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In Orthodox communities where pregnancy is prized, vaccines leave women confused and afraid

By Shira Hanau

(JTA) — 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. 

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.

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.

Tova Herskovitz, a 30-year-old mother of four living in Tom’s River, New Jersey, a large Orthodox community neighboring Lakewood, said many of her friends are confused about the vaccine and don’t know who to trust.

“It’s scary to know that there are women who are saying whatever they want about this vaccine,” she said, noting that Instagram influencers popular in the Orthodox community have spread misinformation about the vaccines. “A lot of my friends follow these people.”

Dr. Mark Kirschenbaum, a pediatrician with a practice in Borough Park and Williamsburg, both Hasidic communities where weddings and other social events resumed their pre-pandemic pace months ago, said that he thinks about 20% of his patient families are “vaccine skeptical.” Most vaccinate their children for other diseases because of school requirements, he said, but the COVID-19 vaccines are currently optional if you can get one at all. The speed of their development and their newness means he expects even more skepticism.

“People have more of a fear of the vaccine than the virus,” Kirschenbaum said.

To combat that fear, the Orthodox health care professionals who spent last year exhorting their communities to take pandemic guidelines seriously are now turning their attention to building confidence in the new vaccines. 

The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association, an organization for Orthodox women doctors and medical students, has been debunking misinformation in a fact sheet and podcast that it produces. And a group of Orthodox Jewish nurses are hosting a weekly call to discuss the vaccines, to take place on hotlines that are accessible to women who do not use the internet for religious reasons and at a time, 9 p.m. on Thursdays, when most kids are in bed and women are often cooking for Shabbat.

Orthodox doctors said they’ve been getting dozens of phone calls about the safety of vaccines over the past two months, many with questions about whether the vaccines are safe for young women or for women who are already pregnant.

Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island and an assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere, a large Orthodox synagogue in Long Island’s Nassau County, said he’d gotten questions from parents of young women who are starting to date and who will want to conceive soon after getting married, asking whether the vaccine could be a problem. 

“If somebody asks me, I absolutely recommend that they take it,” Glatt said. “You’re dealing with a real risk of dying or having serious complications from COVID versus a theoretical risk when there’s no real theoretical reason why it should be dangerous.”

He added: “There is zero evidence to suggest there’s any risk with infertility.”

The new coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer and Modern have not been tested on pregnant women, leading the World Health Organization to originally advise that only pregnant women who are at high risk for complications from COVID get vaccinated. But over time a consensus has emerged that pregnancy itself represents a risk factor, and the WHO has changed its advice, though it still does not advise the vaccine for all pregnant women and recommends women speak to their doctors. New Jersey includes pregnancy in a list of conditions entitling people to early vaccines; New York just added it as well.

Local volunteers with the Covid Plasma Initiative, which connects people who have tested positive for COVID to hospitals and outpatient clinics administering monoclonal antibody treatment, have been encouraging pregnant women to consider the treatment if they become ill. But even some volunteers with the project, like Chedva Thuman, say they aren’t sure about whether the vaccine makes sense for everybody.

Thuman, a high school teacher, and her husband, who is high-risk for complications, got the vaccine last week.
“If I thought it was something really unsafe, I would not have gotten it myself,” she said.

Main Photo: Women walk through Williamsburg, home to a large Orthodox Jewish community, on April 10, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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