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Fertile rumour about vaccines scares Orthodox

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(JTA) For much of the past year, the young mothers of Lakewood, New Jersey, have experienced the pandemic as much as a nuisance as a matter of life and death.

That’s not to say the community hasn’t experienced its share of outbreaks; it has. Or that families haven’t lost loved ones; they have. But to hear the young mothers of the large Orthodox community tell it, the crisis part of the pandemic had passed. And to watch the Instagram videos of the frequent indoor weddings held in the town, where few if any guests wear masks, the dark days of last March were nearly forgotten.

That has changed in recent weeks, as news of the death of a 37-year-old woman understood to be previously healthy swept through WhatsApp groups at the same time that misinformation took hold about the new coronavirus vaccines potentially threaten fertility. In a community where childbearing and mothering are marks of status among women, the two developments brought the pandemic’s seriousness home for many of the town’s young mothers.

Now, as physicians there and across the Orthodox world mount a campaign to convince women to get vaccinated when they’re eligible and be more careful if they’re not, some mothers in Lakewood are reconsidering their families’ approach to COVID-19 safety.

Lakewood, with a haredi Orthodox community that makes up more than half the town’s population of more than 100 000, is by far New Jersey’s most fertile town. In 2015, it recorded 45 live births per 1 000 residents – a rate more than four times the state average and among the highest in the world. So when rumours started circulating about the effect of the soon-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccines on fertility, locals were alarmed.

The rumours began right around the time New Jersey began offering vaccines, and they took root on Instagram and WhatsApp.

In one WhatsApp group organised by Orthodox Jews to discuss COVID-19, a woman said she had been thinking of moving to Israel, but was reconsidering after the mayor of the Israeli city of Lod said he would require parents to be vaccinated before their children could come to school.

In another group, women compared Israel’s recommendation that pregnant women get the vaccine to Nazi doctors’ torture of Jews. “Disgusting! They are really making experimentation on Jews!” one woman wrote.

Several shared information about a drug cocktail created by a Hasidic doctor, Vladimir Zelenko, that Donald Trump touted but was later found to be ineffective and even harmful in some cases. Someone else shared a video of Zelenko in which he said that young healthy people don’t need to get the vaccine. He suggested taking zinc to inhibit “viral replication” and said “in my medical opinion, no one needs the vaccine”.

In early January, Michal Weinstein, an Orthodox Instagram influencer who lives on Long Island and has more than 21 000 followers, posted an Instagram livestream of Dr Lawrence Palevsky, a paediatrician and well-known anti-vaxxer who spoke at a 2019 symposium of anti-vaccine activists that was attended by hundreds of haredi Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York. In the video, Palevsky suggested that the vaccines were a profit move by drug companies and that they could contribute to infertility.

Tova Herskovitz, a 30-year-old mother of four living in Tom’s River, New Jersey, a large Orthodox community neighbouring Lakewood, said many of her friends were confused about the vaccine.

“It’s scary to know that there are women who are saying whatever they want about this vaccine,” she said, noting that Instagram influencers popular in the Orthodox community have spread misinformation. “A lot of my friends follow these people.”

Dr Mark Kirschenbaum, a paediatrician with a practice in Borough Park and Williamsburg, both Hasidic communities where weddings and other social events resumed their pre-pandemic pace months ago, said he thinks about 20% of his patient families are “vaccine sceptical”. Most vaccinate their children for other diseases because of school requirements, but the COVID-19 vaccines are optional if you can get one at all.

To combat this, Orthodox healthcare professionals are turning their attention to building confidence in the new vaccines.

The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association, an organisation for Orthodox women doctors and medical students, has been debunking misinformation in a fact sheet and podcast that it produces. And a group of Orthodox Jewish nurses are hosting a weekly call to discuss the vaccines to take place on hotlines that are accessible to women who don’t use the internet for religious reasons.

Orthodox doctors said they’ve been getting dozens of phone calls about the safety of vaccines over the past two months, many with questions about whether the vaccines are safe for young women or women who are already pregnant.

