In a whirlwind of rapid-fire Yiddish, Rabbi Shimon Braun directs caller after caller to hospital directors, doctors, medical practitioners and experts, around the country through the auspices of his Yad Avraham medical advice organization deep in the heart of Mea She’arim.
Sporting the traditional midnight-blue and white striped coat of the Toldos Aharon hassidic community to which he belongs, long side-locks and a white beard, and nicotine stains on the mustache, Braun is a veritable vortex of virtuous energy as he dispenses instructions to the uninitiated on how to navigate Israel’s medical system.
And Braun’s operation took on extra significance in recent months, as he stepped up to the forefront of the battle against the measles outbreak that plagued Israel late last year and that threatened the haredi community in particular.
Upwards of 1,500 cases were reported in 2018; the majority were in Jerusalem, mostly in haredi neighborhoods.
Braun said that just before Rosh Hashanah, his organization began receiving dozens of calls about potential cases, with parents becoming increasingly panicked over the outbreak and turning to Yad Avraham for help.
“It started spreading everywhere; we saw that a real outbreak was happening, parents were calling us in a panic,” related Braun to The Jerusalem Post in Yad Avraham’s small premises in Mea She’arim this week.
The severe spike in cases, up from just 33 in 2017, was more prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community, Braun explains, because of a failure by some parents to get the second booster vaccination for their children – usually administered at age six – and which is required after the first shot at age one to provide immunity.
The rabbi says that the overwhelming majority of families in the haredi community get the first vaccination at state-run infant clinics because it is standard practice for babies to have regular checkups there.
In the general community, the second vaccination at age six is frequently received at elementary schools administered through the Health Ministry. But many “Talmud Torah” haredi elementary boys’ schools and the schools for girls are poorly administered and fail to arrange the vaccination for their pupils.
Parents must therefore take their children back to the infant clinics for the second shot. But since children at that age no longer have regular appointments there, a significant proportion apparently fail to organize the second shot for their children.
The schools had different rates of vaccinated pupils, he says. One, for example, had 1,000 pupils, approximately 100 (10%) of whom were not vaccinated, while another had 300 pupils, about half of whom were not vaccinated, says the rabbi.
Braun insisted that there was no truth to allegations that the hardcore haredi community in the central Jerusalem neighborhoods refused to vaccinate their children due to some religious custom or restriction, saying the claim was simply untrue.
He pointed to a ruling by the Eda Haredit communal organization’s rabbinical court – with which many of the residents in this area are associated – that they were religiously obligated to get vaccinated, as well as a separate public statement by the vice president of the court Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch to the same effect.
“If the rabbis say something, then the people do it immediately, so everyone went to get the vaccination – it wasn’t even a question,” says Braun.
Having identified the problem, Braun and Yad Avraham instructed all badly affected schools in Jerusalem to send in the personal ID numbers of each and every pupil. Through coordination with the Health Ministry, they were able to determine which children had not had the booster vaccination.
Working together with the Natali healthcare solutions organization, Yad Avraham helped organize vaccinations for the unvaccinated children in 10 Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh schools.
In addition, the organization sent out cars with loudspeakers into the streets of the haredi neighborhoods in central Jerusalem, announcing the vaccination drive and encouraging people to get their children vaccinated if they had not already done so.
Yad Avraham also posted notices all over the streets of those neighborhoods with a declaration by rabbis of the Eda Haredit instructing the community to get their children vaccinated.
Braun says that his organization also arranged for the details of the vaccination drive to be added to the communal telephone news services which many of the hassidic communities in the area use to inform their members of various issues.
Yad Avraham organized vaccination stands in Jerusalem as well as the surrounding cities of Beit Shemesh, Beitar and Modi’in Illit – all with large haredi populations – to vaccinate people on the spot in those locales.
Through this combination of methods to get the message out, the organization helped to facilitate the vaccination of some 15,000 to 20,000 people from haredi communities across those four cities, Braun said.
And the outbreak of cases has now subsided, Yad Avraham said.
“Thank God we succeeded,” said the rabbi, citing the Mishnaic dictum that “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”
Speaking more broadly about Yad Avraham’s operations, he talks modestly about the work of his organization and its importance – but he is clearly a man in high demand.
Throughout the interview, he is inundated with telephone calls, answering each one in between this reporter’s questions and giving quick, short, precise instructions to each caller for whom to contact, with which expert get an appointment, and how to do it.
Braun says he never, ever turns his phone off and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year – including on Shabbat and the Jewish holidays, when he answers because the caller might be in a life or death situation, for which Jewish law allows the laws of Shabbat and the holidays to be overridden.
An assistant notes that one Shabbat when Braun was being called up to the Torah in the Toldos Aharon synagogue, his phone rang – and the rabbi did not hesitate to answer.
Explaining how he views the importance of his work, Braun gives a short religious teaching.
“We say in our daily prayers ‘Heal us God, and let us be healed,’ but the second phrase in the plural is redundant,” Braun said. “It teaches us that when someone is ill, his whole family is affected and in distress and in need of help. A lot of people in our community don’t know how to deal with these issues; [they] don’t know who to go to and what to do to get the right medical assistance. Thank God we do – and we are able to give people the right advice to help them.”