Jewish Aids Support Groups Building Communal Awareness

Rivky Guttman, a 35-year-old Orthodox woman, was devastated when she found out that she was HIV positive nearly three years ago.

“It was like the end of the world. I felt like I’d just die right there,” she said.

Guttman, who asked that her real name not be used, told her mother and a brother about contracting the virus that causes AIDS, but no one else. “They wouldn’t understand,” she said. “You know you’re going to be rejected.”

Indeed, before she was diagnosed, Guttman herself had trouble believing that Jews could get AIDS.

“People tend to be shocked by the combination of `HIV’ and `Jew’ in the same sentence,” said Robert Sturm, coordinator of the Chicago Jewish AIDS Network, one of a growing number of Jewish organizations across the United States that are dealing with the disease.

“I think most people know it affects the Jewish community,” he said.

The Chicago Jewish AIDS Network educates community members about HIV and inform them of the problem in the Jewish community. Recently the organization invited a rabbi who is HIV positive as a speaker.

The focus of Jewish AIDS service providers is divided between support for AIDS patients and education of the broader community.

In New York, the United Jewish Appeal’s AIDS Project provides funds to various AIDS organizations — both Jewish and non-Jewish — and supports AIDS education and prevention.

In Los Angeles, L.A. Jewish AIDS Services provide a wide range of services to Jews infected with HIV.

AIDS patients come to the Los Angeles group for specifically Jewish concerns, not for health care, said Rabbi Raphael Goldstein, director of the organization.

“We don’t do case management,” he said. “We focus on the Jewish need.”

The organization offers a wide variety of services, from Project Chicken Soup – - a twice-monthly meal delivery program for AIDS patients and their families – - to Nosh and Drash, an opportunity for AIDS patients to meet with rabbis from different denominations to discuss personal religious issues.

AIDS patients have to deal with “issues of how to live with a chronic, deadly disease,” said Goldstein. Often AIDS patients feel a need to return to their Jewish roots. “They’re finding a spiritual path to who they are,” he said.

The Orthodox Jewish population has been less willing than other sectors of the Jewish community to discuss AIDS and its repercussions.

The Tzvi Aryeh AIDS Foundation was formed in 1993 in response to the death of a young Orthodox man from AIDS. “Nobody talked about it,” said Tovah Ehrlich, one of the foundation’s coordinators.

Like many families coping with AIDS in the Orthodox community, the young man’s family did not tell friends or family that he was ill.

“They didn’t know he was sick,” said Ehrlich. When he died, the family did not publicize the funeral, choosing to bury him privately, with little attention.

Itamar Wartenberg, 35, is one of the people Tzvi Aryeh has been able to help.

“I was very relieved there was someone out there who understood me, who I could be open with,” he said.

Wartenberg, who lives on Long Island in New York, became infected with HIV in the early 1980s. A hemophiliac, he had received tainted blood transfusions. The phenomenon was not uncommon at the time.

He did not experience any AIDS symptoms for 12 years after he was diagnosed with HIV. In 1996, however, he spent 48 days in the hospital and was near death. Doctors estimated he had only a week or two to live.

Now, nearly two years later, he is still fighting the disease. “I have been given an opportunity to live,” he said. “I can’t believe it sometimes. It’s a miracle I’m alive.”

Because he had contracted the virus through a blood transfusion, Wartenberg was not ashamed to let others know of his illness. But in the early 1980s, there was no one for him to turn to.

His parents, although supportive, had difficulty discussing the situation, and rabbis didn’t know how to address the issue. Tzvi Aryeh has provided connections to other Jews with AIDS, and to Orthodox Jews willing to listen to his concerns.

“Maybe I should be the one to break the ice,” Wartenberg said of promoting AIDS awareness in the Orthodox community. “I don’t have the shame. I don’t think [Orthodox Jews] know the magnitude of the situation. It doesn’t mean death. It doesn’t mean people are bad.”

The New York-based Tzvi Aryeh provides a hotline for AIDS patients to call for support or to have their questions answered. Approximately 20 people call the organization per week from as far away as California, England and Israel.

Tzvi Aryeh is available to anyone with concerns related to AIDS and Judaism, but has special sensitivity to Orthodox and Chasidic Jews.

Because Orthodox AIDS patients fear being stigmatized, they are often reluctant to approach their local rabbi. Tzvi Aryeh connects patients to a rabbi who does not know them, or contacts a rabbi for them.

The organization works within the Orthodox community to promote AIDS awareness. Charity boxes designed for Tzvi Aryeh have been placed in Jewish stores to make customers aware that there are Orthodox Jews suffering from AIDS.

Ehrlich said the Orthodox community is not alone in its denial of AIDS.

Communities that have the hardest time confronting AIDS are religious groups and upwardly mobile communities. American Jews tend to fall under both categories.

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