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How Israel Persuaded Reluctant Ultra-Orthodox Jews To Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19

Editor's note: The fight against disinformation has become a facet of nearly every story NPR international correspondents cover, from vaccine hesitancy to authoritarian governments spreading lies. This and other stories by NPR correspondents around the globe try to tease out how effective certain tactics have been at combating disinformation, and what lessons can be learned from other countries' experiences.

BNEI BRAK, Israel — The battle of attrition was fought with big black Hebrew letters on large white posters in Israel's most devout Jewish neighborhoods.

Nearly every day this winter, a new pashkevil — Yiddish for street poster — would appear with a dire warning against the COVID-19 vaccine.

"The vaccines for corona are suspected of dark conspiracies and grave dangers," one poster said.

"Who knows if more than a thousand people who died in the Holy Land, may the All-Merciful protect us, would have stayed alive if they would not have taken the vaccine," lamented another.

Just as often, neighborhood residents — quietly hired by the government — were dispatched to cover these messages with new ones from Israel's Health Ministry:

"A religious ruling! The great rabbis of Israel instruct to get vaccinated."

"The vaccines are a very great redemption!"

A poster in Jerusalem features rabbis who call on residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
A poster in Jerusalem features rabbis who call on residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

After about two weeks, the anti-vaccine poster activists gave up, says Avi Blumenthal. He's an ultra-Orthodox public relations consultant who directed the counter-messaging campaign, working with Israel's Health Ministry to convince devout Jewish communities to embrace the vaccine.

"They'd put one up, we'd put one up on top. They'd put one, we'd put one. It became a war," he says. "They tired out."

As Israel raced forward this winter and spring with its world-leading COVID-19 vaccination campaign, it waged an aggressive and largely successful campaign to confront false rumors and hesitancy about the COVID-19 vaccine among devout ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities, among the hardest hit by the virus in Israel.

Today, more than half of all Israelis have been vaccinated — including 80% of ultra-Orthodox adults over age 30, the Health Ministry says.

Haredim, or "God-fearers," as they are called in Israel, make up about 12.5% of the country's population. Ultra-Orthodox society is made up of many different communities, each centered around a head rabbi, with their own customs on Jewish worship, dress and daily life. All live intensely communal lives devoted to faith. They gather in synagogues three times a day for prayer, are educated at big religious seminaries and hold frequent weddings and celebratory tische gatherings that attract hundreds for religious speeches, songs and refreshments with their rabbis.

Social distancing was anathema to them, and many ultra-Orthodox communities flouted Israel's coronavirus rules against congregating, Blumenthal says. Rabbis worried they would lose followers if they couldn't gather.

Infections rose, driving nationwide lockdowns and angering many Israelis who blamed the government — reliant on ultra-Orthodox votes for political support — for being too soft on ultra-Orthodox community leaders during the pandemic.

Blumenthal insisted on keeping an open line of communication with recalcitrant rabbis. He needed them on his side, knowing they would have the most influence to convince their followers to get vaccinated.

On Dec. 13, a week before Israel launched its national vaccination campaign, top health officials approached senior rabbis in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, asking them to encourage their communities to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But the rabbis wanted to wait and observe the vaccine's effects in Israel and the U.S. before publicly endorsing it, according to a video of the meeting carried by Israeli media.

"I think we will wait until the first stage of the vaccinations passes," Rabbi Yehuda Silman, the head of a leading rabbinical court in the city, said in the meeting. "To come out with an official approval for us, it's too early."

A week later, though, the influential Belz Hasidic rabbinical court decided to support the vaccines. That decision came after Blumenthal brought in Itamar Grotto, then serving as deputy director general of Israel's Health Ministry, to meet the rabbis. Grotto debunked rumors in the community about the vaccine causing infertility in women — their primary concern.

"The rabbis needed to know one thing, really," Blumenthal says. "A, effectiveness, and B, safety."

The rabbis agreed to be vaccinated — and their adherents followed suit.

Yehuda Ben Sheetrit, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli, lost his wife, Osnat, to COVID-19. He stands outside the new apartment he has moved into with his four children after losing his wife.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
Yehuda Ben Sheetrit, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israeli, lost his wife, Osnat, to COVID-19. He stands outside the new apartment he has moved into with his four children after losing his wife.

