It has become a cherished tradition at Congregtion Emanu El in Houston, TX to hear guest divrei torah from members of the community during this Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year, their guest was Dr. Peter Jay Hotez.
Dr. Hotez is the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics, Molecular Virology, and Microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine. He is also the co-director for the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development. Dr. Hotez also holds an endowed chair of tropical pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital, as well as numerous other academic and research positions at Baylor, at Texas A&M, and at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice. With his extensive professional scientific background in tropical disease, Dr. Hotez has been a prolific contributor to the field of vaccine development, and has worked to provide global access to these lifesaving tools, which combat the diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, he has been defending vaccines and serving as an ardent champion of their role in fighting and preventing disease.Read Transcript
Peter Hotez: You know the other piece to all of this — and I’ll talk about it in a minute with all the anti-vaccine and anti-science aggression — there’s a huge component of anti-Semitism there that’s not really been talked about. So maybe I’ll say a few words about that this evening. But rabbis, thank you so much for having me. Cantor, that was beautiful, by the way. It’s just gorgeous. And it’s really an honor for me to be able to speak to your Congregation Emanu El.
You know, it’s been a decade now since Anne and I and our family, our two youngest kids, Dan, who’s now in the oil and gas industry, and Rachel is our special needs daughter, relocated to Montrose from Washington, DC. So we live just a few blocks from this wonderful shul. And Anne drives me to work every morning. So we drive past this synagogue every morning.
The other piece to this, that not many people realize when we came here — we really were recruited by the Jewish community. So it was Mark Shapiro, who then was Chairman of the Board of Baylor College of Medicine, Gary Rosenthal who was Chairman of the Board of Texas Children’s Hospital, who brought us here […] and Paul Klotman, of course, who is the President of Baylor College of Medicine. Mark Wallace — so, the CEO of Texas Children’s Hospital — so from the beginning, it’s been the Houston Jewish community that’s been front and center of our work here at the Texas Medical Center.
The other piece to this was, when you make a move scientifically, you always want to do new things. So we had this idea that we’re going to also start working on coronavirus vaccines, because they were fairly ignored, just like our other vaccines for Neglected Diseases. And it turned out that was a pretty wise choice, and now our COVID-19 vaccine is being accelerated in India and Indonesia. In India, now, our Texas children’s vaccine is being made — around 100 million doses a month. So we’re hoping that this is going to be the vaccine that helps the world. And of course, this evening is filled with special symbolism and meaning — Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat falling between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
When you invited me, rabbi, to speak, I was looking at the meaning of the words. And it’s interesting how, it’s actually ambiguous, right. It’s shuvah, which means return, or teshuva, which means “repentance.” And when I did my Google search, the source of all wisdom, some called it “repentance,” some called it “return.” And I think, as I read more, I realized it’s actually deliberately ambiguous, I think. Because it touches on each High Holiday bracketed at the other end.
And of course, weighing heavily on me tonight is the solemnity of all of the tragedy that’s happening in Texas and in the United States. We’re losing 200 Texans every day, and many in our Texas Medical Center. And young people, 30s and 40s, which is especially devastating. And of course, over the last 24 hours — this is not fun to watch – our governor and our president exchanging harsh words with each other, and that’s very troubling as well.
So this is a terrible time, as this Delta variant sweeps through our unvaccinated populations here in Texas, and in the South. And then of course, speaking of the concept of return, this evening, we return to the terrible memories of the collapse of the World Trade towers, and the attack on the Pentagon that will take place 20 years ago tomorrow. And we lost 3,000 of our brothers and sisters on that day, including hundreds of Jews as well.
And like almost everyone here tonight, I’ll never forget that day. I was actually in Washington, DC then. So for the decade before coming to Texas, I was chairman of the Department of Microbiology at George Washington Medical School. And my window actually looked out upon the Pentagon, so if you know where George Washington is, it’s right across — and Foggy Bottom. And you could see the smoke rising out of the Pentagon. And even though I had stopped seeing patients by then, I thought, “Well, maybe I can help — I still have my stethoscope and a license to practice medicine in the District of Columbia.” And spent part of the day in the George Washington Emergency room — but of course, the casualties never came, since so many of the lives lost were instantly killed when American Airlines Flight 77, taking off from Dulles, slammed into the Pentagon. But I can remember that awful feeling, walking out that evening. And the DC streets were empty except for military vehicles and Humvees. And that was a very scary feeling. And [I] realized how fragile our safety and security is.
And so 9/11 has a special meaning in terms of redemption or repentance, the other dual element of Shabbat Shuva. So this concept of repentance goes hand in hand with the pursuit of chesed, a Hebrew word for the love of humanity. And in 2001, our laboratory began making new vaccines for the world’s poorest people, leading to some of the first vaccines for diseases you don’t think about a lot, such as hookworm infection, and schistosomiasis. And now these vaccines are in clinical trials in Africa and Brazil.
These two parasitic infections affect hundreds of millions of people who live in extreme poverty and are referred to as “Neglected Tropical Diseases,” a term I helped coin in the early 2000s. And that actually was partly inspired by Elie Wiesel, who in the 1980s, he famously said “The opposite of love is not hate, but it’s indifference, it’s neglect. And the opposite of love is not death, it’s indifference and neglect.” So that also was an inspiration for my work.
And so when our group relocated to the Texas Medical Center in 2011, we expanded our portfolio of Neglected Tropical Disease vaccines, including one for Chagas Disease, now affecting millions of people living in poverty in the Americas.
