Breaking the Silence: Talking About HIV in Jewish Communities

CBST's safer sex packets include resources on HIV/AIDS and Jewish text
CBST's safer sex packets include resources on HIV/AIDS and Jewish text
Karen Benezra

In the early years of the AIDS crisis, AIDS was visible because it was untreatable. Those of us who lived or worked in proximity to people with HIV/AIDS saw lesions; we saw people wasting; we went to funerals. Ironically, perhaps, as HIV has become more treatable, it has become largely invisible among individuals and communities not directly affected by the virus.

At Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), New York City's LGBTQ synagogue, we have a history of terrible loss to AIDS and certainly a substantial interest in ending the epidemic. And yet we, too, began to talk less about HIV once effective treatments became available in 1996 and the funerals and hospice visits tapered off and then virtually stopped.

That HIV is neither seen nor readily talked about today is a problem. The silence is an emblem of the stigma surrounding HIV. For people who are HIV positive, the silence leaves them isolated. For those who are HIV negative, it squelches conversations that people in vulnerable populations should be having around sex, drugs and other HIV risk factors.

Restarting the conversation about HIV in 2017 means talking about who we really are and what we really do. It means facing the risks associated with certain kinds of sexual activity and drug use. HIV is a social justice issue that extends to poverty, homelessness, unstable housing and disparities in access to health care, among other issues. It brings to light realities such as sex work or other sexual exchanges based on power or survival -- issues that many people do not want to talk about because it makes them feel uncomfortable.

Rabbi David Dunn Bauer
Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), New York City's LGBTQ synagogue
Oriel Pe'er

The fact that HIV is now highly treatable plays into the tendency to keep topics like these off the table. Especially in faith communities, this is just wrong. Issues of health and wellness, relationship and community, comfort and protection are central to the discourse within any faith community. Silence means we aren't doing our job.

Things began to shift for us at CBST in 2015, when I came out as poz in a sermon at our annual World AIDS Day Shabbat. Soon after, a group of congregants formed a Red Ribbon Team with the aim of normalizing HIV within the congregation and re-engaging on HIV advocacy. As a leading force both in the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, CBST is now working to break the silence around HIV in Jewish communities around New York.

Our initiative, Talk to Me About HIV, is designed to help Jewish clergy and community leaders at synagogues, schools and community centers reopen the conversation. Through seminars, lunch-and-learns and resources in print and online, we are disseminating vital information and facilitating necessary dialogue with rabbis and lay leaders around HIV risk, testing, prevention and treatment, as well as about living with HIV and ending stigma. In addition to information about current HIV science, prevention and treatment options, we tell the story of the Jewish response to HIV/AIDS, lest the work of our predecessors go unrecognized or anyone question whether HIV is a Jewish issue. Our Voices of Community video series features personal narratives to further amplify our messages. We recognize two interconnected goals -- breaking the stigma and ending the epidemic -- and, through Talk to Me About HIV, we are committed to both.

To empower religious leaders to join in the effort, we share religious teachings for use from the pulpit or in smaller settings to break the silence with words of Torah and Jewish tradition. The project is funded by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene through a contract with Public Health Solutions.

Participants in a recent Talk to Me About HIV seminar at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST)
Participants in a recent Talk to Me About HIV seminar at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST) (Credit Harold Levine)

The issues we find ourselves confronting at Talk to Me About HIV seminars and workshops are urgent: How does a rabbi react upon learning that a community member was turned away from a Jewish travel program because of his or her HIV status? How do you offer pastoral support to a teenager getting a first HIV test? We invite area rabbis to the synagogue to learn with us, and we take our show on the road, bringing the "Torah of HIV" to rabbinical seminaries and chaplaincy programs throughout the five boroughs. We talk about issues not openly or commonly discussed in religious settings, such as queer identity, anal sex, serodiscordant partnerships and where God can be found in all of these stories.

We challenge participants to consider the emotional life of teens now at risk or of seniors who lost children to AIDS-related complications three decades ago but never felt safe or welcome to share that grief with their Jewish communities. It has been immensely gratifying to see future religious leaders ready to ask important questions and prepare to talk about HIV wherever their clerical path may take them.

We take our cue from Torah and classical Jewish texts about valuing oneself, valuing life and taking moral action. An example is how we interpret Rabbi Hillel's famous teaching from Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers, 3rd c. CE).

Hebrew text

Hillel used to say: "If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?"

Sex with another person can never be solely about one's own needs or solely about someone else's. We need to advocate for our own health and pleasure, but our partners deserve to be known and respected as individuals. Every sexual encounter is its own moment and requires its own covenant, regardless of what we know or imagine our partner's HIV status to be.

Just as it is imperative that we share the latest medical advances in HIV treatment and prevention, it is imperative that we employ the strength of our ancient texts in generating contemporary, healing, religious thought.

CBST's "[Voices of Community](" series offers personal narratives on HIV/AIDS

Do Jews get HIV? Of course we do. And the time has come for Jews once again to talk about HIV, not just in secular settings such as bars, bathhouses and on social networking apps, but in the synagogue, from the pulpit, during services for Shabbat or the high holidays and any time people gather in community settings. We hope that engaging the Jewish community in this way will spark conversation in other faith-centered contexts as well. Everyone should be able to talk about HIV -- and churches, mosques and synagogues are great places to talk.

Rabbi David Dunn Bauer is director of social justice programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), New York's largest LGBTQ synagogue. David's background and training include nine years serving congregations in New York and Massachusetts and over 20 years of professional experience in theatre, dance and opera across the U.S., Europe, Israel and Canada. His writings on God, queerness and sexuality have been published in anthologies and online forums.