SKOKIE, Ill. (JTA) — I got involved in the Jewish community because of an epidemic.
In the 1980s, I helped launch what was then called the AIDS Unit at the Illinois Department of Public Health. At the dawn of the outbreak, misinformation and prejudice ran rampant. Public officials, community leaders and even some clergy voiced shockingly hateful rhetoric.
One morning had been particularly tough. We had attended a funeral where the grieving parents had learned simultaneously only a short time earlier that their son was gay and was dying — and considered both pieces of news to be equally tragic. After we returned, I found the rest of the staff clustered around the director’s desk looking at a new brochure published by what is now the Union for Reform Judaism. As they read AIDS: A Glossary of Jewish Values, tears streamed down their faces.
The simple trifold brochure was a beacon of light in a very dark time. It encouraged Jews to visit the sick, or “bikur cholim,” and perform acts of lovingkindness, or “gemilut chasadim.” It reminded us that we are all responsible for one another, “kol yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh.” Most of all, it implored the community to embrace straightforward education and promote public awareness in the name of “pikuach nefesh,” the tenet that preserving human life overrides virtually any other commandment.
I had never been so proud to be a Jew.
In the months that followed, I connected with local rabbis who were taking the lead in mobilizing the community to address the epidemic, my first activism in the Jewish community as an adult.
While there are stark contrasts between today’s coronavirus pandemic and HIV/AIDS epidemic, Jewish law gives us a road map that applies to both. Saving lives, caring for the sick, protecting the vulnerable — actively extending ourselves to be empathetic, compassionate and kind — these have been our values since we stood together at Sinai.
As in the early years of the HIV epidemic, COVID-19 has upended rituals surrounding funerals and mourning. In the 1980s, funeral homes were hesitant to handle the bodies of those who succumbed to HIV and in some tragic instances, families shunned their funerals. Today, social distancing precludes funeral gatherings to help “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, in both instances, Jewish values demand that we step up to ensure that our community members do not mourn alone. Today’s technology offers us a wide menu of ways to send mourners a virtual hug — and even makes it possible to stream funeral services.
Just as was true for HIV, COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain to reveal some of society’s true heroes: the health care providers ferociously fighting a cruel disease. In a tradition that demands that we “choose life,” Jewish parents have always kvelled when their children became doctors, as well as nurses, EMTs and other health care providers.
Today, health care professionals’ loved ones are both proud and terrified, and need our support. So we sign up to send meals to ERs, stand on our front porches and balconies to applaud them when they return home from their 12-hour shifts, and launch campaigns to donate personal protective equipment where it’s needed.
Thirty-five years ago, when society abandoned people dying of HIV, it was a quiet, compassionate fleet of doctors and nurses that held vigil at the bedside of the dying. Now that we are unable to be at loved ones’ hospital bedsides, it is again health care providers who comfort people in their final moments of life, the ultimate act of lovingkindness that can never be repaid. Saying a mishebeirach for the sick at heart as well as the sick has never been more appropriate.
Now Judaism’s ultimate commandment — to preserve life — demands that we make the ultimate communal sacrifice, social distancing. This year, we will celebrate Passover by ourselves — but we will not be alone. We will celebrate together with a far-flung extended family from Tampa to Tel Aviv to Tashkent, with great-grandparents we never met and with great-grandchildren we will never know. We are part of a community that transcends geographies and generations.
Friends, we know who we are. We’ve got this.