First, signs went up around Williamsburg in synagogues and grocery stores and on street corners, advertising an international conference call with seven dial-in numbers on four different continents.
Then came robo calls in Yiddish, urging people to talk to their rabbis about children they know who've supposedly been injured by vaccines. The group launched a crowdfunding campaign that aimed to educate the “thousands of parents and children [who] are the victims of vaccinations, and don’t even know it,” before GoFundMe pulled it from the site following an inquiry from WNYC.
A screengrab of the GoFundMe before it was removed. (Gothamist)
As local governments in Rockland County and New York City have taken increasingly restrictive measures to stop the spread of measles, the small fraction of the ultra-Orthodox community that opposes vaccines have ramped up efforts too, with support from the national anti-vaccination movement.
The man at the center of it all is TV-producer-turned-YouTube host Del Bigtree.
“My God made me perfect. I am not born into an original sin that needs 72 vaccines,” Bigtree shouted at a recent rally in Austin, Texas, to a cheering crowd. “For those Hasidic Jews in New York right now, who never thought this moment would come, I am saying, ‘I stand with you.’”
Bigtree then took out a Star of David like the one used to mark Jews in Nazi Germany and pinned it to his chest, to make a point about Rockland County.
“How are we going to know if you’re not vaccinated, how are we going to arrest you? Maybe we’ll do it the same way we did the last time,” he said.
Bigtree’s statements were condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. The Auschwitz Memorial in Poland wrote on Twitter that “instrumentalizing the fate of Jews who were persecuted by hateful anti-Semitic ideology and murdered in extermination camps like #Auschwitz with poisonous gas in order to argue against vaccination that saves human lives is a symptom of intellectual and moral degeneration.”
Listen to Gwynne Hogan's report on WNYC:
But Bigtree has been embraced by the small portion of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community who oppose vaccines.
A movie Bigtree made about vaccines — with the infamous British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who insinuated that the measles vaccine had caused 12 children to become autistic — was referenced in an early piece of propaganda circulated throughout ultra-Orthodox communities in the metro area. Audio versions of Bigtree’s YouTube series on vaccines have been archived on the group’s long-standing hotline. Most recently he was invited in by an ultra-Orthodox group to host one of their latest conference calls at the end of March.
Bigtree’s message at the Austin rally about God creating him perfectly is echoed by seemingly disparate groups of people who oppose vaccines, from ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents to liberal-leaning parents at private schools.
It’s the same refrain used in an affidavit from parents of an unvaccinated child in Rockland County who’d been barred from attending Green Meadow Waldorf School, a secular private school:
“We believe that R. was created perfectly,” the affidavit reads, “and the injection of foreign substances is against our religious beliefs.”
This belief came up again last week in South Williamsburg, where a small group of women who opposed vaccines spoke to reporters after the city announced a mandatory vaccination rule in certain zip codes where the measles outbreak was ongoing.
“God has designed a perfect design,” said Gitty, a young mother. “He has designed my child — he’s amazing — he has designed my child as perfect as can be.”
Nevertheless, most major rabbinical authorities have come out to support vaccination.
“It is downright dishonest to officially attest that Jewish law forbids vaccination,” wrote Rabbi Dr. Aaron Glatt from the Rabbinical Alliance of America in a recent open letter.
Bigtree is not the only figure on the national anti-vaccination circuit to take interest in New York’s ultra-Orthodox community. Barbara Loe Fisher, who runs the National Vaccine Information Center, is listed as a contributing researcher in a manual about the dangers of vaccines targeted to the ultra-Orthodox community.
And on Monday, attorney and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from the Kennedy political dynasty sued New York City on behalf of parents of five unvaccinated children. Kennedy has been a critic of vaccines for years and recently rallied with Bigtree in California against a bill that would add further restrictions to doctors who write medical exemptions to vaccines in an effort to clamp down on fraudulent exemptions.
Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, has closely tracked the anti-vaccination movement. Hotez points to a 2017 measles outbreak within a Somali community in Minnesota, where Wakefield was invited to talk to concerned parents multiple times by anti-vaccination activists who feared the measles vaccine caused autism, according to a report from the Washington Post. During that outbreak, 65 people caught measles.
Hotez sees what’s happening in New York as a progression of those efforts.
“This is predatory behavior specifically targeted at Jews and at Jewish children,” Hotez said. “The anti-vaccine movement is now very opportunistic. They’ll identify groups where they think they can make progress in stopping vaccinations; and then are very predatory and unfortunately...they've chosen now to target the Orthodox Jewish community.”
Bigtree, however, denied his work with the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was predatory. He acknowledged he made a film with Wakefield, but said they don’t work together day to day.
“How is truth predatory?” Bigtree said. “I think it’s my duty as an American, as a journalist to tell people the truth, instead of the cover-up.”
There have been 465 measles cases across the country so far this year. An estimated 84 percent of those were in the ultra-Orthodox communities of New York City and Rockland County, where at least 21 have been hospitalized and 9 needed intensive care. Of those who caught the measles, the vast majority had not been vaccinated.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Dr. Peter Hoetz is a vaccine expert at Baylor College of Medicine, not Baylor College, and that "most major rabbinical authorities have come out to support vaccination," not "all major rabbinical authorities."
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.