May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

‘Vaccine Advocacy’ Q&A With Rabbi Kenny Schiowitz, the RCBC’s New President

JLNJ: As one of your first acts as president of the RCBC you drafted this letter and gathered a number of signatures. In this process, what was the response like? Were community leaders agreeable to sign this letter? Was there pushback?

Rabbi Schiowitz: People we very willing to sign it. I am happy to say that nearly every institution and leader was supportive and most of the schools require immunization and already refuse to accept religious exemptions, in both elementary and high schools.

JLNJ: If this community is already so committed to vaccinations, then why was this letter even necessary?

Rabbi Schiowitz: At first I asked myself the very same question. However, I then realized that we might not be as safe as we hoped. A school was closed in a nearby neighborhood because of the outbreak of measles; our communities have students who travel from one to another, creating an overlap. Our high schools in particular have many students who travel among the different communities. Even within our community, we do not really know everyone’s position and policy on this issue and it is important to articulate it as clearly as possible. Some people are concerned about shuls and other communal contexts. Even if shuls do not check medical records, at least we can ask it of our attendees.

JLNJ: We all know that there can be different opinions when it comes to the interpretation of Jewish law. In this case, different rabbis have takes different positions. Why do the signatories of this letter insist that there is only one valid interpretation of the law?

Rabbi Schiowitz: It would be hard for the medical community to be more unified in their support of the benefits of vaccinations. The signatories of this letter believe that the halachic requirement of caring for our own health is to base ourselves on the advice of the medical professionals. It is strange for a layperson or religious leader to argue with the medical advice of doctors. It is disturbing to argue the medical merits and to then call it a religious position. There is no religious position on the medical benefits or risks of vaccinations.

JLNJ: What do you think about public school giving religious exemptions?

Rabbi Schiowitz: The United States values religious freedom and that is very important to me and to our community. If the schools grant the exemption based on the freedom of religion, that is one thing. But I want it to be clear that this is not our religion.

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