Vaccination and Education

The frum community in Lakewood, where this author lives, as well as in the general tri-state area, recently underwent quite a difficult period wherein schools were forced to send home students who were unvaccinated. Sending home a student is never an easy decision, and if one adds the emotional aspects, the recriminations, the extreme discomfort – if not open threats – of dealing with certain parents, and the self-doubt (“Are we doing the right thing?”), this was a huge and in many ways unprecedented step that was taken.

Of course, the only way that such an extreme course could have been effected was because of the near-universal feeling of necessity, the fear for people’s very health, the fact that it was a concerted effort by virtually all the schools, and perhaps most of all that the schools had the complete backing of their rabbonim and community officials. Since all of these variables were in the mix, the community actually coalesced around what – if we are to be honest – was a brutal and most uncomfortable protocol.

Now this article is not going to touch at all on the pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine debate (if there even is any real “debate”). Our discussion is about the lessons we can take from the way the community dealt with a truly difficult issue. No one wants to send a child home from school, especially when the child, in almost every case, not only has nothing to do with what is happening, but is too young to truly understand why he is being singled out and sent away from school. No teacher or principal will tell you that it does not rip at one’s heart to see an innocent first-grade boy sitting terrified in his seat and later confiding to his rebbi that he heard his parents saying that because he didn’t get “shots,” he might be “thrown out” of school.

Yet, as a protection for all the other students, and even for the community at large, the schools did what was so difficult for them, as per the guidance of their rabbonim. So here we have a situation where, despite something surely being everyone’s least preferred path, the community did what – to the best of their conscience – was best for the klal (and perhaps even for those individuals who were sent away as well) in a mature way, under the clear guidance of rabbonim and responsible officials, making clear that though this is a path no one wanted, sometimes we must make those difficult decisions.

So where does that leave us?

Over the past ten, twenty, thirty years, we’ve seen many issues discussed regarding our schools and the various guidelines they set in place for the good of their entire student body. Now, just as we have not discussed the actual topic of vaccinations, so will we keep clear of discussion regarding any actual, specific guidelines. Suffice it to say that schools do have guidelines, each according to their stated goals, their hashkafos, their parent and student bodies, etc.

Some schools have rules regarding taking children out of school and where families may take them for vacations. There are rules covering birthday parties, bar and bas mitzvahs, dress codes, technology in and out of school, various behaviors in and out of school, and so on. Every school, according to their stated goals and the level of practical application, has their rules for the best of the entire student body.

Whether it’s a school that demands that mothers wear skirts when visiting and that children’s TV or internet hours be limited, or whether it’s a school that prohibits students from vacationing without a parent or chaperone and disallows any smartphone or internet access for any student, each school, for the best of their students and in accordance with their rabbonim’s directives, have – and must have – rules.

By the same token, teachers and staff must adhere as well to the same hashkafos demanded of the student body. If a school does not see to it that their own teachers live up to whatever ideals they teach, then everything taught in 8 or 12 years is virtually worthless. Children see more than they hear, and they learn from example more than from any textbook lesson.

What happens, though, when the rules are broken or ignored altogether? What message comes through clearly when “everyone knows” that this or that thing is technically not allowed, but “everyone does it” and no one ever enforces those rules?

Besides the fact that it is terrible chinuch, it is also extremely unhealthy for the entire student body. Assuming that each school’s rules were enacted with wisdom and with guidance from rabbonim as necessary for that school’s particular student body (and care must thus be taken that rules indeed pass that test), flouting those rules is not just wrong, but is also a very real and selfish threat to all the hard work, sweat, tears and toil that the tens or hundreds or thousands of other families in that school are investing in their children’s lives and education.

Surely, dealing with families or students who flout rules must be one of the most difficult and uncomfortable situations to be in. No doubt, it is far easier to let it ride, or to give a token protest so as to assuage our conscience. What our community has just displayed, however, is an amazing thing: We have what it takes, difficult as it may be, to do what must be done when we feel that it must be done.

The consequences, when it comes to rule-breaking, may not be sending kids home from school as it was for unvaccinated children. The point is that whatever consequence needs to be enforced can be enforced when we understand that what is at stake is the very health – whether physical, spiritual or emotional – of the rest of the student body.

Of course, just as was done by the vaccination saga, everything must be done with the approval of the school’s rabbonim (to ensure that the action taken is correct and that no personal feelings are mixed in) and with no negative feelings invoked. Still and all, one or two selfish families can hardly be allowed to expose thousands of children to spiritual harm, no less than we did not allow them to expose the same children to possible physical danger.

This is not an easy topic, and we must love all children, regardless of what kinds of families they come from. Each and every one of them deserves the best Jewish education we can give them. Then again, we love each innocent unvaccinated child just as much, and they deserve the best Jewish education no less. We do recognize, however, that, often due to no fault of the children or of our own, difficult steps must sometimes be taken.

I don’t recall hearing or reading anywhere from a respectable source during the vaccination hullabaloo any tasteless references to our children being subjected to a “selektsia” by being sent home from school. No one faulted the school administrations with a lack of ahavas Yisroel, with feelings of elitism or with being heartless. Even were we to blame the parents for refusing to vaccinate their children and for thus endangering all the others, the children are surely innocent and we should, indeed, cry for each one that is being hurt for no fault of his or her own.

We are in this world for seventy, eighty, maybe a hundred years or so. Our spiritual lives will remain with us for all eternity. Kol hamachti es ha’adam yoser min hahargo, one who brings others to spiritual downfall destroys them in this world as well as the next, while a murderer takes one’s life only in this world (Tanchuma, Pinchos, ch. 4). Again, the aim of this article is not to provide any specific guidelines, but rather to bring awareness to the topic. If we can ask rabbonim, follow their guidance, and virtually an entire community can get behind this when it comes to a child unwittingly placing others in physical danger, should we be less concerned where it comes to exposing them to eternal danger?

This is not a “pro-school” or “anti-school” article, and I am not discussing any particular situations, past or present. It goes without saying that preserving an “image,” a “name,” or differences that are completely superficial are almost surely not legitimate reasons to alienate or be any less accommodating of anyone. Quite often – if not most often – we must react with mercy despite truly valid reasons not to do so, and we should go above and beyond the strict application of “justice.” Isn’t that what we ask of Hashem all the time?

The point, though, is that there should at least be an awareness that just as we asked and followed the guidance of those we respect when it came to the recent vaccination situation, shouldn’t we ask and follow their same guidance when it comes to areas that can affect the lives of other students for all eternity?

We, the frum community, have shown ourselves able to rally around the cause of vaccines. Surely, we can rally around our own religion and beliefs as well.