Honoring the Love Shown to the HIV Community by Tree of Life Synagogue Member Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz
Today, the popular conception of medicine is of a sterile and prescribed discipline -- a cold and meticulous science that is measured in prescription slips and billable hours and the inscrutable minutiae of insurance plans. However, no amount of technological advancement or byzantine bureaucracy can change the fact that, at its core, medicine is about people using their knowledge and expertise to help the sick become well and to help the well to stay that way.
In the Jewish tradition, the preservation of the life of one's self and one's fellows is viewed not merely as something to be aspired to, but as a commonly shared obligation. The Torah and rabbinic literature tell the Jewish people that, should they come across a person who has lost their good health, it is their responsibility to help restore it to him or her to the best their ability. As a person who is uniquely qualified to provide medical care, the physician holds a deeply important and spiritually charged role. Thus, the provision of care by a Jewish doctor or nurse is not simply the carrying out of professional duty, but also the fulfillment of a mitzvah, a divine commandment meted out by God.
Before his life was so senselessly taken this past Saturday during the anti-Semitic terrorist act at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jerry Rabinowitz, M.D., spent much of it adhering to the mitzvah calling on him to care for the sick around him and never to stand idly by the blood of his fellow. In a Facebook post made shortly after his death, ACT UP New York volunteer Michael Kerr memorialized Dr. Rabinowitz, detailing the compassion with which the doctor cared for people living with HIV in Pittsburgh at a time when many physicians either refused to accept them as patients or treated them with a toxic mixture of fear and judgment.
"In the old days, for HIV patients in Pittsburgh, [Dr. Rabinowitz] was to one to go to," Kerr wrote. "Basically before there was effective treatment for fighting HIV itself, he was known in the community for keeping us alive the longest. He often held our hands (without rubber gloves) and always always hugged us as we left his office. . . . [T]hank you Dr. Rabinowitiz [sic] for having always been there during the most terrifying and frightening time of my life. You will be remembered by me always."
A remembrance of Rabinowitz in The Washington Post features the testimony of several of his patients and members of his and other Jewish congregations in the area, painting a picture of Rabinowitz that echoes the sentiments of Michael Kerr. Those who knew and were served by him remembered him as a man of compassion who genuinely cared for his patients and made them feel loved. In the words of one patient, as reported by The Washington Post, "He makes you feel like you're the only person in the room, and that he has all the time in the world for you." By all accounts, Rabinowitz thoroughly embodied the wisdom of the medieval rabbinical scholar and physician Maimonides, who wrote, "[A] physician does not treat a disease, he rather treats a person."
In recent years, Americans have been afforded far too many opportunities to hone our response to tragedy, mass shootings, and domestic terrorism driven by intense, incomprehensible hatred. And yet, far too often, we prove how little we have learned from this hideousness by focusing our collective attention on the perpetrators of these atrocities rather than on those who lost their lives in them. The societal conditions and cultural climate that foment rage in individuals who commit such crimes against humanity are important, as they help us to identify the root causes of hatred, but the individuals themselves are not. There is no reason to remember or even repeat the names of these men who attack synagogues and black churches and mosques, but there is an imperative to remember the names and celebrate the lives of people such as Jerry Rabinowitz.
The mass shooting carried out at Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history, but the hatred that inspired the attack was not confined to anti-Semitism. It was driven by a xenophobic rage against immigrants and those that would help them, such as the Jewish refugee aid organization HIAS, which the killer ranted about on social media. This rage was purposefully stoked by anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and incendiary rhetoric from President Trump and his allies about alleged "migrant caravans" in a naked attempt to gin up Republican enthusiasm for the midterm elections. The hate that spurred this attack is the selfsame hate that fuels the Trump administration's attempted erasure of transgender individuals and a white nationalist agenda that aims to disenfranchise voters of color and block entry into this country for refugees, the sick, and the poor.
It is not enough for HIV advocates to mourn those murdered in Pittsburgh. We must also reach out to our Jewish allies, just as we reach out to immigrants, Muslim Americans, transgender individuals, and every other community whose very existence has been threatened by the tyranny and enmity of the Trump administration and those who support it. We must do this because in attacking Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, a man who took care of the HIV community at a time when many didn't, the shooter and the ideology of hatred that he embodies also attacked the entire HIV community.
Moving forward through these arduous and frightening times, we must all do our best to honor the life and work of Jerry Rabinowitz by seeking to emulate the compassion and care he showed to his fellows. May his memory be a blessing.