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Behind the Headlines: Magic Johnson Disclosure Spurs Talk at Day Schools About Aids

November 13, 1991
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When Earvin (Magic) Johnson announced last week that he is infected with the virus that causes AIDS, the shock felt by his fans reverberated around the world.

Kids were especially hard-hit by the news.

Johnson, star of the Los Angeles Lakers and ubiquitous promoter of products from Pepsi-Cola to Converse sneakers, is beloved by children of every race and religion for his stunning athletic prowess and good-natured warmth.

His announcement made the specter of acquired immune deficiency syndrome more real for children than any other AIDS-related event.

In Jewish day schools across the country, the basketball player’s announcement has spurred discussion about the disease and its prevention.

“It’s been a major shock to the kids” at the Epstein School in Atlanta, according to Laura Bidlack, science coordinator at the Conservative day school.

The announcement “brought AIDS home to these kids in a more personal way than anything else” has, she said. The students are “concerned that someone we love so much could have done something so stupid.”

They wanted to know if they “should not consider him a hero anymore,” she said, because it is believed that Johnson was infected with HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, through unprotected heterosexual intercourse.

“Some said he’s going to be more of a hero now, and it is easier to frame that way, because he’s come out so early, which most people don’t,” Bidlack said.

The basketball superstar has quit professional sports and indicated that he will devote himself to educating young people in the black community about AIDS and safe sexual practices.

And on Tuesday, the White House announced that President Bush has invited Johnson to become a member of the National Commission on AIDS.


At the Epstein School, students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades attend a human sexuality course, part of which is devoted to AIDS education, and they know about risky behavior, said Bidlack.

But after Johnson’s announcement, many of the students asked questions and voiced new concerns about the disease. And despite their course work, many were “full of misconceptions,” Bidlack said. Their questions were answered on an informal basis.

In a Reform day school in Houston that educates kids from kindergarten through fifth grade, there is discussion of human sexuality at every level, and there are formal sex education classes for students in the fourth and fifth grades.

But “any education about AIDS is general,” according to Nancy Pryzant Picus, director of Judaic studies at the Irvin M. Shlenker School of Congregation Beth Israel. “We don’t really have an orchestrated lesson plan on teaching AIDS.

“When you have children this young, you don’t want to scare them, but we don’t want them to be ignorant” either, she said.

The kids “know about AIDS, especially after Magic Johnson. But part of me wonders what I’m teaching kids if I hold him up as a hero.”

Sex education is part of the formal curriculum at all of the 15 Reform day schools in North America, according to Irwin Shlachter, president of Association of Reform Jewish Day Schools. But he could not say whether all of the schools include education about AIDS in the curriculum.

Kids as young as second- and third-graders express concerns about AIDS, Shlachter said.


“We tend to think children are not sophisticated enough to understand what this is about, but they do see it around and know that people die from it. The subject is not foreign to them anymore,” he said.

At the Orthodox RAMAZ School in New York, Johnson’s announcement “affected everybody,” according to Rabbi Joshua Bakst, dean of the upper school for boys and girls from the seventh through 12th grades.

At RAMAZ, 10th-graders have a one-semester course on sexual ethics taught by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, the principal, who at a Veterans Day assembly this week spoke about the message of Magic Johnson for religious Jews.

AIDS is not a discrete part of the sexual ethics course, the health education that is taught in all grades or the “taharat mishpacha,” the family purity classes that 12th-grade girls attend, according to Bakst.

But questions are asked and answered in those classes and others. “People have to learn something not only about safe sex, but go beyond that to ethics in Jewish law,” Bakst said.

The approach to AIDS education in Orthodox day schools and yeshivot varies widely.

RAMAZ, as a relatively progressive Orthodox school, is atypical in its acceptance of AIDS as a legitimate topic of discussion.

Even in so-called Modern Orthodox schools that might “address sexuality within a Jewish law course, AIDS is not a primary focus,” according to Jeff Lichtman, until recently director of the Torah High School Network.

“The schools on the right tend not to deal with sex education at all,” said Lichtman, who is now director of Yachad, a program for students with learning disabilities.

“AIDS and homosexuality are not dealt with very much, because the bottom line is that homosexuality is very much frowned upon,” he said.

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