“If somebody asks me, I absolutely recommend that they take it,” said Rabbi Dr Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island. “You’re dealing with a real risk of dying or having serious complications from COVID-19 versus a theoretical risk when there’s no real theoretical reason why it should be dangerous.

“There is zero evidence to suggest there’s any risk with infertility.”

Some cite changing guidance from health authorities as a cause of confusion.

The new coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna haven’t been tested on pregnant women, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) originally to advise that only pregnant women who were at high risk for complications from COVID-19 get vaccinated. But over time, consensus has emerged that pregnancy itself represents a risk factor, and the WHO has changed its advice, though it still doesn’t advise the vaccine for all pregnant women and recommends that women speak to their doctors. New Jersey includes pregnancy in a list of conditions entitling people to early vaccines. New York just added it as well.

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The great British botch-up of justice against Nazis

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Only one Nazi war criminal was ever tried and convicted in Britain. In fact, most Nazi war criminals and collaborators who hid in the United Kingdom (UK) were left alone by authorities and allowed to enjoy peace and safety for the rest of their lives.

That’s according to Phillip Rubenstein, who served as the director of the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group in the UK in the 1980s.

This organisation campaigned successfully to change the law to enable the prosecution of Nazi war criminals living in the UK. Rubenstein shared his experiences in a lecture delivered to the Lockdown University run by Wendy Fisher. The lecture was screened in South Africa through the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre.

Rubenstein reminded the audience that, after the war, the experience of the Holocaust was mostly shrouded in silence for decades afterwards, and little action was taken against perpetrators.

For example, between 1945 and 1985, there were seven requests for extradition of Nazi war criminals living in the UK, and none of them were honoured – the British government using technicalities as an excuse.

In the 1970s, interest in the Shoah began to increase, and “one of the manifestations was that Western governments started to wake up to the fact that they were harbouring Nazi war criminals usually unbeknown to them”.

In October 1986, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles compiled a list of 17 individuals which it claimed were Nazi war criminals living in the UK, and sent it to then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The government didn’t respond in the first few weeks, but the centre also contacted some members of parliament. A group of MPs from across party lines decided to form a group to “push, prod, ask questions, and find out what the British government proposed to do about the list”.

In the interim, the media got hold of the list through a separate leak, and began its own investigation, exposing the fact that there were Nazi criminals in the UK. Moreover, the Soviets also handed over another 34 names in this regard to the British government.

By now, media attention ensured there was a public outcry, but for weeks, the government still didn’t respond. “The issue had turned into a ‘hot potato’. No one wanted to deal with it, and it was being passed from pillar to post,” notes Rubenstein.

Eventually, it was given to then-Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, with whom the group immediately asked for a meeting.

“So, we sat down in front of him, and he said it was a case of good news/bad news. ‘We have looked at the list, and we have found that of the 17 individuals who are on here, six of them, we can confirm, are still alive and well and living in the UK,’ Hurd said. ‘The bad news is there is absolutely nothing that can be done because we don’t have any law which says that if you commit a crime – even murder, mass murder, or genocide – outside of this country before you were a UK subject, you can be prosecuted for it.’ That was how the meeting ended.”

The government then set up an independent inquiry, with Rubenstein quipping that the motivation seemed to be that “the inquiry takes so long to sit and pontificate and report that by the time it’s reported, everyone would have moved on”.

In the interim, Rubenstein’s group launched a research project led by historian David Cesarani to determine how Nazi criminals got to the UK in the first place.

The majority of the Nazi criminals found in the UK were Baltic nationals from Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, or from Poland or the Ukraine. Indeed, researchers discovered that they had been some of the estimated 30 000 local officials who had collaborated with the Nazis einsatzgruppen, the troops given the task of murdering mostly Jews, as well as Roma and dissidents once an army invasion was successful.

In 1944, when the tide began to turn in the war, many collaborators pretended to have been innocent civilians or part of the Polish Free Forces to be eligible as “displaced people”.

After the war, a “displaced person” would be able to get food and shelter on one condition: that they were not a Nazi war criminal or collaborator. Every army involved in bringing displaced people over was required to ensure this criterion was met. “Most of the armies applied poor perfunctory screening; probably the worst offenders were the British army which hardly screened anyone.”

