Israel's ultra-Orthodox are slow to take shots after being hard-hit by COVID

BNEI BRAK (Israel) -- Yossi Leviy has cancelled and booked multiple times his coronavirus vaccination appointment. The ultra-Orthodox Jew, 45, and his eight children and his wife have both recovered from the virus. He was unable to get inoculated because of a combination procrastination and lethargy.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox are slow to take shots after being hard-hit by COVID

It isn't urgent. It's not something I oppose. He said that it was just laziness.

Levy is one of the many thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews still to get their COVID-19 shots. Despite being severely affected by the pandemic, the group has one of the lowest vaccination rates.

Officials are trying to increase vaccination rates for the coronavirus variant Omicron in an area that has been slow to get vaccinated.

Avraham Rubinstein is the mayor of Bnei Brak. It is the country's most ultra-Orthodox capital.

One year has passed since COVID-19 vaccines were made available. Yet, vaccine reluctance persists despite the increasing number of deaths and spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. Unusual people have stepped in to encourage vaccination, a move that was previously the domain of public health officials.

Israeli officials appealed for vaccination to be promoted to the community's prominent Rabbis, who are arbiters in all matters. They have begun to deploy mobile clinics. They are repressing lies about the vaccine spreading through the community.

Because half of ultra-Orthodox are under 16 years old, and were only recently eligible for vaccination, the vaccination rate is very low. Many ultra-Orthodox believe that they are already infected and do not need the vaccine.

This outreach effort has not been a success. Officials are hoping to increase the vaccination rate through a new mobile clinic campaign at religious schools, and a media blitz that increases pressure on parents to vaccinate their children.

Israel was among the first countries to administer booster shots and vaccinate its citizens late last year. The campaign has slowed in recent weeks, and many thousands remain unvaccinated, or without boosters as the threat of an omicron wave looms.

The general population has a vaccination rate of 63%, while the booster is at 45%. However, the rates in the ultra-Orthodox community are around half that. The community's immunity increases slightly when 300,000 of the people who have recovered are included. However, Israel's Health Ministry recommends that anyone infected get at least one shot after six months.

The community's high vaccination rate is in stark contrast with the huge cost it paid during the pandemic. Ultra-Orthodox were hard hit from the beginning, with their 1.2 million members often leading the country's morbidity rate and hundreds of people dying due to the disease. Israel's ultra-Orthodox population makes up 13%.

The rapid spread of a community is due to societal factors. Ultra-Orthodox live in densely populated areas with large families and small apartments. This is where illness can quickly spread. The center of social life, synagogues bring men together to pray in small spaces and socialize.

Health officials have faced unique challenges in driving up vaccination rates due to the unusual way that ultra-Orthodox people live, also called Haredim.

Cloistered communities have been separated from the rest of Israeli society for a long time. Children are taught scripture, but little math and English. The community is known to avoid the internet and doesn't watch secular television. It also tends not to be a part of non-religious Israelis. It is skeptical of modernity's secular state authorities.

"Haredim have a double fear: fear for the state and fear for science. Gilad Malach is the head of the ultra-Orthodox program in the Israel Democracy Institute. This Jerusalem think tank has no trust in these entities. He stated that the spread of unfounded vaccine claims in the community has been due to skepticism.

Avi Blumenthal is an advisor to the Health Ministry regarding the ultra-Orthodox. He said that vaccine information is distributed to the ultra Orthodox public through local media, as well as biweekly messages on community notice boards known as "pashkevils," which are posted to these notice boards.

Ultra-Orthodox adhere to a strict Judaism interpretation and rely on rabbis for guidance in all aspects of their lives. Some rabbis actively encourage vaccination. Others have taken a more relaxed approach and have had less enthusiasm about inoculating their followers.

Blumenthal, himself ultra-Orthodox in his beliefs, stated that the Health Ministry held a conference at the country’s largest hospital recently inviting prominent rabbis and doctors to discuss the importance of the vaccine. Important religious leaders have met repeatedly with the head of the government’s coronavirus advisory board to urge them to spread the word about vaccines.

Dvora Ber (27), a Bnei Brak resident, and mother to four children who has been vaccinated, said that "We follow the Jewish sages." "What they tell you, we do."

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