Since the news of the recent Disneyland measles outbreak and the subsequent chatter on Facebook began, I discovered I have at least four Facebook friends (and likely a few more) with healthy, non-immunocompromised, vaccine-aged children who have decided, for non-medical reasons, to not vaccinate.
For some of these friends and acquaintances, the news was not surprising considering their views on other issues. With one friend in particular, though, it felt like a betrayal, one that I just can’t get past. Here this person was, in my community, in my home, and I never knew how they felt and what steps they were taking to separate themselves from the herd. I spent some time thinking and talking about it with another friend and realized one of the major reasons it bothered me so much is because this family is Jewish.
I naively assumed Jews (outside of the ultra-Orthodox) always vaccinate for lots of reasons–we are a religion that values life after all. Many of us are doctors and there is no question in the medical community that vaccinating is the right choice for healthy children and in the best interest of everyone’s public health. We are also known to have champion hypochondriacs among us (certain “Jewish mother” stereotypes come to mind) who won’t leave much to chance if there is the promise of a cure or a preventative measure for just about anything.
But mostly I assumed Jewish parents vaccinated because we have, more than many other groups of people, a deep sense of community within us. We are the people who don’t let mourners mourn alone. We don’t even let dead bodies rest in solitude until after they are buried. The first Jews to come to America in the late 19th century set up the Hebrew Free Loan Society which still operates today. Our food banks feed our neighbors, Jewish or not. For a Jew, being communal is not an option, it’s an obligation. We can’t even have a minyan unless 10 of us are there. We are a group of people who Show Up.
I see childhood immunizations through this same communal lens: Just as I pay my taxes for the good of the community, save water during a drought, or don’t get behind the wheel if I’m drunk, I vaccinate my kids not just to protect them but to cover yours too. I always assumed my fellow Jews were naturally inclined to do the same for me. And we’re not just doing it for each other either, we are doing it for those who can’t. I’m doing it for my relative who is immunosuppressed. And for my neighbor’s newborn twins. And for the stranger at Target on her third round of chemo.
I get so frustrated when parents say, “This is a personal decision we are making for our family.” It’s not. Unlike the epic debates about co-sleeping vs. sleep training or formula vs. breastmilk, this is one of the only parenting decisions that actually effects everybody. It is not a personal decision, it is a public health decision, and I don’t think we can be reminded of that enough. Your choice to take the risk that your kid can ride out a case of the measles unscathed means you are making that choice for dozens of other people your child comes in contact with. Unless you move into a cave or to a private island, there is no escaping community; we are all in this together.
I used to avoid debates about the merits of vaccinating. Usually these arguments aren’t a fair fight anyway. It’s impossible to argue with the research from countless scientific studies and medical professionals who are unequivocally pro-vaccine for healthy children (although I am sure people will try to do so in the comments section below anyway). These discussions always end up being about other things like our freedom to make personal decisions or about the distrust of government or pharmaceutical companies, or about people’s opinions and feelings towards actual facts.
Frankly, before I knew that people close to me felt this way, it was easy enough to write off those who don’t vaccinate as “crazies.” But now that I know what I know, I can’t say nothing anymore, and I’m tired of accommodating people who are offended by the views of the entire medical community. There is a place where personal freedom ends and public safety for the entire population begins.
I don’t like to judge other people’s parenting decisions but when it comes to vaccines, I have no choice. Just as I would speak up if someone in my community posted a homophobic rant or used a racist slur, I have started to speak up about this among my Jewish friends and now to the world at large. As far as I am concerned, the anti-vax position is indefensible. If you’re a Jew with no medical reason to not vaccinate your children, you are forgetting how connected we all are to one another, and that it’s our responsibility to consider the community when we consider ourselves.
Just as we are obligated to celebrate in each other’s joys, we are commanded to care for and protect each other, too. This isn’t just about you.