The only time on record when anyone was refused by the British was when a group of seven Latvians, still in their Waffen-SS uniforms, applied.

In fact, recalled, Rubenstein, researchers came across one incident when a relief worker came upon 20 Baltic nationals in a displaced-persons camp who all had the same scar under their left armpit. “She discovered the reason why they all had that scar there was that they all had an SS tattoo there and they’d all had their tattoos removed. When she mentioned this to her superior officer, she was told to get on with it, shut up, and do her job.”

“Why were the British and others so uncaring about this issue?” mused Rubenstein.

There was some element of influence from the Cold War whereby anyone who was anti-Bolshevist was seen as welcome, but Britain’s attitude stemmed mostly from a much more practical place.

“As a result of the depletion of men during the war, there was a critical labour shortage.” The government was therefore carefully selecting displaced people based on who best could fill in this gap.

Jumping ahead to February 1989, the government’s war crimes inquiry then finally released its report. In its conclusions, it declared that following investigations, “to take no action would be to taint the United Kingdom with the slur of being a haven for Nazi war criminals”.

The report called for the prosecution of a number of the cases of alleged Nazi war criminals living in the UK, and for criminal law to be changed in order to do so.

However, the parliamentary process met some open antisemitism. It was only through the intervention of Thatcher that the Bill allowing such prosecution was eventually passed in 1991.

After this, a metropolitan police force specialist unit was set up. Over the next eight years, it investigated almost 400 suspects. In all that time, there was only one trial: that of Belorussian born, retired British Rail ticket collector Anthony Sawoniuk, who in 1999, was found guilty of the mass murder of Jews. Three months after his trial, the police unit closed down.

Rubenstein reflected on a comment that Labour MP Llin Golding made after being asked on a previous occasion if getting the Bill passed wasn’t a waste of time.

He quoted her response: “This Bill may not lead to a single prosecution of a single Nazi war criminal living here. But at least it might give them bitter fear that one day soon, someone will knock on their door and make them answer for the suffering they inflicted.”

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Birthday twinning project brings light to dark times

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They experienced unthinkable tragedy, but Bat-Galim Shaer and her husband Ofir continue to live with optimism and a desire to make the world a little brighter by connecting Jews from around the world.

Their son, Gil-ad, was one of the three Israeli boys kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014. Their organisation, Sonshine – Brightening the World in Their Memory, was founded to celebrate his life and legacy, and as a way to bring people across the world together in spite of so many divisions.

“When my son was kidnapped and murdered six and a half years ago, we felt a huge embrace from Jews around the world,” says Bat-Galim. “The inner strength that we found during the 18 days of searching for the boys, as a nation and as individuals, and the optimistic attitude that we chose [to have] after learning the boys’ fate, forced us to return to daily life and offer support to all Jews wherever it’s needed.”

Before the pandemic, Bat-Galim travelled around the world, realising the unity and connection she felt at the time of her family’s tragedy was something she found wherever she went. “It was meaningful. We realised that when we speak of am Yisrael, we are speaking of people that aren’t only in Israel, but Jews around the globe, whose hearts are here. We wanted to maintain that connection.”

Bat-Galim has a surprising South African link. She was born in Middleburg, Mpumalanga, where her father was the rabbi of the community for six years. The family returned to Israel when she was four, so her memories of South Africa are hazy. “But my parents loved that period of their lives, and they always told us lots of stories about the community, which was very meaningful for them,” she says.

Now, her organisation has launched a project that aims to increase this connection in a simple, light-hearted, and meaningful way by matching Jews who share a birthday, encouraging them to wish each other well on their special day, and continue their conversations throughout the year.

“There are about 14 million Jews in the world today, only half of whom live in Israel. In recent years, the bond between Israel and the Jews in the diaspora has been weakening. The coronavirus pandemic has increased the importance of the connection between us. Strengthening the bond between Israel and the Jews of the world is one of the significant challenges facing the Jewish people in the 21st century,” she says.

“The initiative, called Happy Birthday Two You, is one of those projects. It’s our hope that this global, digital initiative can bring about welcome change and create surprising connections. The idea came about when we launched a competition with 50 other organisations asking people to come up with ideas for projects that can strengthen the bond between Jews in Israel and the diaspora. There were about 700 entries, and this idea was thought of by someone in Canada, someone in America, and someone in Israel.”

