A prominent Modern Orthodox school in New York City will no longer accept religious exemptions to vaccination from its students.
Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy and High School, known as SAR, made the announcement last Thursday that affects its preschool through high school. More than 500 cases of measles have spread throughout the country this year in an outbreak linked to charedi Orthodox Jews.
The Jewish Center, a Manhattan Orthodox synagogue, announced last week that any child who enters its premises must be “in full compliance with the vaccination recommendations of the State of New York.” Congregation Beth Aaron, an Orthodox synagogue in Teaneck, N.J., has adopted the same policy, as has Young Israel of White Plains.
Parents may request a religious exemption by saying they have chosen not to vaccinate their children because vaccination violates their “genuine and sincere religious beliefs.” SAR’s two principals say that Jewish law obligates vaccination rather than prohibiting it.
“Based on the school’s understanding of [Jewish law], SAR will not recognize any claim of religious exemption from vaccination,” Binyamin Krauss and Tully Harcsztark, of the lower and high schools, respectively, wrote in a Thursday email to parents. They said the obligation to vaccinate stems from the biblical verse commanding Jews to “Be very careful about your lives.”
Krauss did not respond to an email and phone call requesting comment and an estimate of how many students are unvaccinated.
Joseph Aron, a Brooklyn attorney focusing on religious and constitutional issues, said that while New York state law allows for religious exemptions, private schools are not obligated to accept them. Schools also do not have to take on an “undue burden” to accept medical exemptions, which occur when a doctor says vaccines will hurt a child’s health, he said. SAR will still accept medical exemptions.
“There’s no obligation for a school to accept a religious exemption,” Aron said. “The school has total autonomy. The school doesn’t have to bend backwards and accept me if I have a medical reason to not get vaccinated.”
Meanwhile, last Thursday, a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by parents of unvaccinated children asking for the city’s mandatory vaccination order to be ruled unconstitutional.
Marc Stern, an expert on church-state law, praised the decision, though not the reasoning. “The judge is actually wrong about the fact that it matters that these people didn’t produce a clergyman or some expert” to back up their request for a religious exemption, but it’s settled law that a person’s declaration of religious belief, if sincere, does not need to be proved.
But, he said, the religious exemption applies to education law; it lets you send your child to school without being vaccinated. However, the city’s mandatory vaccination order was declared under public health regulations and it has been settled law for more than a century that in a public health emergency, health officials have the power to require people to be vaccinated.
“The educational [religious or medical] exemption applies only to your attendance in school; it doesn’t say you don’t have to be vaccinated,” said Stern who is general counsel at the global Jewish advocacy nonprofit AJC. “You can force people to be vaccinated.”
In addition, United Talmudical Academy’s preschool, which the city closed April 15, was allowed to reopen later that week; however, the city closed four other UTA schools for failing to provide all the immunization records to health officials, according to Gothamist. Closed were two UTA preschools and two schools for older children, UTA Beth Rachel and UTA Beth Rachel School for Girls, according to the city’s health department.
Ben Sales is a reporter for JTA and Amy Sara Clark is a Jewish Week staff writer.