(RNS) — A group of Orthodox rabbis in New York and Baltimore has released a series of direct and passionate black-and-white public service announcements encouraging Jews to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
“We in the community have to realize that if 99% of doctors say to take the shot, you take the shot. What are we, playing games?” says Rabbi Yaakov Bender, in a two-minute video sprinkled with Yiddish and Hebrew.
The PSAs, which will be rolled out over the month, come days before the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, that begins Sept. 6. While many synagogues are resorting to online services as a result of the widespread delta variant of the coronavirus, most, if not all, Orthodox congregations will be attending services in person.
Developed by Kolrom, a professional video production company in Baltimore, the ads take on the false notion that vaccines can adversely impact fertility — a widespread concern among some Orthodox Jews who are encouraged by their leaders to have large families.
“We see no evidence of any kind of negative outcome for fertility and no evidence of increased risk to women of childbearing years,” Rabbi Shalom Axelrod of the Young Israel of Woodmere, New York, says in one ad.
Jewish Americans overall are the most likely U.S. religious group to have received a vaccine, according to a June Public Religion Research Institute survey. The PRRI survey indicated that 85% of Jews accept the vaccine, 8% are hesitant and 7% are “refusers.”
But vaccine hesitancy is far higher among some Orthodox and, particularly, Haredi Jews, the ones commonly distinguished by men in hats, beards and long black suits.
“Unvaccinated people die!” says a rabbi in one video.
“They die,” chimes in another.
The region of Far Rockaway in Queens County, New York, has a large Orthodox Jewish community of about 10,000 people. It also has one of the lowest vaccine rates in the state.
“The pandemic is not over and the delta variant has exposed the incredible vulnerability of the unvaccinated to serious illness and to continuing the circulation of the virus,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the United States, which supported the video campaigns.
Hauer said most Orthodox rabbis strongly support vaccines, though among the rank and file there remain pockets of skepticism.
Reform and Conservative synagogues across the country have scaled back in-person services for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with many canceling them altogether in favor of online services, due to the surge of delta variant cases. The two holidays are the holiest in the Jewish calendar and the period during which many synagogues often receive a significant portion of their donations, membership renewals and other income.
By contrast, Orthodox synagogues will conduct in-person services. Some rabbis have rented large halls so participants can distance from one another; others have erected outdoor tents.
“Travel and celebrate the Yamim Noraim responsibly,” said one rabbi in a PSA referring to the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. “Get vaccinated now.”