They decided to go with it, and the results have been exciting. “It was launched on 3 January 2021, and we already have 1 600 people registered. With everyone sitting at home, people are really looking for connection.”

Taking part is easy. The website, mazeltov.world, is available in a variety of languages. You just enter your email address, followed by prompts to enter your name, surname, and date of birth. The system then scans its database for your “birthday buddy”, and you get an email introducing you to each other. Then it’s up to you to build your connection to this stranger who shares your Hebrew birth date. The email addresses are stored by the project and aren’t exposed to outsiders. If you wish to share your personal details, you can do so as part of a secure correspondence.

The more people who join, the more “birthday buddies” there will be, so it’s worth taking a minute to sign up and then see who you connect with and what you have in common.

Bat-Galim says that the time since the loss of her son has been “hard and complicated”.

“We try to get strength from our five amazing daughters, and we have one beautiful granddaughter who is three years old. We try to look at what we have with a “cup half full” [attitude]. We don’t ignore the pain, we feel it, and we miss Gil-ad. But we choose to live and be positive. And yes, I’ve ‘fallen down a lot’. You have to work at it. But a project like this makes me so happy.”

Happy Birthday Two You isn’t the only initiative by her organisation to bring a little brightness into the world. For example, just before Purim [before the pandemic], volunteers distribute mishloach manot to travellers leaving Ben Gurion Airport. They literally and symbolically spread joy in the world.

“Students from religious and secular schools enthusiastically work together preparing thousands of baskets. In the past two years, packages were delivered to more than 80 countries, reaching a total of several thousand people. Jews living abroad were excited to receive the gifts, and felt connected to Jews living in Israel,” says Bat-Galim.

Meanwhile, through the Sweet Heart project, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world mark Gil-ad’s Hebrew birthday, the 19th of Tevet (which usually falls in January), with one of his favourite hobbies: cooking and baking. People share recipes, prepare food, and bring treats to people they don’t know.

The Shaer family created the Facebook group Sweet Gilad and the Instagram account @sweetgilad, where anyone can upload and view video clips from this project. It has led to religious and secular youngsters working together to deliver delicacies to nursing homes; families bringing food to soldiers; and students baking and bringing confectionaries to hospitals to cheer up patients.

“This project has a tremendous number of participants in Israel and abroad. Especially on Gil-ad’s birthday we choose to increase optimism and joy for what we have and to help others.”

Prior to the pandemic, a musical event called Shiru Achim featured performances by professional musicians from across the religious spectrum. “It emphasises what unites us rather than what divides us and encourages hope through a genuine connection with music,” says Bat-Galim. The first event had more than 5 000 participants.

There are a number of other initiatives that spread joy, love, and light in simple but meaningful ways. Bat-Galim has also written a book which has just been released in English on Amazon, called Expecting My Child. “It’s a hard story, but also optimistic. It’s about the good deeds of am Yisrael during those tough days. It makes me feel proud to be a Jew,” she says.

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SA company switches to Canadian hechsher

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A South African health-food company opened the door to getting a hechsher from international kosher certifiers when it adopted the Canadian Kosher Certifier (known as MK) recently. This decision appears to be unprecedented in the South African market, and raises questions about the impact on the United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS’s) Beth Din.

The news was announced in a number of marketing videos made by MK and shared on social media by The Chocolate Tree and Nu Tree. In the first video, a man with a South African accent says, “Kosher certification is a big advantage in the competitive industry. That little symbol [pointing to the MK sign] is a seal of quality, guaranteeing that your product meets the highest standard. MK has been a world leader in kosher certification for over 75 years and now we’re in South Africa. We recently certified The Chocolate Tree and Nu Tree, leading South African health-food manufacturers that have been synonymous with quality food for decades. Join the movement, get the seal.”

A second video welcomes the company, and encourages consumers to “look out for MK, the mark of trust”, and “MK – kosher for Passover” on its packaging.

