Should we know where the unvaccinated live?


Shouldn’t we know where they live?

California’s measles outbreak has touched off a debate about how to reduce the number of parents who choose—in defiance of all credible public health information—not to vaccinate their children. So far, the debate has focused on tightening California laws that make it easy for parents to obtain exemptions from school vaccination requirements. Newly introduced state legislation would eliminate the “Personal Belief Exemption” that thousands of anti-vaccine parents have used.

I’d be more than happy to see this proposal become law. But the politics of reducing parental choice are fraught, and there are limits to the law’s ability to compel good parenting. There’s also a hard cultural fact: few things are more fundamentally Californian than the freedom to believe whatever pseudo-religious or pseudo-scientific nonsense you choose. So, one way or another, it’s likely that parents will still find ways to avoid vaccinating their children, despite the risks to both their own kids and their communities. 

A tougher, smarter way of dealing with anti-vaccine parents would be to target not their choice—but the secrecy that surrounds that choice.

Under today’s privacy laws, public schools and health authorities must protect the identity of parents who choose not to vaccinate. That’s wrong for many reasons. First, the secrecy effectively forces public employees, whose first duty should be to the public safety, to be enablers of those who threaten that safety. Second, parents who endanger the community’s health don’t deserve official protection. And third, the confidentiality of such exemptions makes it harder for those families who vaccinate their children to protect themselves.

People deserve privacy in their private spheres. But a parent who won’t vaccinate is not making a private health decision: She is making a public health decision that profoundly affects others.

So let’s treat the exemption she obtains as the public act it is. Every single exemption request should be reviewed in a public meeting and approved by a public body (like a city council or school board). And if the exemption is approved, basic information—the parent’s name, address, and the vaccinations declined—should be available on the Internet via a publicly maintained registry.

The virtues of disclosure are clear. Having your family’s name published as a potential hazard to public health would be a strong disincentive to obtaining an exemption for all but the most committed (i.e., delusional) anti-vaxxers. And the rest of us would be able to identify our unvaccinated neighbors, and our children’s unvaccinated schoolmates. This would be especially helpful to pregnant women and the parents and caregivers of children who are either too young to be vaccinated (the first measles mumps rubella vaccine isn’t given until after a baby’s first birthday) or have serious diseases like cancer (as in the case of the Marin County six year old recovering from leukemia) that compromise immune systems and preclude vaccination.

In effect, the question of how to handle unvaccinated children and their parents would move from the realm of school administrators to the community at large. And the community level is where the question is best addressed, since we encounter the unvaccinated not only at school but also in parks, churches, and stores.

There is some risk of community and personal conflict in this shift, to be sure, and anti-harassment laws would have to be strictly enforced. But there would also be potential for the kind of conversations necessary to change minds and get more children vaccinated.

Those who have studied the question of how to convince people to vaccinate report that the voices of distant authorities—public health departments, governors, even President Obama—aren’t particularly effective, given deep public distrust of institutions. People you know—neighbors, friends, co-workers—make better emissaries to the unvaccinated. But you can only be an emissary to unvaccinated neighbors or friends if you know they are unvaccinated.

The recent legislation acknowledges this need for conversation with a proposed requirement that all parents be notified of the vaccination rates at their kids’ schools. But that doesn’t go far enough. Indeed, it might create additional anxiety by instigating guessing games and speculation, without triggering the desirable peer pressure of true disclosure.

Some committed opponents of vaccines may howl about their identities being made public or about the exposure of their children, but such objections are easily turned back against them. If you believe you have the absolute power to make whatever decision you want for your children, why would you deny me the right to do the same, including the right to decide whether my children should be going on play dates to the homes of people who have recklessly opted out of modernity?

That response may sound harsh and insufficiently sensitive to privacy. But for better and for worse, it fits the obligations of 21st century childrearing. As a parent myself, I’m repeatedly reminded—by doctors, nurses, public officials, schools, and the dozens of legal waivers that daily life requires me to sign—that I am required to know everything I can about my kids. I’m supposed to know where they are at all times, and to monitor every minute of exercise and each spoonful of sugar. I’m supposed to find out everything I can about the kids they hang out with, and I’m supposed to monitor all their online movements. It’s no coincidence that most successful public service announcement series in America, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is NBC’s “The More You Know.”

There are other good ideas out there for putting pressure on parents who don’t vaccinate. You could hand out stickers or buttons to all vaccinated schoolchildren—creating a social pressure on those who don’t. Laws could permit insurers to raise the premiums of those who don’t vaccinate (right now, insurers can only set rates based on age, geography and tobacco use). A new tort could be created to permit people who incur medical and other costs because of an outbreak to sue and recover damages from the unvaccinated. I particularly like a proposal from Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings, to charge a significant fee for vaccine exemptions to cover the costs of an outbreak.

This issue is personal. My own children are still little, and it will be a few more years before all three are old enough to have had all their vaccinations. Media outlets have recently compiled data on the number of vaccination exemptions in California schools, and it bothers me that, of the 95 kids who attend kindergarten with my oldest son at our local public school, three are unvaccinated because their parents have obtained Personal Belief Exemptions.

