Asher Meza, who goes by “Rabbi PB” on the Telegram messaging app, began advertising religious exemption letters for people who don’t want COVID-19 vaccines last week on the public Proud Boys Telegram channels. Reached by New Times over the phone Wednesday, Meza estimates that he has already provided 200 letters. Though he is vaccinated, Meza says he wants to offer people the freedom to choose.
“There are people who just want the freedom to get vaxxed or not, who don’t want a mandate,” says Meza. “This form we’re giving to Christians, too. A Christian can embrace the message because we quote from the Bible.”
The religious exemption letter — which is sent via email after filling out a Google form — quotes several verses from the Old Testament to justify the holy objection to vaccine mandates. Quoting from Genesis, the letter states that because humans are made in God’s image, they should not acquiesce to “biological alterations” to their bodies. The letter goes on to denounce the stigmatization of substances the alt-right has touted as a treatment for COVID-19, including hydroxychloroquine, which has been found ineffective against the virus, and ivermectin, a drug commonly used to deworm horses that has sent some people to the hospital with seizures.
This comes at a time when the federal government and numerous private institutions have begun mandating vaccines for employees, and several people, particularly those on the religious right, have bristled at such requirements. Early last month, President Biden issued an executive order requiring that all federal employees be vaccinated within 75 days. In Florida, Jackson Health System, the University of Miami, Nova Southeastern University, and other private employers have also begun requiring workers to get the jab or face the consequences.
Meza remains a controversial figure not just for his association with the Proud Boys, an alt-right hate group that violently clashes with anti-fascist protesters nationwide, but also for his “unorthodox” approach to Judaism.
Last February, Meza joined the Proud Boys and is a member of the Villain City chapter of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. He created several of the Proud Boys’ websites, including the official sites for the Miami and Broward chapters. Meza himself lives in Hollywood, Florida.
According to his organization’s website, Torah Judaism International, Meza is Colombian-American, attended rabbinical school at Aish HaTorah Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and was ordained by Rabbi Yitzchok Kolakowski of New York at Yeshivat Nachlei Emunah. Through Torah Judaism International, Meza performs large conversions to Judaism, and actively recruits non-Jews to the Jewish faith. This penchant for mass conversion has put Meza at odds with Jewish people in South Florida who deny his status as a genuine rabbi.
“He’s a hack,” says Rabbi Joseph Korf of Hollywood Community Synagogue. “He’s not a rabbi, and if he’s ordained, he’s not recognized by any religious community that I know of.”
To become a rabbi, one must go through rabbinical school and gain a certain level of competence in Jewish teachings before being ordained by another rabbi. Some people may attend a yeshiva, or seminary, for personal growth and be granted the title of “rabbi” or “teacher” but never actually lead a synagogue or become a faith leader, according to Rabbi Jonathan Tabachnikoff of Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. Sometimes, Tabachnikoff tells New Times, the definition of who is truly a rabbi can get dicey.
Meza says he attended various yeshivas and completed a semikhah, or ordination program, and was once the leader of Birkath Avraham synagogue in North Miami Beach, though it’s been closed for six years.
Korf, who was once Facebook friends with Meza, takes issue with the Proud Boys’ practice of conversions, which he says goes against Jewish teachings.
“He deliberately goes out to find people to convert them to Judaism, or tries to convince them to become Jewish, but that’s not part of the Jewish tradition,” Korf tells New Times.
Meza has also been accused of charging money for his conversions and for his vaccine exemption letters — accusations he denies. Rather, he says, his organization asks for donations to fund their projects, including an upcoming evangelism trip to India to convert local Hindu people.
“One of our principles is religion shouldn’t be sold,” Meza says.
The religious exemption letter comes with a stamp from Meza, another from Rabbi Mariano Moshe Otero of Miami, and is cosigned by three rabbis in New York who Meza says support his belief against vaccine mandates.
While the local Jewish community is not largely opposed to inoculation, Korf says some Orthodox Jews are against the notion of mandates and vaccine requirements. Korf says he is not vaccinated because he doesn’t know enough about vaccines but does not offer guidance about whether an individual should get one.
In the past, outbreaks of diseases such as measles have spread in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York where many families declined to vaccinate their children. This, in turn, sometimes led to fears of anti-Semitism from non-Jews, who feared getting sick.
Tabachnikoff says he doesn’t understand how a rabbi could not want people to get vaccinated and that he supports inoculation to protect the community in South Florida.
“I believe Judaism says that to save a human life is the greatest thing one can do; therefore protecting those lives and being inoculated is a Jewish mandate. It would be odd for a rabbi to come out and be against it,” Tabachnikoff says. “I also don’t know where the rabbi would find justification for giving a non-Jew permission to do anything.”
COVID-19 vaccinations are safe and effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pfizer’s vaccine was recently fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after clinical trials.