When West Hempstead author Ann D. Koffsky checked her Amazon rankings, she noticed the rating for her most recent book had dropped to one-star overnight.
“This book is filled with lies,” claimed one review.
“Very upsetting,” said another.
“Utter propaganda,” began a third.
Soon the “review war,” as Koffsky called it, spilled over onto her personal Facebook page.
The target of this rage is a children’s picture book, Koffsky’s latest — she’s written more than 30 books for children — published just in time for Chanukah.
“Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor: A Story for Hanukkah” is about a young boy named Judah who — spoiler alert! — goes to the doctor. With cheerful illustrations by Talitha Shipman, Koffsky’s story follows Judah as he learns to channel the bravery of his Maccabee namesake and get a scary booster shot, thus protecting his little sister, Hannah, who is too young to be vaccinated.
The rage directed at Koffsky’s book has come from the anti-vaxxer movement — an impassioned, small but growing group that believes vaccinations pose dangerous risks, such as a long-discredited link to autism.
“Your book is a brainwashing story by a mental author,” one commenter wrote on Koffsky’s Instagram account. “You’ll be held responsible for all the damages these vaccines caused to innocent children as a result of your book.”
What upsets Koffsky, and what prompted her to write the book, is how some parents use Judaism to justify their stance against immunization. The idea came to her early last year, when she became aware that some Jewish day school parents were opting out of vaccinations on religious grounds.
“It’s one thing to say you don’t want to vaccinate your kids because you have insane beliefs,” said Koffsky, a mother of three. “But to say ‘and I believe this way because of the Torah’ just drove me crazy. I was really angry because I felt it was such a distortion of Jewish values.”
When a measles outbreak affected Borough Park and Williamsburg in 2013 — after those neighborhoods saw noticeable declines in the rate of vaccinations — Orthodox rabbis issued rulings requiring vaccinations.
Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, M.D., assistant rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere, told his congregation at the time that “it’s a mitzvah of get vaccinated.”
He then added, in an interview with The Jewish Star, that to refrain from getting inoculated is “not religiously motivated. It’s mishigaas.”
“No poskim forbid vaccination, and to state one has religious objections is sheker,” Rabbi Glatt said. “The last paragraphs of Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat describe the importance of protecting one’s self from harmful conditions or situations, and the halachic obligation to do so. The vast majority of poskim strongly urge or require vaccinations.”
The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America called on Jewish parents to vaccinate their children according to the timetable recommended by their pediatricians, as has the haredi Agudas Harabonim of the United States and Canada.
“Halachically, a person is obligated to follow the doctor’s opinion, especially in matters pertaining to vaccines and other forms of medicine which prevent illnesses and death,” wrote Rabbi Sholom Shuchat, a deciser for Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis worldwide, adding that in the Torah, “when someone does an action which can cause death, or even refuses to do an action which can prevent death, he is compared to a murderer.”
Dr. Akiva Turner, an ordained Orthodox rabbi who researches religion and health, is director of a doctoral program in health science, and was formerly communicable disease director for the Broward County Health Department, said that while people often separate science from religion, major rabbinical authorities have relied on medical science when making their rulings.
The safety and effectiveness of childhood vaccines is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the overwhelming majority of medical professionals based on dozens of studies involving millions of children.
“If they’re asking for an exemption [on religious grounds] — I don’t know any other way to put it, they are erring on the science that’s being used by these rabbinic authorities, who all say that you should get your child vaccinated,” Turner said.
Koffsky said that she does not expect her book to change the minds of hardened anti-vaxxers. Rather, she hopes to reassure parents who are vaccinating.
“It’s just a picture book,” she said, “but I want to make them feel good about their choice and communicate that to their kids.”
The kerfuffle has brought the book to readers beyond the Jewish community. A handful of pro-vaccine and science-focused websites have weighed in. A reviewer who blogs as The Vaccine Mom praised “Judah Maccabee Goes to the Doctor” as a needed addition to family dialogue and wrote that her young daughter “thought the Chanukah story was very interesting. We learned something new!”
Koffsky added that she is proud that the message of the book has reached a wider audience than expected.
“It feels like kiddush Hashem,” she said. “These are Jewish values, and these are universal values, and it feels good to be part of that conversation.”