Ask the Rabbis | How Do You Deal With People in Your Community Who Don’t Want to Get Vaccinated?

A visual of two groups of people split by a gorge, over which hangs a huge needle with a dose of medicine inside of it. On one side of the gorge, a crowd of people performs everyday activities. A sign is planted in the ground that says "DEUT 30:19: CHOOSE LIFE." On the other side, three people seem to be panicked and distressed.

INDEPENDENT

I don’t. It is not my place to nudge people to get or not to get vaccinated. We have lost all arguments pro or con due to (1) the confusion around facts, scientific and otherwise, (2) the growing mistrust of government, let alone its mandates, and (3) confusion and dueling accounts of what’s happening at the border. The resultant social, political and scientific turmoil has confounded and made anxious many otherwise critically thinking individuals who less than two years earlier had no qualms about getting vaccinated against the annual flu.

So—no. I am not joining the bandwagon on this one. I hope that not only every individual but every one of the equally confused “scientists” makes the best-informed choice.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO

HUMANIST

Although vaccination rates in Jewish communities are high, and documented Jewish support for vaccines goes back centuries, I will address only what Humanistic Jews are doing. Like all Humanists, we make ethical decisions in the light of both reason and empathy. Reason has led us to trust the scientific method as humanity’s best way to explain everything about the universe. Whether we’re talking about cosmology or biology, it just works (as does the vaccine). Empathy helps us to determine our responsibilities to one another. We can certainly value personal autonomy, but we must act on the basis of our mutual obligations. Surveys of Humanists show close to 100 percent support for vaccines, including strong backing for mandates and for ending religious exemptions. My own congregation has imposed a vaccine mandate for anyone to enter our building.

I understand that Jewish support for vaccines, though high, is still not unanimous. But in my community I have not encountered even a single refuser. And if I did, I would tell them that given Humanism’s teachings about our ethical mandates, if they’re refusing the vaccine they’re probably in the wrong community.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Congregation for Humanistic
Judaism of Metro Detroit
Birmingham Hills, MI

RENEWAL

In my congregation or in the classes I teach, I sometimes meet or talk to people who resist getting vaccinated. I ask them to help me understand their reasons. This allows me to ask questions respectfully: Whatever reason they give me, I usually say, “Wow. I hear you saying that you are concerned about [their reason],” look at them and wait for them to look back at me. Then I ask what they would say to someone who asked them about these issues, offering some sample questions. By asking the question this way, I am not challenging them directly but inviting them to think about their statements.

I also ask if they feel any connection or responsibility to the temple or the larger community—thus suggesting that that might be a reason to reconsider their stance. Then I might pose a hypothetical: Suppose two drunk drivers both run red lights, but only one of them hits a pedestrian in the road—are they both guilty of being reckless, and what is the difference, if any? The discussion may wander onto other similar examples, leaving them to ponder a number of things and perhaps find a way to reshape their decision.
Rabbi Shafir Lobb
Congregation Eitz Hayim
Port St. Lucie, FL 

RECONSTRUCTIONIST 

At our Shabbat services, we take time to share what we feel grateful for. Nine months ago, as our older members, and later all adults, became eligible for the vaccine, they excitedly and sometimes tearfully shared with the community how grateful they were. We have a very high vaccination rate in both the synagogue and the surrounding community. I believe this embrace of the vaccine is the expression of the Jewish value to “choose life,” as it says in Deuteronomy. This value is behind our requirement to provide proof of vaccination (for those eligible) in order to attend our services and programs. If someone who is eligible elects not to be vaccinated, they are welcome to join our services and programs via Zoom.
How would I deal with a member of the community who does not want to be vaccinated? That is their choice, as it is the community’s choice to require vaccinations for those present. For those who are hesitant and seek counsel, I would welcome conversation and listen closely to their concerns. I would offer help by being a respectful listener, by providing medical referrals or reliable sources of information when asked, and by sharing my understanding of the Jewish values that prioritize life, health and community.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA

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REFORM

One of my mantras when it comes to hot-button issues like vaccination is to get curious, not furious. Nobody is a villain in their own story, so shame and anger are ultimately unproductive strategies. Instead, it’s often more effective to use questions from a community organizing playbook: What keeps you up at night? And what gets you out of bed in the morning? Perhaps the fear of vaccination is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the medicine; perhaps it’s a perception that vaccines are an encroachment on freedom; perhaps it’s a feeling that the risk of vaccination is greater than the risk of COVID itself; perhaps it is primarily lack of access.

