vaxxers rally in the Atrium, a ballroom in Monsey, about an hour north of New York City.
The event, advertised on WhatsApp and robocalls as a “Vaccines Symposium” and “a night of science, discussion, and truth,” featured mainly secular speakers, including anti-vax YouTuber Del Bigtree, “holistic pediatrician” Lawrence Palevsky, and Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced gastroenterologist and author of a now-retracted 1998 study linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism.
“Your news anchors and the media outside this building just want to talk about measles,” Bigtree told the rapt crowd. “I want to talk about autism. I want to talk about the greatest epidemic of our lifetime.” The audience burst into applause.
Measles is galloping through New York’s Orthodox community at a rate not seen in years, with nearly 500 cases reported so far. The outbreak has led to yeshiva closures and spread fear among parents of infants who are too young to be immunized and are at risk of infection.
Although study after study has shown childhood vaccinations to be safe and effective, there are still parents who refuse to get the shots for their kids.
Those skeptics were well-represented in the audience at Monday’s event. Attendees—many of them young mothers—traveled by car and coach bus from Orthodox enclaves in Brooklyn, New York; Monroe, New York, and Lakewood, New Jersey.
Goodie bags filled with water, snacks, anti-vaccination pamphlets in Yiddish and English, and ads promoting vitamins and alternative medical treatments greeted them.
The event was scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. start, but kicked off later and ran until midnight.
Officials who have struggled to contain the measles outbreak put out a warning that the symposium was dangerous.
“Tonight’s event and the misinformation being shared at it runs counter to every statement from the medical experts and elected officials of our county,” Rockland County Executive Ed Day, Ramapo Supervisor Michael Specht, and Rabbi Chaim Schabes wrote in a joint statement. “This type of propaganda endangers the health and safety of children within our community and around the world.”
They also described the anti-vax activists as “outsiders” and stressed that the group sponsoring the event, identified in some of the distributed materials as the United Jewish Community Council, “does not represent the people of Rockland County.”
Jewish leaders have stressed that there is nothing in religious law or custom that precludes vaccination.
But the speakers in Monsey included one rabbi, Hillel Handler, arguing that measles is a benign and even beneficial illness, even though in New York City, 34 patients have been hospitalized and nine have ended up the intensive care unit.
Handler even claimed at one point—without scientific backup—that contracting measles, mumps, and chicken pox lowers the lifetime risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
He and others cast the city’s response to the outbreak in an anti-Semitic light, drawing a line from Nazi-era propaganda to recent attacks on Jewish Williamsburg residents. Handler referred to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio as “a German” and “a very sneaky fellow” and claimed he had deliberately singled out Jews for mandatory vaccination and school shutdowns.
“They wanted a very visible target,” he said. “We’ve been demonized. The campaign against us has been successful.”
In fact, the mandatory vaccinations apply just to Williamsburg, where the outbreak has hit hardest, and not to any of New York City’s other Jewish communities. Yeshivas were shut down after they allegedly refused to comply with city orders to turn away unimmunized children during the public health emergency.
Bigtree—whose anti-vaccine YouTube videos have been played on an ultra-Orthodox parenting hotline—also picked up on the thread of anti-Semitism during his keynote speech, comparing the use of vaccines to experiments on prisoners during the Holocaust.
“Your children are part of the greatest experiment in the history of mankind,” said Bigtree, who was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and other groups for wearing a yellow Star of David during a speech in Austin, Texas last month.
Trotting out debunked claims about vaccines causing autism and other developmental disabilities, he described vaccination as an existential threat: “This could destroy our species. It will certainly destroy this nation,” he said.
Some in the crowd claimed their own children had been injured by vaccines. “People want to do what’s best for their children,” said one Orthodox mother, who asked that her name not be shared. According to the CDC, serious vaccine side effects, like allergic reactions, are very rare.
In the days before the Monsey event, pro-vaccination WhatsApp memes and robocalls were sent out, urging parents not to attend. Partway through the event, a large SUV rolled into the parking lot of the venue, loudly blasting a Yiddish message that condemned anti-vaccine rhetoric.
"When we heard of this event, which we see as an event where some for-profit secular quacks prey on an uneducated base, we decided to take action,” said one of the organizers of the protest, who asked that his name not be shared to protect him from retaliation. “Sadly, it’s only a band-aid. But we can only do our best."