“I am not religious but…!’
So begins a typical call to Congregation Beth Simchat Torah’s AIDS counselling hotline. Saul Zalkin, who answers calls from his home, responds with a welcome. “These people may not pray every day, but they have religious belief. The group helps them to feel less ill at ease with religious issues!’
Although the New York City-based gay and lesbian synagogue’s hotline group had originally planned to provide spiritual counselling, group members tend to handle requests for more practical advice: problems with poor pastoral counselling of AIDS patients in the hospitals, questions about funerals and mourning practices, requests for memorial services.
The Beth Simchat Torah counselling hotline was established six years ago by a small group of congregants. The volunteer staffers realize that many AIDS patients are wary of overtures by their own religious groups, possibly because of past conflicts, according to Zalkin. This is most evident in hospital situations where Jewish patients often reject the attentions of a rabbi, but speak to a priest, while Catholic patients will reach out to a visiting rabbi.
The Beth Simchat Torah group visits patients in AIDS wards on a regular basis and prepares gift packages three times a year for the Jewish holidays. The feedback from patients, group members find, is “wonderful!’
The Beth Simchat Torah group encourages calls not only from people with AIDS, but from family members and friends who want counselling and support. For information about the hotline call Congregation Beth Simchat Torah at (212) 929-9498 or Saul Zalkin at (212) 724-6050.