Different reasons for vaccine hesitancy require different strategies, and the best way to move the needle on vaccine acceptance is to understand both people’s fears and their hopes. We all want to be together in person, we all want a level of autonomy for our choices, and we all want to make the best decisions for ourselves, our families and our communities. Too often, we talk about people without talking to them. If we can build relationships first, we’re much more likely to be able to create a safe and healthy community for everyone.
Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman
Sinai and Synapses
New York, NY

CONSERVATIVE

Joshua ben Perahiah taught, “When you judge someone, tip the scale in his/her favor” (Pirkei Avot 1:6).

This teaching has been remarkably difficult for me to uphold in light of those who choose not to get vaccinated. Jewish teaching leans toward saving a life so strongly that it is very easy to justify the vaccine.

The “Torah” (teaching) of a recent podcast with journalist Bari Weiss reminded me to slow down and listen. Her guest, Dr. Vinay Prasad, an epidemiologist and a strong advocate of vaccines, suggested that shaming, blaming or censoring the unvaccinated is a losing strategy and that we would do better to realize that vaccine hesitancy is not about information or data. Its roots are generally sociological. Recognizing that we are living in a time where there is little room for discussion or nuance, Dr. Prasad urged us to listen to what vaccine-hesitant individuals are saying. He warned that demonizing the unvaccinated individual is counterproductive. He may as well have been quoting Joshua ben Perahiah.

While facts are not negotiable, it’s just as important for citizens to understand the variants of opinions and feelings as it is for scientists and doctors to understand the variants of the virus.
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk (Katz)
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

The central teaching of the Jewish religion is the preciousness—the infinite value—of human life. The central command of the Torah is “Choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). This means that in every action—eating, speaking, exercising, sleeping, interacting with people, working—we must act to maximize life and minimize death. Thus we are commanded to eat healthy, to exercise, to ensure safety in the workplace—and to override any or all of 610 of our 613 commandments, if necessary, to save a life.

This, I would say to those in my community, is why I urge you to get vaccinated. The murderous pandemic prowling the world has already killed more than 5 million people. Getting vaccinated is your ticket to saving your life from this scourge. In Israel, where I am writing, the vast majority of those who died from COVID were unvaccinated, as were the vast majority of those hospitalized with serious disease.

One of my mantras when it comes to hot-button issues like vaccination is to get curious, not furious.

To an observant Jew, I would add the following: “You would not eat pork or violate the Sabbath. Endangering your life is a far graver sin, as the Talmud puts it: ‘Putting oneself in danger is a far more grave violation than eating/doing the prohibited’” (Hullin 10a). To all, I would say: “In our Orthodox synagogue, we welcome observant and non-observant Jews equally; we do not invade privacy or shame any individual. However, COVID-19 is a danger to the lives of all people; therefore, we require proof of vaccination (or certificate of recovery) to enter.”

I would conclude this way: “I beg of you—if I were in your presence, I would fall to my knees—to protect your life and others’ lives. Please put aside your qualms and get inoculated. I love you as myself, and I would be heartbroken if you sicken or die. God, who desires life and loves God’s creatures—and I—beg you to vaccinate. Please join me in fulfilling the ultimate command of the Torah: Choose life.”
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the
Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY 

ORTHODOX

In the traditionally observant community, we have one tool that gives us a bit of an edge: halacha. Halacha is not a set of recommendations; it’s law. People can grumble, but if they buy into the system, they have to respect the law. And halacha has everything to say about which experts to listen to when authorities are divided, and about what to do when your personal decisions will put others in harm’s way, or create economic havoc, or put an entire community at risk. The vast majority of experts believe that the vaccine is safer than possibly coming down with COVID. Halacha as I understand it is totally unambiguous on this. There is a Torah viewpoint, and it points to getting vaccinated.

