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Jewish Responses to HIV: A Mitzvah. 07/10

By Alana Krivo-Kaufman
Winter 2009/2010
The Body

"It is not upon you to finish the work. Neither are you free to desist from it."
-- Rabbi Tarfon


There is no single Jewish response to HIV, just as there is no single Jewish community. Jews and the communities they build contain complex and at times contradictory histories, traditions, beliefs, and perspectives on justice. There is, however, a strong Jewish tradition that leans toward justice, provides a foundation for valuing individual human worth, and motivates many to act as caretakers and change makers. This tradition draws on Jewish values passed down between generations, interpreted and enacted anew on a daily basis.

The Jewish concept of tikkun olam -- repairing the world -- acknowledges that we are living in an imperfect world and emphasizes a Jewish commitment to taking action. Mitzvot, which are sometimes translated as good deeds, are actually commandments. These serve as a guide for addressing the many ways in which our world could be made better. While some Jews define their daily lives by these commandments, other use them as a source of inspiration, choosing which ones remain relevant. Either way, mitzvot provide a basis for understanding our interconnectedness. They bind us to one another and outline our societal responsibilities.

In addressing sickness and disease, Jewish teaching emphasizes the importance of focusing on the needs of those affected on a physical, social, and spiritual level. On the physical level, the saving of a life is seen as the highest of obligations -- an important mitzvah. The saving of a single life is seen as equal to saving an entire world, recognizing the infinite value of every human life. The tradition of visiting the sick recognizes that those who are ill can often experience extreme isolation from their communities; it is therefore the responsibility of their communities to reach out to them, to provide them with support and comfort, and to cultivate a sense of belonging.

These teachings create the foundation for responding to HIV in such a way that those affected are fully valued, supported, and included. The obligation to save a life does not require each of us to take on superhuman powers, or to become doctors. Rather, it demands that when we have the ability to take an action that could save someone else's life, we do it, and that we seek out opportunities to save human life. Jewish tradition also bars individuals from intentionally risking their own lives or well-being. Thus HIV prevention has a strong grounding in the Jewish tradition.

Although the teachings of our tradition offer clear guidance for action, people with HIV have not always felt the support that Jewish tradition demands.

As solemn as these obligations are, we have sometimes fallen short. The Jewish community's response to HIV has certainly not always been supportive. Like most faith communities, ours contains a vast array of viewpoints and practices, from the radically progressive to the most socially conservative. Although the teachings of our tradition offer clear guidance for action, people with HIV have not always felt the support that Jewish tradition demands. In some Jewish communities, stigma around homosexuality and drug use is a barrier to support for people affected by HIV. Traditional Jewish law prohibits drug use as well as anal sex between men, the two most risky behaviors for HIV.

A Need for Change

In the past three decades, various movements have created space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews. The Reconstructionist movement was the first to ordain openly gay rabbis in 1984, followed by the Reform movement in 1990 and the Conservative movement in 2006. While all of these movements have created rituals to recognize same-sex unions, the Conservative movement still formally condemns anal sex between men.

LGBT synagogues often served as havens for the community during the early years of the epidemic, and were shaped by their losses from and responses to HIV. These included Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) in New York, Congregation Sha'ar Zahav in San Francisco, and Congregation Beit Chayim Chadashim (BCC) in Los Angeles. They provided community, information on HIV prevention, and pastoral care, as well as funerals and memorials that honored the lives of gay men who died of AIDS, including those rejected by their families and communities. Prominent AIDS activists among their ranks have included several of the founders of GMHC and ACT UP.

In the early years of the HIV epidemic LBGT congregations saw their membership increase drastically. Many men in the gay community were living with HIV or with the reality that their friends were dying. They turned to welcoming and responsive Jewish institutions to seek care and support in these unexpected and devastating times. CBST hired its first clergy, Rabbi Sharon Klienbaum, in response to the need for pastoral care for the large number of members affected by HIV. Sha'ar Zahav dedicated a fund to its first congregant lost to AIDS, to provide resources to members dealing with HIV and grants to HIV service organizations. The congregation also sponsored a monthly Sunday morning brunch at the main HIV hospital in San Francisco to support family and caregivers. BCC created its Nechama ("comfort") program, which delivered food to people with HIV. It has now become Project Chicken Soup of the Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services.

Both CBST and Sha'ar Zahav created memorial walls to honor the memory of those they had lost. These walls listed the names of all the members of their community lost, so that those whose families had left them were not forgotten. Both congregations lost so many members that the congregations had to purchase space for their own graveyards much sooner than they had expected. HIV is a profound part of the fabric of these communities. It remains present among their membership, as well as in the consciousness that they lost generation of leaders.

The legacy and continued presence of HIV has shaped these congregations, visible at CBST through the AIDS quilt that hangs in its sanctuary, its World AIDS day ritual of honoring positive members, and HIV-specific liturgy in its prayer book. The "AIDS and World AIDS Day" portion of the prayer book notes:
"More than one fourth of the male membership of CBST has died of AIDS. World AIDS Day is not an abstract, amorphous, anonymous day of commemoration in our community. We don't have to set aside one day a year to acknowledge AIDS and what it has done to us. For many of us, AIDS touches every day and every event. Many of us can't look at ourselves in the mirror without seeing AIDS. We have lost lovers. We are bereft. We have lost friends. Many of us are sick. Many of us are facing death . Many of us are touched by the loss."

