Remembering on World AIDS Day

The AIDS epidemic began slowly, but one by one, members of our synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, as well as many of our other friend’s friends, learned of their being HIV+. Our congregation’s Bikkur Cholim (outreach to the ill) Committee began discussing how our community might best respond. With gay men no longer able to donate blood, the women of the congregation began an annual blood drive and the men baked sweets and came to the blood bank to provide support with roses, massages, and hugs.

Mark Feldman, a board member who was to die in June 1983, asked us to start a “Phooey on AIDS” fund to support the financial needs of members and the community. This fund made annual gifts to the organizations providing direct care including Shanti, Project Open Hand, the San Francisco General Hospital Ward 86, and the Food Bank of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

In 1987, we published Out of Our Kitchen Closets, our award-winning cookbook of San Francisco Gay Jewish Cooking, a labor of love led by project coordinator Susan. Three dollars of every book sold was donated to the Food Bank of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. Eventually, after sales from across the United States, $12,000 was contributed.

Mindful of the importance of help to individual members, a decision was made that we could provide backup support for primary caretakers. Volunteers supported with rides to appointments, shopping, dinners, and laundry, and helped family coming to visit their ill sons. Our rabbi, Yoel Kahn, gave important spiritual support to members who were ill at home, sick in the hospital and dying in hospice. My close friend, Brian Christianson, was the coordinator for inpatient AIDS services at Davies Medical Center. I asked him what other religious organizations were providing and he responded, “bringing the word of God.” I knew this was not going to work for us.

KaiserTwo of the members of Bikkur Cholim, including Allen Harris, a nurse at Kaiser San Francisco Medical Center, proposed that they meet with the administration of Kaiser to understand how we could be most helpful. They came back to the committee with the concept of a monthly brunch on a Sunday morning for the patients, family and staff of the AIDS program at Kaiser San Francisco. We accepted the challenge of providing delicious food, entertainment and a break from the psychological pain of watching so many men suffering.

Frank Hyman and others recruited our member, Randy Weiss, then Assistant Conductor of the San Jose Symphony, and his quartet offered classical music, changing a spacious but neutral room into an inviting environment.

Members provided all of the food: from a fresh-roasted turkey to a five-pound meatloaf, with a case of oranges crushed into fresh juice. A member who was a baker at House of Bagels had the owners contribute dozens of bagels, and the silver platters of salads, smoked salmon, assorted cheeses, cakes, and cookies helped to create a feast. Tablecloths and fresh flowers contributed to an inviting environment.

We ate along with the patients, staff and family. Patients too sick to join us had food brought up to their rooms. Nanci Stern and her seeing-eye dog visited every room-bound patient and offered support to them and their visiting family. In effect, we created a chavurah that, while providing good food and music at Kaiser, also gave us meaningful connections with one another. These relationships proved essential during the height of the epidemic. The program continued until AIDS treatment, fortunately, no longer presented the same need for lengthy inpatient hospitalization.

Kaiser Hospital recognized our contribution, and we were awarded a certificate of honor, in recognition of our years of dedicated support. Allen Harris, Frank Hyman, and Nanci Stern unfortunately never lived to see the recognition they so richly deserved.

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