HIV/AIDS and the Jewish Community

Despite the richness of Jewish sources which speak to stigma and illness, the history of Jewish community's reaction to AIDS has been rocky.

December 1 is observed as World AIDS Day. Around this date it is fitting to take stock of the social and spiritual impact of HIV and AIDS on Judaism and Jewish communal life.

A Brief History

Early reports of AIDS in the USA date back to the 1970s, however early AIDS deaths were largely ignored. The illness began to catch the attention of the mainstream media in the summer of 1981 when the New York Times reported an outbreak of a new “cancer” amongst otherwise healthy young gay men in California and New York. In those early months AIDS was not well understood and became known in the media as the “gay cancer,” leading to stigmatization and a rise in homophobia.
hiv/aids and the jewish community
In the ensuing years, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) was identified as the virus that leads to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) and it began to be recognized in people beyond the gay community. In New York City ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was formed in 1987 as the most vocal group aiming to end the AIDS crisis through direct action. The group introduced the slogans “Silence = Death” and “Action = Life,” highlighting the need to speak out and break the taboos surrounding AIDS in order to save lives.

Beginning in the late 1990s, advances in antiretroviral drug therapies slowed the rate of AIDS deaths in North America. However, AIDS deaths continue to be a regular part of life. In 2008, 4.3 million people worldwide were infected with HIV, including 530,000 children under age 15.

Jewish Tradition

AIDS is still frequently discussed in whispers at the edges of our communities, but Jewish tradition speaks in a different voice about the need to name illness out loud. Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Leviticus are entirely devoted to recounting the details of contagious diseases. While these diseases are certainly stigmatized in the Bible, Jewish tradition teaches us to chant these passages aloud in synagogue. Jewish law prohibits skipping passages that may seem grotesque or disturbing to some.

The Jewish cycle of mourning also addresses the need to dispel stigma around suffering. In Jewish tradition official mourning begins with the funeral ritual–not at the time of death–because losses first need to be named out loud and witnessed before people can grieve, heal, and move forward. Likewise, we need to make time to publicly name and mourn over the losses connected to AIDS before we can heal as individuals or as a community.

The Torah also teaches that each and every person is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and is of inherent worth and dignity. But individuals living with HIV and AIDS may experience a loss of self worth due to the shame that can surround this disease, as well as the isolating nature of living with any illness. The principle of creation in the image of God reminds us to not let members of our community, or globe, who are living with AIDS be forgotten.

There are many other ideas within the tradition we can draw on in responding to AIDS, including the concept of hesed shel emet (the unrequited kindness shown towards those who have died) and welcoming the ger (literally the “stranger”–this term can refer to all who have been ostracized from the community).

Jewish Communal Responses

Despite the richness of Jewish sources which speak to stigma and illness, the history of Jewish community’s reaction to AIDS has been rocky. In the 1980s and early 1990s, most mainstream synagogues failed to respond to the crisis. However, the severity of the situation led to a surge in the significance of LGBT synagogues.
world aids day
The first gay synagogues were formed in the 1970s. As AIDS deaths mounted, they became a life-line for many in surreal times. One of the founding members of Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco’s LGBT synagogue, remembers that during the height of the AIDS crisis it was not unusual to have three or four funerals in one weekend. Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the LGBT synagogue of Los Angeles, responded to the crisis by founding Nechama, a Jewish Response to AIDS, in 1987. This was one of the earliest Jewish communal responses to AIDS and it led the way to similar programs across the country.

In the 1990s, the multitude of young people’s deaths also fueled the nascent Jewish healing movement, as synagogues and other Jewish communal organizations began to recognize the need to provide spiritual support to those who were suffering. The healing movement was impelled by grappling with AIDS, as well as a growing awareness of the impact of breast cancer on Jewish communities.

The prayer book of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, reflects these themes in its mi sheberah prayer for healing recited publicly at all services: “May the One who blessed our ancestors…bless and heal ______ along with all the ill among us who are touched by AIDS, cancer, and all life-threatening illnesses. Grant insight to those who bring healing; courage and faith to those who live with physical and mental illness; love and strength to us and to all who love them.”

AIDS Today and Tomorrow

AIDS is still devastating lives across the globe and it continues to be shaped by other forms of social marginalization. In the US the Center for Disease Control reports that low income African American communities are currently being hardest hit by AIDS–with more per capita diagnosis of HIV and poorer outcomes. In sub-Saharan Africa, less than one quarter of the more than 4.3 million people in need of antiretroviral treatments actually received them, and over 3% of children in the area have lost one or more parents to AIDS.

The goal of today’s AIDS activists is to end AIDS globally. This goal may seem unreachable. However, for most of the past 3,000 years civilization was shaped by smallpox. The disease decimated entire populations, destroyed cultures, swept across continents, and altered the course of human history. And yet it was eradicated.

In the Torah, our ancestor Jacob spends a night wrestling with a divine being and is renamed Israel, literally “God-wrestler.” This passage has formed the Jewish psyche for thousands of years–we are a wrestling people that is willing to be wounded and renamed by ongoing struggle. It is too soon to stop wrestling until we have truly stopped AIDS.

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