But then I was introduced to a virology research group at the New York Blood Center by a friend and colleague, an Israeli scientist, Sarah Lustigman. And Sarah and I have worked together for many years. And she explained how they were doing interesting work on coronavirus and coronaviruses. And to paraphrase, “Like your Neglected Tropical Diseases, nobody cares all that much about coronaviruses.”
But this was after SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome emerged in 2001. So our Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, which is now co-headed by myself and my science partner for the last 20 years, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, began making vaccines for SARS and MERS, so that when the COVID-19 virus sequence came online at the beginning of 2020, we were able to redirect our program. And now this low-cost vaccine that we’ve developed is being released for emergency use in India, and making 100 million doses a month. And now we’re making the Halal version, in collaboration with the Indonesians, to vaccinate the world’s largest Muslim countries, including Indonesia and of course, the OIC countries, the Organization of the Islamic Conference countries, in North Africa. And so we’re hoping our vaccine will be used across the African continent.
It was my cousin Rabbi Phil Lazowski who taught me the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, which has helped me to redouble our scientific pursuits towards humanitarian goals. Phil is now 91, he’s the rabbi emeritus of Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield, Connecticut, and Temple Emanuel in West Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up. He also served for six decades as the chaplain for the Hartford Police Department.
And he was known as Fievel, growing up in Poland, when the Nazis invaded his town of Bielika, as he fled as an 11-year-old boy with his mother and siblings. But they were subsequently captured and eventually brought to a local theater in a nearby town for execution. And Phil’s mother saved his life by tossing him from a second-floor window, and he escaped into the woods where he ultimately united with his father and a small group of Jews. And together they hid in the woods for two and a half years, surviving on information from partisans who had a camp 40 yards away. Maybe you remember, about a week ago in the New York Times, there was an article, which was incredible that it came up at that time called “The Forgotten Jews of the Woods.” So Phil, Rabbi Lazowski, my cousin, was one of those Jews.
And he immigrated to the US after the war and began studying at Brooklyn College and then Yeshiva University. And so Phil taught me about this concept of tikkun olam, repairing the world. And it had a very profound influence. I wrote about it in my first book, “Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases.” And it caused me — it gave me time to really look at what tikkun olam really comes from. And some say the current or expanded use of the term for repairing the world was put forward by Rabbi Isaac Luria, who is the renowned 16th century Kabbalist. And for me, the term has special meaning as a person’s commitment, especially a Jew’s commitment, to better the world through good works, good deeds. And I can’t think of or remember a time when our nation has needed repair as much as it does now.
And I’ve even now extended the concept in my writings to what I call – I totally made up the term – “science tikkun,” which I use to refer to science for humanity, with our global health COVID-19 vaccine as an example. And in this time of COVID-19, science tikkun has never been more challenged for many years. I’ve been a lead target of anti-vaccine and anti-science groups for successfully debunking their false claims about that vaccines cause autism, after I wrote a book, “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism,” about my youngest daughter, who’s now 28 years old and lives with us with autism and intellectual disabilities. And if you drive along Westheimer in the morning, in Montrose, you can’t help but notice her — she’s got that big shock of red hair as she walks to Goodwill Industries, where she works for two hours a day.
The anti-vaccine groups really were very upset that I was writing and explaining why vaccines don’t cause autism, and how it’s a result of the genes associated with early fetal brain development. So now they publicly vilify me as “the OG Villain.” And I had to look it up, it means the “original gangster villain.” So, rabbis, you’ve invited the original gangster villain to come speak to you and chill tonight.
And now these same anti-vaccine groups and activities have been adopted by the political extremists on the far right, together with a few other American scientists. I’m a frequent target now for, you know, expressing the urgency of getting vaccinated with COVID-19. And the threats are serious. And it’s really interesting that they say that “An army of patriots will hunt me down,” to which I said to Ann, “Why would you need an army of patriots? It’s just you and me and Rachel and the cat. I would think, you know, maybe one patriot is enough, two patriots at most, but you don’t need a whole army of patriots.” I’m joking, but it’s the Houston Police Department patrols around our Montrose neighborhood. And so it is a scary time. And what really upsets me is the anti-Semitism that’s coming from these groups, and the hate emails and the social media. It’s filled with Nazi imagery and, curiously, images of hangings at Nuremberg saying “my day will come.” And so these are dark times. But I have a lot of help from the Houston community, including Dena Marks — I’m sure many of you know from the Anti-Defamation League, ADL, here in Houston, and she’s been great, giving me advice on managing the aggression, as well as our heroes in blue, the Houston police department.
So, you know, while we’re in perilous times, I take comfort in knowing that as Jews, especially for Jews here in Texas, we’re resilient, and we’re not easily intimidated. And in fact, I’m even optimistic and confident that it’s never too late to fully vaccinate the people, and I’ll fully vaccinate the American people and ultimately contain COVID-19. And I think, in not too long a time, we’ll be in a much better place. Our goal is to have this shul filled up, and maybe not even with masks. And I think that’s really possible.
But we have to make progress on vaccinating the country and vaccinating the rest of the world. And hopefully we can make a contribution. And in the meantime, Ann and I profoundly appreciate the love from Houston and the Texas Jewish communities, and wishing you a successful and happy new year. Shana tova.
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This talk was adapted from a guest D’var Torah at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX on September 10, 2021).