Monday, February 08, 2021
In Orthodox communities where pregnancy is prized, vaccines and variants leave women confused and afraid
For much of the last year, the young mothers of Lakewood, New Jersey, have experienced the pandemic as much as a nuisance as a matter of life and death.
That's not to say the community hasn't experienced its share of outbreaks; it has. Or that families haven't lost loved ones; they have. But to hear the young mothers of the large Orthodox community tell it, the crisis part of the pandemic had passed. Most people recovered from the virus, they thought, and only the elderly and high-risk needed to continue staying home. And to watch the Instagram videos of the frequent indoor weddings held in the town, where few if any guests wear masks, the dark days of last March have nearly been forgotten.
To many, a lockdown that kept the town's thousands of yeshiva students home from the local Beis Medrash Gevoha, the largest yeshiva outside of Israel, for months on end was not a price they were willing to pay. With children and young people at relatively low risk of death or serious illness from COVID, keeping kids home from school seemed to many to be more harmful than the virus itself.
That has changed in recent weeks, as news of the death of a 37-year-old woman understood to be previously healthy swept through WhatsApp groups at the same time that misinformation took hold about the new coronavirus vaccines potentially threatening fertility. In a community where childbearing and mothering are marks of status among women, the two developments brought the pandemic's seriousness home for many of the town's young mothers.
Now, as physicians there and across the Orthodox world mount a campaign to convince women to get vaccinated when they're eligible and to be more careful if they're not, some mothers in Lakewood are reconsidering their families' approach to COVID safety.
"These stories are not making us any less concerned to say the least," said one 30-year-old Lakewood resident who is pregnant. She had been looking forward to getting the coronavirus vaccine until her own COVID-19 test came back positive last week, making her ineligible for the time being.
Lakewood, with a haredi Orthodox community that makes up more than half the town's population of over 100,000, is by far New Jersey's most fertile town. In 2015, it recorded 45 live births per 1,000 residents — a rate more than four times the state's average, and among the highest in the world. So when rumors started circulating about the effect of the soon-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccines on fertility, locals were alarmed.
The rumors began right around the time New Jersey began offering vaccines, and they took root on Instagram and WhatsApp, the social network and messaging platform that are popular among Orthodox women.
In one WhatsApp group organized by Orthodox Jews to discuss COVID, a woman said she had been thinking of moving to Israel but was reconsidering after the mayor of the Israeli city of Lod said he would require parents to be vaccinated before their children could come to school.
In another group, women compared Israel's recommendation that pregnant women get the vaccine to Nazi doctors' torture of Jews. "Disgusting!! They are really making experimentation on Jews!!" one woman wrote.
Several people shared information about a drug cocktail created by a Hasidic doctor, Vladimir Zelenko, that Donald Trump touted but was later found to be ineffective and even harmful in some cases. Someone else shared a video of Zelenko in which he said that young, healthy people do not need to take the vaccine. He suggested taking zinc to inhibit "viral replication" and said "in my medical opinion, no one needs the vaccine."
In early January, Michal Weinstein, an Orthodox Instagram influencer who lives on Long Island and has over 21,000 followers, posted an Instagram livestream of Dr. Lawrence Palevsky, a pediatrician and well-known anti-vaxxer who spoke at a 2019 symposium of anti-vaccine activists that was attended by hundreds of haredi Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York. In the video, Palevsky suggested that the vaccines were a profit move by drug companies — and that they could contribute to infertility.
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