On World Aids Day, Jewish Groups Affirm Commitment to Fight Disease

Jewish groups from across the denominational spectrum are calling on the Jewish community to help fight AIDS in Africa and other places hit hard by the pandemic.

An open letter to the Jewish community issued by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, together with Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish leaders, called on “synagogues and rabbis to renew and affirm our commitment to ending the AIDS crisis in Africa and elsewhere around the world.”

“For the sake of our shared humanity, we cannot afford to fail,” the letter said.

The letter was issued Monday, the 16th annual World AIDS Day.

Jewish leaders across North America spoke out this week to affirm their commitment to fighting the deadly disease. Worldwide, 40 million are infected with AIDS or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“In the case of AIDS, we think that these are preventable deaths. There are few mandates in Judaism as clear as pikuach nefesh, to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” said Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service.

AJWS helped found the Jewish Coalition Responding to AIDS in Africa, a coalition made up of 18 organizations and congregations in the United States.

The AIDS epidemic has continued to spread since the first case was diagnosed in the early 1980s. According to World Health Organization statistics, 5 million people were newly infected and 3 million people — or about 8,000 a day — died from AIDS this year alone.

Humanitarian efforts so far have focused on funding research to find a cure for the disease and on getting care to those who need it.

In his State of the Union address last January, President Bush set aside $15 billion over 5 years to fund AIDS relief. Last week, Congress allocated $2.4 billion for the first year of that commitment.

On Monday, Jewish leaders focused on those still waiting for care.

All evidence points to the need for increased care, especially among people suffering from HIV and AIDS in poor and developing countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where 2.4 million people died of AIDS in 2002, only about 50,000 people are getting treatment, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS.

Of the 5 million to 6 million people in developing countries who are infected with HIV and need access to drug treatment programs like anti-retroviral care, only 300,000 have access, according to the UNAIDS Web site.

Part of the open letter’s intent was to make people aware of how seriously the Jewish community is taking the AIDS epidemic, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center.

“Now we hope the letter will be distributed to synagogues and rabbis across the country and lead them to do more educational programs and look for ways to be helpful in expanding the response to this issue,” Saperstein said.

Jewish organizations are not newcomers to the AIDS fight.

Jewish groups have been involved for the last 15 years in confronting the epidemic, from reaching out to sick community members to working on legislation that would relieve developing nations of their debt so they can use resources on education and health care instead of paying off loans, Saperstein said.

On one level, there is a moral imperative in Judaism to intervene to save lives and help people, he said. On another, Jews especially have seen what happens when people stand by as others are dying.

AJWS has been a driving force in AIDS relief efforts within the Jewish community. The relief organization spends more than one-third of its $3 million international development and relief budget on AIDS relief programs.

Over the past three years, AJWS has supported 47 grass-roots organizations that focus on AIDS prevention, education and care.

“We don’t fund large international organizations; we fund on the ground, like a group in Zimbabwe that trains peer educators to alert their peers to the threat of AIDS and the danger of sexually transmitted diseases,” Messinger said.

The Jewish Coalition that AJWS helped create works on an advocacy level in Washington to make sure Bush’s allotted $15 million gets to those who need it.

At a recent conference on faith-based initiatives and the president’s emergency plan for AIDS relief, AJWS spoke to hundreds of delegates at Georgetown University.

Faith-based groups in particular have distinguished themselves as likely candidates for humanitarian aid in fighting AIDS. In a WHO press release issued on World AIDS day, the organization singled out Bush’s $15 million dollar pledge and the “groundbreaking work of NGOs and faith-based organizations.”

“Faith-based organizations have specific expertise and capacity in dealing with the issue of human suffering, like AIDS,” said Guyer, who described the “visceral” moral imperative that faith groups have on AIDS relief.

“It’s a natural fit for faith communities to be engaged not only in pastoral counseling, but also in efforts of prevention, care and support,” she said.

Excluding organizations that proselytize as they serve soup, Messinger noted that faith-based groups that do humanitarian work often are not religious but merely have roots in world faiths.

AJWS, for example, prides itself on working as a Jewish group in the non-Jewish, developing world.

“We follow what we believe are the obligations of Judaism: tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, Messinger said, and an obligation “to reach out to the stranger and to intercede where possible to save a life, which is the case with AIDS.”

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