NEW YORK — How do you tell if a scientific study is trustworthy? That was the question that three nurses discussed on a call-in radio show last Thursday night, in an effort to educate their community on the science around the COVID-19 vaccine. 

For one, the study’s author should be an expert, the nurses said — like how if you have a question about kosher food, you go to a rabbi who is considered an expert on Jewish dietary law. 

The study’s central experiment should also be logical and replicable, with other scientists able to reproduce the same results when following the study’s method — like when cooking a classic Jewish casserole.

“Let’s say somebody tells you to make a potato kugel and put in one egg,” one of the nurses said. “It’s not gonna work for ten potatoes.”

The show was the work of the leadership of the EMES Initiative, a women-run Orthodox health literacy group, and is one of several efforts underway or still in planning to spread accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine in the Orthodox Jewish community. 

What You Need To Know

  • Orthodox medical workers and leaders are working to combat vaccine misinformation spreading in their communities

  • The false information about the vaccine, such as that it is associated with death, is coming in English and Yiddish, from the U.S. and abroad

  • Orthodox groups are planning large vaccination efforts in their community

  • The vaccination efforts are getting underway just weeks before Purim, a raucous holiday that seeded a large number of COVID-19 cases in the community last year

Orthodox doctors and community leaders are facing an uphill battle, with vaccine misinformation already being shared widely within the most insular parts of Orthodox society. Some in the community fear a resurgence of the kind of anti-vaccine propaganda that led to a massive measles outbreak in 2019, which nearly reversed that disease’s status in the United States as “eliminated.” 

The fears are compounded by the news and information ecosystem in the Orthodox world, where, not unlike secular social media, recorded videos from respected rabbis and articles from prominent news outlets compete for attention with fake news broadcasts and Yiddish posters of dubious provenance shared primarily in WhatsApp chat groups. 

The EMES show reached listeners while meeting certain Orthodox cultural restrictions: It was not broadcast over an actual radio station, but required a telephone number to call into to listen, fitting with a society that spurns secularism, including, sometimes, radios. 

Blima Marcus, president of the EMES Initiative, tackled a particularly troubling question about the COVID-19 vaccine: Can it kill you?

“I chose this one right now because I’ve heard so many misinformed posts being shared on social media and WhatsApp,” Marcus said. “We’ve got a vaccine that seems very new and very untrustworthy, because it's been politicized.”

Fears of a deadly COVID-19 vaccine — which have no basis in fact — were spread in part by a broadcast audio clip narrated in English by a radio host in Israel, Mordechai Sones, of Israel NewsTalk Radio, an internet radio station that lists itself as an affiliate of Fox News Radio. Fox News did not respond to an emailed request for information about its relationship with Israel NewsTalk Radio.

In the clip, Sones reads a series of names of people he claims died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Correlation does not prove causation, but it is a reason for investigation,” Sones wrote in an emailed statement to NY1. “Nowhere does my report state that any of the people mentioned died as a result of the vaccine, but it pointed out the correlation that should be investigated and is not.”

‘The community is very wary’

Orthodox WhatsApp groups have been beset with other forms of misinformation as well, including Yiddish messages about the dangers of vaccines and falsified letters bearing the signatures of prominent rabbis that bemoan the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The misinformation is reaching a community that, like other minority groups, has a history of distrust of government, in this case stemming from the devastation of European Jewry at the hands of Nazi Germany and their allies during World War II. 

“There's this mixed feeling in the community, that in general, if government recommends a certain remedy for a health concern, the community is very wary of accepting that,” said Avi Greenstein, the president of the Borough Park Jewish Community Council. “It’s built on many decades of mistrust.”

So far, Greenstein says, it is not clear how the community is reacting to the vaccine, since only a portion of New Yorkers are eligible. Anecdotally, he said, a local health clinic has thousands of seniors on a waitlist for the vaccine. 

In other Orthodox communities, signs are more mixed. ODA Primary Care Health, a network of clinics that primarily service Hasidic Jews, has seen a relatively small number of its Hasidic patients coming to its Williamsburg location to receive the vaccine, according to an ODA employee familiar with the network’s vaccine effort. The employee spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. 

Eli Brand, a Hasidic resident of Midwood, said that his son’s yeshiva asked its teachers to stay after work one day to get the vaccine. The vaccines were mandatory for teachers over 40, Brand said, and strongly encouraged for those younger. Brand added that clinics he calls in Borough Park to book a vaccine appointment for his wife, a teacher, are routinely booked solid. 

“In the beginning people weren't so sure,” Brand said, but now, “most people are really desperate to get the vaccine.”

‘This is an amazing vaccine’

With eligibility expanding, Orthodox groups are planning vaccine education and distribution efforts. Greenstein said that the Borough Park Jewish Community Council has already begun an initiative to get Holocaust survivors in the community vaccinated, with more than 200 receiving doses so far.

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the previous evening he met with Orthodox leaders at Gracie Mansion, and that the city was also planning an effort to get vaccinations to Holocaust survivors.

“There's definitely still issues around hesitancy on the vaccine, but there's a lot of seniors that want the vaccine,” de Blasio said. 

The Council is also planning to launch a Zoom series on the coronavirus, Greenstein said The first edition will feature messages from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, as well as local doctors from Maimonides Medical Center. 

Agudath Israel of America, a major Orthodox umbrella group, said it is planning a vaccination effort with the state’s health department and Hatzalah, the emergency medical services group that serves Orthodox neighborhoods, modeled on a vaccination initiative already underway in Chicago. 

The group has also advocated for teachers at private schools, including Orthodox yeshivas, to be considered eligible alongside public school teachers for the vaccine. 

Avrohom Weinstock, Agudath Israel’s chief of staff, said in an email that the group’s top rabbinic council was also considering issuing guidance on taking the COVID-19 vaccine. The group has historically shied away from issuing health advice — and one member of the council has called vaccines a “hoax” — but it has during the pandemic called on Orthodox Jews to observe certain health guidelines, such as wearing a mask.

Some rabbis have taken it upon themselves to spread scientific information about the vaccine, using their authority as arbiters of Jewish custom and law to encourage people to get immunized

“The vast majority of professionals, researchers and the best of the best feel very strongly that this is an amazing vaccine,” Rabbi Asher Weiss, a respected Brooklyn rabbi, says in one widely shared sermon on YouTube. He goes on to share specific details of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccine studies, debunking the notion that the vaccines have led to deaths. 

Yet while vaccines are top of mind for many, the community is facing a more pressing issue: the coming Purim holiday at the end of the month. 

The holiday, known for costumes, dancing and drinking, is believed to have seeded the community’s early spike in infections and deaths at the very start of the pandemic in 2020. 

Some in Orthodox neighborhoods report “pandemic fatigue,” including less mask-wearing in synagogues. This winter saw several instances of massive indoor weddings in Williamsburg and Borough Park, featuring thousands of maskless guests. At his Wednesday press conference, de Blasio said that the city was still monitoring those sites. 

“We made very clear to the folks involved that if there's ever anything like that planned again at that site, we will shut that site down,” he said.

Orthodox groups are now reminding communities to follow health guidelines in celebrating the holiday. The guidelines encourage people to wear masks in Purim services, and note that get-togethers for the holidays should be limited to families or small bubbles. 

The guidelines, Rabbi Adir Posy, the Orthodox Union’s director of synagogue services, told Haaretz, are informed by “the memory of what Purim was like last year.”