Hundreds of Orthodox Jewish families gathered in a catering hall Monday night in the Rockland County hamlet of Monsey, where they heard anti-vaccine crusaders claim that inoculations are the real health risk, and that measles can help produce growth spurts and prevent everything from cancer to heart disease.
Dr. Larry Palevsky, who runs the Newport Wellness Center in Long Island, a practice that specializes in “holistic pediatric services,” asked onlookers to question whether there was actually a measles outbreak, or if people were actually catching measles from the vaccine itself. Or, perhaps, doctors have been misdiagnosing other illnesses as the measles.
“Is there a bad lot of vaccines?“ Palevsky asked the crowd. “Is it possible that these lots are bad? Is it something other than the unvaccinated children?”
The symposium, hosted by a group calling itself the "United Jewish Community Council," was advertised through robocalls and fliers sent around WhatsApp groups. Getting wind of the rally, Rockland County officials sent out a desperate message urging people not to attend.
“This type of propaganda endangers the health and safety of children within our community,” County Executive Ed Day, Ramapo Supervisor Michael Speech, and Rabbi Chaim Schabes wrote in a joint statement. “It is unfortunate that these outsiders are targeting our community and attacking our right of self-determination...We urge our residents to continue to ignore these attempts to exploit our differences and ask that they stand together.”
But the message did little to dissuade hundreds of people from showing up, mostly Orthodox Jewish families from all over the region; some bussed into Monsey from as far away as Brooklyn and Lakewood, New Jersey.
Crowds trickled in at first, but by 8:30 p.m. the ballroom was packed with hundreds of spectators, with women and men separated by a cloth partition. (The podium was in front of the men’s side, while women initially had to make do with a video projection. After some protest from non-Orthodox women there, organizers pulled back the curtain a few feet so women could see the stage.)
Just one of the event’s five speakers, who were introduced as “distinguished personalities” and the “cream of humanity’s crop,” was from the Orthodox community. Rabbi Hillel Handler, who has likened vaccination to “child sacrifice” in the past, told the crowd that according to “medical research,” if you catch “measles, mumps and chickenpox, your chances of getting cancer, heart disease, and strokes goes down 60 percent.”
He also said that Hasidim were being scapegoated by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who he called “a very, very sneaky fellow” and a German.
“The Jews are our misfortune,” he said, bringing up how Jews were stigmatized in Nazi Germany. “We Hasidim have been chosen as the target in order to distract from the virulent diseases that are sweeping through the city from illegals.”
Listen to Gwynne Hogan's report for WNYC:
The other speakers were figures from the national secular anti-vaccination circuit, who traded in long-debunked and fraudulent claims that vaccines cause autism or other autoimmune disorders, while painting measles as a trivial childhood illness that can give children a growth spurt or protect them from cancers.
D.C. lobbyist Greg Mitchell took the stage after Rabbi Handler. Mitchell has pushed for such causes as the First Step Act, the criminal justice reform bill signed into law late last year by President Trump. Mitchell, according to a report from the Daily Beast, was booted from those efforts when organizers found out he was also lobbying for the Church of Scientology, and that the church was potentially trying to convert formerly incarcerated people through a nonprofit it runs.
“I will be your voice in Washington, I’ll make it will help you carry your message; I will stand next to you,” Mitchell said, admitting not to know much about the vaccine safety issue and deferring to the expertise of other speakers. “I’m your lobbyist, I’m here to help you.”
Palevsky then questioned the reality of a measles outbreak, while warning the crowd about the measles vaccine. “Hundreds of thousands if not millions of mothers...have witnessed children regressing after they get the MMR...the children stop talking, they don’t look at you, they start flapping their arms, they start banging their head,” he said.
According to New York City and Rockland Health Departments, the vast majority of people who’ve gotten sick with measles have been unvaccinated. In Rockland County, 92 percent of people were either completely unvaccinated or had an known vaccination status, according to the county’s health department. In New York City, 92 percent of children who got sick and 72 percent of adults were unvaccinated as of April 24, according to a city Department of Health advisory sent out to health care providers.
The final speakers were two of the biggest names on the anti-vaccination circuit. Andrew Wakefield, the author of the fraudulent 1998 paper published then retracted in the Lancet that claimed there was a link between the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine and autism by looking at 12 autistic children, spoke to the crowd via videoconference.
“I want to reassure you, I have never been involved in scientific fraud,” he said. “What happened to me is what happens to doctors who threaten the bottom line of the pharmaceutical companies and who threaten government policy in the interest of their patients and that is what happened.”
Andrew Wakefield joined the crowd via ominous video conference: pic.twitter.com/wUHa1AFPcL
— Gwynne Hogan (@GwynneFitz) May 14, 2019
After Wakefield’s study was found to contain factual inaccuracies and ethical violations, investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed that Wakefield had also been receiving payments from an attorney trying to sue the vaccine manufacturer.
Finally, Del Bigtree, TV producer-turned-anti-vaccination YouTube host, addressed the crowd.
“This could destroy our species...They wanna talk about the measles,” Bigtree shouted to the exuberant crowd. “I wanna talk about autism, I want to talk about the greatest epidemic of our lifetime and all the other chronic illnesses that are skyrocketing in this country.”
The event’s moderator, Moshe Greenfield, thanked each speaker for coming, and handed them a commemorative plaque.
“Jewish families in the tristate area are currently going through a crisis with the vaccine issue,” he told guests. “We are confident that the day will yet dawn when the Vaccine God will crumble due to its own cracks and faults as more parents become informed…and political officials speak truthfully.”
Attendees watched the symposium patiently and with fixed attention past midnight, with mothers in the audience hushing young babies and children scrambling anxiously through the aisles. Pamphlets were passed out for a brand of health supplements called “Nature’s Cure,” and a complimentary bottle of the brand’s “constipation care” was provided in goodie bags, for a suggested donation of $12.
“The underlying issue is choice,” said attendee Sandy Nemeroff, who said she was an activist and a concerned grandmother. “Where there’s risk there has to be choice.”
Another attendee, Chasya G., an Orthodox mother of three from Brooklyn, said she had vaccinated her older children but stopped with her youngest.
“We have a support group because we’re a minority. We are for safe vaccines. And unlike other minorities we are being vilified and it’s very sad,” she said. “You can feel that the people took it very, very seriously, you can sense that. This is the group of people, the Jewish Orthodox mothers, [for whom] the home, the families, their children is the most important thing, that’s what they live for.”