Rabbi Klienbaum continues to recognize the need to create Jewish spaces to talk about safer sex and to speak about condoms. To this day, a basket of condoms is present at every CBST service.

A Call to Action

In 1985, Judaism's Reform movement issued a "summons to action" calling for increased resources for prevention and treatment and an end to HIV-related discrimination. The leadership of the Reform movement has reaffirmed its dedication to HIV by passing numerous resolutions, including support for antidiscrimination laws, HIV prevention, and needle exchange. It has consistently advocated for increased federal domestic HIV funding, comprehensive sex education in schools, and greater global and domestic access to HIV treatment. In the past year, the Reform movement has focused its advocacy on prevention efforts, including supporting the passage of the Responsible Education About Life Act, which creates a funding pool for states to teach sex education that emphasizes both abstinence and safer sex.

Reconstructionist congregations began buddy programs to support people living with HIV, and rabbis provided pastoral care as well as traditional burial and memorial services. Congregations in Philadelphia and Los Angeles did outreach to affected communities. In 1991, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a resolution on HIV. This document identified HIV as "one of the most devastating public health crises of all times" and provided guidance for synagogues to conduct congregational outreach.

In addition to congregations, a broad range of organizations provide support and resources. The Tzvi Aryeh AIDS Foundation, founded in the mid-90s in New York City, works in the Orthodox and Chassidic communities to provide discreet support networks for HIV-positive community members and their families, along with information on HIV care and treatment. In these communities, the only method of transmission that can be openly talked about is blood transfusions. Gay and bisexual men either leave the community or marry women. If they are married, as most men who remain in these communities are, their wives are then at higher risk for HIV.

The San Francisco Jewish Family and Children's Services initiated its first HIV project in 1986. Serving as a model for other communities, it provided services to Jews living with HIV, enlisted volunteers from the community, and provided HIV education and outreach. That same year, the New York Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services began supporting those affected by HIV through its AIDS Project, which provided guidance, training, and education to ensure that Jewish social service providers were able to offer a continuum of HIV care. The AIDS Project also developed resources to help Jewish organizations like schools and summer camps implement HIV policies.

In 1988, the United Jewish Appeal Federation (UJAF) responded to the HIV epidemic by supporting research and access to treatment, and advocating for public policies related to HIV. The UJAF network also began providing services and community education to clients of all backgrounds.

Global Efforts

Through the work of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the Jewish community has shown significant leadership in responding to HIV as a global pandemic. For the past decade, AJWS has focused on working with communities devastated by HIV in the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Currently, one-quarter of AJWS's local partners are doing HIV-related work. AJWS supports grassroots efforts to fight HIV by providing local partners with grants and volunteers. These partners work to prevent and treat the disease as well as to build community, fight stigma, and empower people with HIV legally, socially, and economically. One such organization, the Foundation for the Development of Needy Communities, trains community-based HIV educators in Uganda. Other local partners use grants to advocate for access to drugs, safer sex education, and midwife training to prevent HIV transmission during birth.

The life-changing effects of these efforts is probably best expressed in the words of Yalemzewd, a client of AJWS grantee Mekdim, Ethiopia's first association of people with HIV: "At one point in my life AIDS was beating me, leaving me bedridden for more than a year. I didn't have [a] plan for the future except waiting for my death and thinking about the virus, crying every day. With the availability of free treatment?I was able to get well again. But in order to maintain my health, I needed to earn money to support myself and my family. This motivated me to be a member of this group. Now, I don't have the time to think about the virus. I'm busy every day and surrounded by others in the same situation as me. As I am living with the community, community members are changing their attitudes towards people living with the virus."

Yalemzewd did not just receive essential medical assistance. She was also empowered to support herself economically. She connected with people facing the same challenges as her own, and, perhaps most critically, by simply living and working with dignity she was able to help change her community's response to HIV.

The numerous individuals, communities, congregations, and organizations described above have each, in different ways, taken on the call to action to repair our world, to practice tikkun olam, by responding to HIV in their communities and in other communities affected by HIV. As much as there is a history of neglect, of negligence, and of silence among Jewish communities, there is also a history of organizing, of action, of caretaking, and of advocacy. This history shows that as long as HIV continues to affect individuals and their communities throughout our country and around the globe, an array of Jewish responses to HIV will continue to do their part to repair our world.

Alana Krivo-Kaufman is the AVODAH Fellow in the Policy Department at GMHC. AVODAH connects individuals committed to pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective with organizations working to end poverty.

This article was provided by ACRIA and GMHC. It is a part of the publication Achieve. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

General Disclaimer: The Body is designed for educational purposes only and is not engaged in rendering medical advice or professional services. The information provided through The Body should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. It is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, consult your health care provider.

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