But there were still holdouts, particularly among those in the community who received much of their information through alternative media channels that peddled rumors and conspiracy theories.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews shun TVs and smartphones, and were not exposed to nightly press conferences from Israel's top health officials. Instead, many stay informed by dialing ultra-Orthodox telephone news hotlines called nayes. Anonymous hotlines began cropping up, with prerecorded announcements warning against the COVID-19 vaccine and sharing anecdotes that claimed, without evidence, that people who got their shots had died.

The more calls these hotlines receive, the more income ultra-Orthodox content providers earn from hotline operators. Blumenthal followed the money, and claims the income from these anti-vaccine hotlines were funding the anti-vaccine pashkevil posters in the streets. NPR was unable to confirm his findings independently.

Most callers to news hotlines use "kosher phones," cellphones owned by about 430,000 ultra-Orthodox Israelis and supervised by a rabbinic council that blocks calls to numbers deemed inappropriate for devout Jews, such as phone sex hotlines and dating services.

Blumenthal convinced the council to place the anti-vaccine hotlines on the kosher phone blacklist. After that, he says, calls dried up, and the hotlines disappeared — as did funding for the posters.

But even with the appearance of pro-vaccine posters, the rabbis' blessings and a stricter information flow, it was an unexpected tragedy that helped turn the tide among the most skeptical ultra-Orthodox Jews.

A poster campaign by Israel's Health Ministry calls on women to get vaccinated in memory of Osnat Ben Sheetrit, a pregnant woman who did not get vaccinated and died of COVID-19.
/ Israeli Health Ministry
Israeli Health Ministry
A poster campaign by Israel's Health Ministry calls on women to get vaccinated in memory of Osnat Ben Sheetrit, a pregnant woman who did not get vaccinated and died of COVID-19.

Osnat Ben Sheetrit, 31, ran a wig and bridal salon for the ultra-Orthodox community and lived in the West Bank settlement neighborhood of Har Shmuel, near Jerusalem. In February, she was about to give birth to her fifth child. She remained hesitant about getting vaccinated, even after Israeli health experts and rabbis endorsed vaccines for pregnant women.

Her husband finally convinced her to make her a vaccine appointment that same month. But before she could get vaccinated, she was infected with the coronavirus and was hospitalized.

She gave birth while sick, but her newborn survived only a few hours. Shortly after the baby died, Ben Sheetrit died, too.

That is when the lies started to spread, her husband says.

"Conspiracy theorists took advantage of our story. They decided to fight us, and it was like an organized army. They were claiming that my wife was vaccinated and therefore she died," Yehuda Ben Sheetrit, 30, says. "It was like they were twisting a knife in our stomach."

The family set the record straight in interviews with ultra-Orthodox and mainstream media. They emphasized that Osnat had not been vaccinated, and if she had been, she could have lived. A relative told Israeli public broadcasting he had been moderating his own anti-vaccine group on social media and shut it down after Osnat's death.

The family received an outpouring of support from Israelis in a fundraising campaign to help them rebuild their lives.

Blumenthal saw an opportunity to get people to listen. With the family's permission, he organized a social media campaign with the message: "Get vaccinated to honor Osnat's memory."

It sparked a wave of vaccinations. The week after her death, one of Israel's leading HMOs, Maccabi Healthcare Services, registered a 60% increase in vaccinations of pregnant women over the previous week, according to statistics provided to NPR by Maccabi.

In Bnei Brak, where about half the residents are insured by Maccabi, several women tell NPR they and their friends were persuaded to get vaccinated after Osnat Ben Sheetrit's death.

"I deliberated a bit, from the fear of what was being said," says Ruth Tabib, with a new baby in a stroller. What helped convince her was the story of the woman who contracted COVID-19 while pregnant and left four children without a mother.

The Ben Sheetrit family has moved into a new home down the block from their old place to start anew. The children, their father says, couldn't bear being in their old home without their mom.

Mattresses lie on the floor; holy books remain packed in boxes. His calendar is full of appointments for trauma therapy sessions for his children.

Yehuda Ben Sheetrit says strangers have called him, hesitant about taking the vaccine, and he's invited them over.

"I didn't need to speak with them too much," he says. "They saw the situation with the kids at home. It didn't take them much time to realize ... the vaccine is the answer."

It wasn't the official government campaign or even public calls by rabbis that convinced many hesitant members of his community to get vaccinated against COVID-19. It took the story of a young woman who did not get vaccinated and ended up buried in the same grave with her baby.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.