Moshe Amoils, the owner of The Chocolate Tree and Nu Tree, said that even before the uproar last year over the UOS’s Beth Din kosher department’s fees and communication issues, he was thinking of seeking out a hechsher abroad.

“A few local companies were chatting about how unhappy we were about the Beth Din’s service delivery, pricing structure, the lack of justification for fee increases, and the way we were being treated. A couple of us started looking overseas because even by that stage, we were already gatvol.”

After things came to a head and Amoils went on air to describe his experience, he began to seek out an overseas hechsher more seriously. He heard that another local manufacturer had succeeded with MK, and he decided to reach out to it, getting a speedy response from executive director Rabbi Saul Emanuel. It was a coincidence that Emanuel happens to be ex-South African, which Amoils only realised after they connected.

Amoils said that from the beginning of going with MK, “the service has been unbelievable, the technology superb. I’ve listed 125 products in two weeks. With the Beth Din, it would have taken two weeks to list one product, although I know their processes have since improved. MK is a different machine. It couldn’t be more co-operative and happy to assist.” Even with the time difference, Amoils said he received prompt answers to questions. “For example, Rabbi Emanuel will call me as he’s getting ready for shul at 06:00.”

Furthermore, he said, he is paying two-thirds of what he paid the Beth Din. “It’s cheaper to get an overseas hechsher than from the people just down the road.” His Pesach fees are 50% cheaper, and annual fee inflation is set at 5% to 7%, a far cry from the volatile increases he said he faced with the UOS.

Amoils said the Beth Din tried to engage with him, and there was discussion of a dual hechsher. The Beth Din allegedly wouldn’t accept being the secondary hechsher, so Amoils agreed to make both hechsharim equal (on the packaging) in the spirit of community unity. However he couldn’t pay full fees to both, so he offered to pay a smaller fee to the Beth Din as it wasn’t the primary certifier. Amoils claims the Beth Din refused this offer. “It’s not about community unity. It’s really all about money,” he said.

He said an overseas hechsher was nothing new in the kosher world. Many companies manufacture products in countries that don’t have a kosher office, and inspectors from overseas certifiers visit their facilities to certify products. The same will happen here. “Essentially, it’s the same concept as the UOS.”

Amoils said the MK hechsher was known by the community here, and if a product was on the shelves of KosherWorld, people didn’t question it. He has spread the word on social media, and believes it won’t take long for it to be just another trusted hechsher.

He said the videos MK released were all funded by MK and were done free of charge as a way to welcome and promote new products. MK is also assisting Amoils with investigating export opportunities in North America. “Making the decision has made a huge difference to my stress levels and mental well-being,” he said.

Emanuel told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked for the kashrut department of the Beth Din for 10 years prior to moving to Canada. Speaking in a strong South African accent, he said “this request came from South Africa. We got an email one afternoon [from Amoils]. We got back to him right away, and soon after that we did the certification.”

He said MK would gladly co-certify kosher products with the UOS Beth Din.

Having options when it comes to kosher certifiers is the norm overseas, creating a “healthy” environment, Emanuel said. “Companies make the decision based on quality, price, and service.” MK has “very experienced representatives in South Africa” to monitor the kashrut of its certified products, and it can certify products “anywhere”.

“Kashrut is all about reliability,” he said. “We go where people ask us to go. We aren’t going out there to companies and offering our services, but we will be glad to assist them if they request it.” The organisation’s goal is to “help companies all over the world get kosher certified in many different markets”.

Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of the kosher department of the UOS, said, “We are aware of The Chocolate Tree being certified by MK, however we cannot comment on MK or any other potential competition. We have had limited dealings with them, but understand that they are one of several kashrut authorities in Canada.

“We are an internationally recognised hechsher that works with the best in the world, like the OU [Orthodox Union], and have been serving the South African Jewish community for decades,” Goldstein said. “Being local experts, with representatives visiting factories thousands of times each year, we provide the highest standards of kashrus with the most sustainable option for companies in Southern Africa. We have certified more than 150 new companies kosher in the past three years, and will continue to bring many more kosher products to the community.

“The kosher department of the UOS remains dedicated to delivering on our vision of more people eating more kosher more often.”

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