I should have the right to know who those families are. And I look forward to the day when I can engage them in a conversation about what our families owe each other.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

L.A. Rabbis seeking to reassure mikveh users of facilities’ privacy


In the wake of a scandal in which a Washington, D.C., Modern Orthodox rabbi was arrested for allegedly spying on women undressing before immersing in a mikveh connected to his synagogue, Los Angeles-area rabbis are calling the situation a “unique case” and taking steps to put the users of local ritual bathhouses at ease. In Los Angeles, Rabbi Richard A. Flom, an authority on the mikveh and a member of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly executive committee, said the mikveh at American Jewish University (AJU) is secure enough that people who use it for conversion, monthly rituals of cleansing, and personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important occasions need not worry about someone illicitly watching them while they undress and immerse themselves in the pool. 

“We don’t want anyone to be turned off from utilizing [the AJU mikveh] or any other mikveh because of these allegations. It’s probably a unique case that this story is about. At least, I hope so,” Flom said during a phone interview on Oct. 15. “We don’t think anything like that could happen here, because we have multiple supervisors here checking everything.” 

Rabbi Barry Freundel, 62, leader of the Modern Orthodox Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., was arrested on Oct. 14. He has denied allegations, filed a day later, that he video-recorded at least six women showering at his synagogue’s mikveh. Freundel pleaded not guilty to six counts of voyeurism, a misdemeanor, and was released without bond. Freundel “allegedly placed a hidden camera and recorder … inside … the changing-preparation area,” according to the website Failed Messiah, which reported that the rabbi allegedly hid the recording device inside a digital clock. 

During an emergency meeting convened on Shemini Atzeret, Oct. 15, one day after the rabbi’s arrest, Freundel was quickly suspended by the Rabbinic Council of America (RCA), where he had served on the executive committee. “If he is found guilty, this is a terrible, despicable act, and he needs real help,” Rabbi Elazar Muskin, national vice president of the RCA and spiritual leader of Young Israel of Century City, told the Journal during a phone interview. 

On Oct. 20, the RCA announced that it would uphold conversions performed by Freundel prior to his arrest, announcing that the Beth Din of America had concluded that the conversions remain “halachically valid” and “prior converts remain Jewish in all respects.” In Israel, the Chief Rabbinate also said on Oct. 21 that it would continue to recognize all past conversions performed by Freundel. 

Kesher Israel Congregation has posted a statement on its website that strongly denounces Freundel’s behavior. “This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the statement from the synagogue’s board of directors reads. 

Flom said mikvaot are a place where women and men willingly undress fully, under the assumption that no one is watching, and he described Freundel’s alleged actions as “unfortunate.” Flom did not want to speak further about Freundel out of respect for lashon harah, Jewish gossip laws. 

Still, he said, “I have to tell you, in all honesty, I suspect there have been questions about this kind of thing for decades in regard to mikvaot. The utilization of it is a private and personal experience, and people are vulnerable when they do it.” 

The mikveh at AJU is one of several in Los Angeles. Others include the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard and Chabad of Brentwood’s mikveh for women. The facilities, generally speaking, serve women following their menstrual periods; male and female converts; and others. 

In the wake of last week’s news-making arrest, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, leader of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation in L.A., as well as leaders of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, have engaged in talks about delivering a message to the community that would reinforce that the mikveh is a safe space, despite what has taken place on the East Coast. 

Kanefsky, whose congregation includes members who use the mikveh at the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, denounced Freundel’s actions, saying, “This was simply the same kind of abuse of power and surrender to the most base tendencies that we see in religious figures, in political figures, in all kinds of situations.” 

Kanefsky also urged those following the aftermath of Freundel’s arrest to focus less on the rabbi and more on his alleged victims. 

Women comprise the entire staff at the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, a “community mikveh,” and thus does not belong to any synagogue, Vivian Lurie, president of the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles, said during a phone interview on Oct. 20. 

“We are scheduled to have a meeting this  week with the area rabbis to decide what kind of reassurances we can give to the community,” Lurie said. “We happen to be having a scholar in the field coming in a few weeks, and it will probably be incorporated into the seminars that will be available. 

“The whole concept of using the mikveh is in and of itself a privacy one. That’s why the story is so shocking and undermining. The whole concept is you do this mitzvah completely in privacy and it’s not anybody’s business. That’s why the intrusive nature of this breach is so upsetting,” she said. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, who leads the Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, believes more needs to be done to safeguard the privacy of converts. The rabbi published a blog, headlined “Rabbis, Scandal, Voyeurism — and Protecting Converts to Judaism From Abuse,” Oct. 16 in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. 

“Clearly we are not doing enough to prevent oppression and demonstrate our love towards converts. That needs to change immediately,” Fink wrote. 

Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, spiritual leader of the Pico Shul, a traditional community that draws large numbers of young professionals to its weekly Saturday morning services, denounced Freundel’s alleged actions. The Los Angeles Orthodox rabbi described the mikveh as “a sacred place where women and those entering for conversion should feel very safe and protected. To have that sacred space violated is not just a criminal misdemeanor, it is a crime against Judaism’s most important communal institution.” 

