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A Jewish Approach to AIDS Education

Miryam Z. Wahrman, Ph.D.

Is it possible to teach AIDS awareness with a Jewish spin? "The issue is: the disease is here, people have it, how do we deal with it? How do we deal with people who have it?" reflected Rabbi Jonathan Woll, of this city's Temple Avoda.

Woll has worked together with Stephen Sidorsky, Branch Director at Jewish Family and Children Services of North Jersey, to develop a program described by Sidorsky as "a personal, ethical program based on Jewish values." According to Sidorsky, the program, for seventh graders in Temple Avoda's hebrew school, is intended to "give students and their parents some real information about HIV and AIDS and transmission and personal responsibility." He emphasized a unique aspect of the program which was "to allow the children to develop a personal, ethical approach, based on some Jewish values in terms of dealing with individuals with AIDS..."

The course involves three sessions. During the first session, the eight 12-13 year-olds and their parents met with Scott Hester, an AIDS advocate who is HIV positive. Hester, together with Sidorsky and Joanne Falcone, Program Director of Friends for Life, a Fort Lee program for HIV positive and AIDS patients, discussed issues related to AIDS and HIV with the students and their parents.

"The kids' concerns had to do with sexuality, and transmission and what this disease is all about," reported Sidorsky. He explained that they wanted to understand how people live with it, "and what it's like taking 30 pills a day, and seeing your friends die."

Sidorsky continued, "The parents were more concerned with: How do they deal with this, with their kids?" He recounted that parents are worried that "we're living in a very highly sexualized culture, and [troubled] by seeing 11 year old kids going out on dates and dressing provocatively." They want to know how to take a stand on those issues.

"Parents were involved, and that was very, very important," related Woll. "We had a permission slip, and if the parents did not want a child to participate, they would not be required. But no one objected. I think because the parents saw that they were being invited... I think that took an edge off the program. It made it easier for the parents to accept."

In the second session the children met with Hester alone and were able to ask him directly about his personal experiences. "We found it valuable to put a face on the disease," explained Woll. "One of the children commented that they get a lot of this in [public] school, but they don't ever meet someone who has AIDS or HIV."

The third session included the students, Sidorsky and Rabbi Woll summarizing the experience, talking about their reactions and developing responses, such as voluteer work, to reinforce what was learned.

"This is not a health course. It's about human relations," Woll explained. "It's about our perspective on caring for others beyond ourselves... The intent was to discuss what we could do as individuals to help those who are living with these diseases."

Sidorsky outlined the major Jewish principles used in the lessons: "We had connected it with ...tikkun olam, the concept of repairing and healing the world...bikur cholim, the commandment to visit the sick, pikuach nefesh, which is saving of lives, sheetuf b'tzaar, which is empathy and responding to feelings of others, and chesed v'emet, which is responding to death with loving kindness and respect."

Connections to the parsha, or weekly Torah portion, were also made. During the first session "...the parsha happened to have been Vayera, in which three things happen," explained Sidorsky. "The strangers come to Abraham and Sarah's tent, which teaches us about welcoming strangers without judging them...Abraham is arguing with God about saving Sodom and Gomorrah, which has to do with responding to the needs of everybody, not just the ågood people' or the ones you happen to like.... And Sarah learned that she was about to become pregnant, which is the idea that there should always be a sense of hope and expectation, and carrying on even if you feel that things are not going to turn out the way you had hoped they would."

AIDS is a difficult disease to deal with because of social and health stigmas associated with it. In addition, since it is almost always fatal, people frequently have trouble relating to its victims. Therefore, this approach should benefit the victims and those who relate to them. "One of the principles that we would try to bring to working with people who are ill," Sidorsky emphasized, "is that sense of positiveness - not that it will turn out well in the end - but that somehow we have to keep an eye on the future and move on."

"The other aspect of this was about making judgements about people," remarked Woll. "One of the prevalent assumptions is that AIDS is a homosexual disease, and we [explained]...that one could be a hemophiliac, or a child of a person who uses drugs... We wanted to try to do away with stereotypes as much as we could. We also wanted to create an environment where [the students] would reach out to people who are living with this disease."

"It is our wish that this program be available to other congregations who would like to use it," Woll concluded, "and we would be glad to advise them."

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is Director of General Education and Professor of Biology at William Paterson University of New Jersey.


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