The tool of halacha would work perfectly if it were not for Humpty Dumpty, who famously said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” There always will be people in the community who will deconstruct language, even halachic language, and turn it into gobbledygook. They will escape even clear and unambiguous halachic conclusions; they’ll say, “No way, it’s my personal autonomy, the truth is being suppressed,” or whatever.

But many people listen to both sides and are confused about what to do. For them, halacha is a very strong tool and argument. If I can’t convince every conspiracy theorist, I can at least convince those in the middle to come to their senses.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

NEO-SEPHARDIC

My first step in talking to people who do not want to get vaccinated is trying to understand their perspective, rather than label them immediately as anti-vax. If they say they would like to get the vaccine but have a specific medical concern, I ask if they have consulted an expert. If they say that they do not need to consult anyone because they know what is best for them, I usually walk away, because someone capable of ignoring all the data and considering oneself an expert on matters one never studied would not listen to my voice or the voice of reason.

I personally believe that vaccination for COVID should be mandatory unless one has an official medical exemption. But until that happens, I cannot convince others to vaccinate against their will. The vaccine has become an ideological matter, and those against it for ideological reasons are entrenched in their position and unwilling to have a conversation. I actually had to turn down a rabbinic ordination applicant who wrote a “halachic” responsum against the vaccine, and a conversion candidate who wanted to convert but only on the condition that he would never have to vaccinate for COVID. Some of my congregants are not vaccinated for medical reasons, and they join the services, but if I had a congregant who would not vaccinate for ideological reasons, he would not be allowed to join services. If that congregant argued that I had no right to stop him, then I would leave the service.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD 

CHABAD

The way to encourage any positive behavior is not through rejection and shunning but through love and gentle guidance. Embrace the individuals, knowing that each is endowed by their Creator with a Divine spark. This acceptance transcends mistaken ideas and practices. With a dose of love and, occasionally, a bit of logic, most people will choose to do the right thing.
Rabbi Hershey Novack
Rohr Chabad House of Washington University
St. Louis, MO

Opening picture: Illustration composite made from Iwat1929

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One thought on “Ask the Rabbis | How Do You Deal With People in Your Community Who Don’t Want to Get Vaccinated?

  1. Cordova says:

    I totally agree with the rabbi ovadia, should be mandatory , I am sick and tired of the antiwax nut jobs ,totally ignorant of history of medical science ,,, in the 1800 hundred life expectancy was around 40 years, half of the children never reach puberty , they should be a ad for covi19 in television , start like this , , year 2021 in ambulance show up in a house of unvaccinated patient very sick with covi19 taking away to the hospital , as the ambulance arrive at the hospital the doors of the emergency room open ,,,,, and we are in 1850’s hospital there is nothing is in the hospital, a nurse with metal container of hot water and leeches , and doctor with a leather apron look at him a say ,,,,,you are here because you do not believe in science, we got nothing for you , there is not vaccine of any kind, no oxygen , ibuprofen? what is that? end ,,, hospitals was where people go to die very little chance that “cure” you of anything, there was very little effective medicine beyond alcohol, opium, and bloodsucker leeches, people should be reminder of that every single day ,how far humanity come , thanks to all the Nobel prices doctors that dedicate life to science and get insulted every day by ignorant people, should be monuments on every town dedicate to these doctors ,the scary part is that all the information is in google with few clicks, you not have to go to local library’s like few years back ,and still the number of ignorant and analfabetos keep growing ,I agree with the rabbi about Mandatory , what about if the virus covi19 mutate for the worst and people die in 3 days because these crazy unvaccinated people? mandatory now is the natural step

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