The mikveh is such an important part of Jewish tradition that Jewish law requires a Jewish community to build a mikveh even before it builds a school or a synagogue. “In the eyes of Jewish law, a group of Jewish families living together do not attain the status of a community if they do not have a communal mikveh,” Chabad. org states. 

“The mikveh,” Kanefsky said, “is the lynchpin of marital intimacy within the Orthodox community, and because marital intimacy is sacred and holy, therefore the mikveh is holy.” 

The meeting between Mikvah Society of Los Angeles leaders and several Los Angeles Modern Orthodox rabbis, including Muskin, Kanefsky and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation, was scheduled to take  place on Oct. 22, after this newspaper’s press time.

The death of your privacy


Israeli security inspects some Arab visitors email accounts


Israel has begun inspecting emails of some Arab visitors and expelling those visitors who are deemed a threat to the country.

Israel airport security officials are asking these visitors to log on to their email accounts so officials may conduct a security search for any incriminating activities, according to The Associated Press.

The inspections have targeted Arab visitors in an effort to root out any individuals with histories of pro-Palestinian activism.

At least three Arab-American women have been expelled in recent weeks after their email accounts were searched, according to the AP.

The report indicates that Israel has become stricter in its security policies following clashes with international activists who continue to attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel has used social media to identify and prevent activists from boarding flights to Israel.

Mezuzah Mouse


The beginning of the new school year radically increases the frequency of beeps, clicks, buzzes, rings and stutter dials in my home. My stack of unreturned phone calls is beginning to teeter. Reflecting on these mixed blessings, I am reminded of an incident from way back in the pre-history of July.

I was in a dressing room at the mall when my cell phone rang. The caller was a staff member at my daughter’s camp. She sounded a little breathless.

“Notanemergency.” I recognized the standard school and camp greeting. “Emma is fine, but USA Today is doing an article about camp in tomorrow’s edition, and they want to use a picture of her. We’ll need your permission … right now.” I had to think fast. In my underwear.

For two seconds I wondered how USA Today got this picture of Emma. Then I realized it was easy. Emma’s camp, as well as 600 others throughout the country, subscribes to a service that posts and sells pictures of the campers on the Web (updated daily and accessible to parents only). They also invite parents to send daily e-mail to the campers and to “click here” to send a care package of little gifts. Young Emma could now be launched from her tent, by a lake, in the Sierras, to a million readers in one click of a mouse. I appreciated the allure of having an all-access pass to Emma’s life, but I was not prepared for everyone else to have one too.

Our electronically assisted lives are undeniably bountiful. I cherish my ability to e-mail my brother-in-law in Indianapolis, to access a bibliography on pastoral counseling, to peruse the Web sites of far-flung vacation spots. The late Lubovitcher Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said, “Do not fear technology, it will knit the world together.” Some of this connectedness benefits family life directly. In our sprawling city, I appreciate my cell phone link to the babysitter, to older children home alone and teenagers on the town. But does my child benefit from a daily e-mail or a care package when she’s only gone for two weeks? If I don’t send her one but all the other parents do, will she feel neglected? How much access is too much?

A few weeks earlier, I had the pleasure of lecturing at the Whizin Institute for Family Education at the University of Judaism. Shellie Dickstein, Jewish family educator extraordinaire, was in town from New York, facilitating a session for early childhood specialists. She provided the participants with an article by psychologist David Elkind, best known as the author of “The Hurried Child.” Elkind writes about the shift from the protected and protective nuclear family to today’s “permeable” family. He explains that boundaries between home and the outside world, between public and private, between family and work have become more open and flexible. The Internet, cell phones and faxes fling the doors of our homes open wide. Dickstein suggested, only half-joking, that parents consider putting a mezuzah on their computers. “These are our doorposts, our portals. This is where influences for evil or good stream into our lives.”

All this connectedness is of value to ourfamilies only if we can tame it and teach our children to do the same. The e-portals that make our lives permeable are powerful tools, but we still have to do the thinking. Too much accessibility is like leaving the doors and windows open all the time. They can’t shut themselves; we have to do it. When we allow ourselves to become addicted to a nightly e-fix of camp photos; when we send our kids daily e-mail and care packages, we have become too connected. We may insulate them a bit from homesickness and satisfy our urge to make sure they’re happy, but it comes at a price. For children, camp is supposed to be a place where appearances don’t matter, where the outside world can’t touch you, and where parents can’t protect or pry. Parents whose children go away to camp ought to be able to get a real break from them, as well as some practice in letting go. E-access 24 hours a day diminishes the experience on both sides.

I gave USA Today permission to print Emma’s photo, “if you don’t use her name, and she’s not in a bathing suit.” I then checked their Web site every day, searching for my sporting, windswept cover girl. Three weeks later they ran the article without the photo. Part of me was disappointed, another part relieved. For the time being, this window into Emma’s life was still reserved for my eyes only. As the New Year approaches, we have the opportunity to take time to reflect on just how permeable we want our lives to be. I’m considering a mezuzah for my mouse — and maybe one for my cell phone, too.

+