Jewish Teens Talk about Aids

HIV/AIDS is a topic that many people avoided for years while it silently took its toll on their communities. The Jewish community is as guilty of this as any other community, and now there is much lost time to be made up. For AIDS prevention and education to be effective, it must overcome ignorance, prejudice and denial.

The Center for Disease Control reports that as of March 1993 there have been 182,275 reported deaths from AIDS, including over 2,000 children. These numbers are unrepresentative of the actual danger we are in from this disease. Dr. Robert Zielony, of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, points out that Americans are fixated on the number of reported cases of AIDS rather than on the widespread incidence of HIV. He compares it to describing the scenery by looking through a rear view mirror. Today’s reported cases reflect infections that may have occurred years ago. He adds that rather than asking how many Jews have the disease, we need to ask how many Jews was putting themselves at risk.

The Jewish community is now trying to reach out to its own members living with the disease and to their friends and families as well as to educate itself about prevention. HIV/AIDS prevention is a way to fulfill Pikuach Nefesh, the obligation to save a life, a commandment which takes precedence over all others.

The JBFCS runs an HIV/AIDS Prevention and Education Program. They believe that their presentations and workshops for children, teens and adults can manage HIV/AIDS awareness and reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission. The educational programs are often held at public and private schools, teens centers, PTA meetings and synagogues. One of the most important services they provide is training people to educate others. This leaves a lasting effect on the community and empowers people to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS through prevention and education.

Teenagers are often at high risk for AIDS and demand an approach to prevention education that they can understand and relate to. One of the most effective programs uses teen outreach groups to educate their peers about HW/AIDS. The programs are directed by Dr. Zielony, who described being reminded of the urgency to reach children after seeing his five year old nephew pick up a hypodermic needle in a New York City park.

The program was started in September 1988 with funding from the State Department of Health and UJA/Federation, recently it has lost most of its major funding. Despite the setbacks, the group has continued its work. With proper funding the group will be able to increase its staffing and reach many more people than it already does.

Dr. Zielony was linked through his work with the JBFCS to programs in the Jewish Community Center in Staten Island and the Riverdale YM-YWHA. The groups work in their own communities as well as in other parts of the city. The students are taught to be peer counselors through lectures, role plays, discussions and guest speakers. They present workshops, demonstrations and theatrical interpretations in schools and community centers. They educate their peers about high risk behavior, including unsafe sex and activities such as tattooing and ear piercing, and work to dispel myths about HIV/AIDS. They try to teach in a more engaging way than merely lecturing, with the belief that peers communicate and learn better with each other than from adults.

The group recruits students by making announcements in classrooms and community centers. It also sets up information tables and runs videos in school cafeterias. Many students got involved because they felt that the level of HIV/AIDS prevention and education provided by their school system is not sufficient. One of the peer educators. Ami Hoffman of Staten Island, complained that: “Only one week of one term throughout four years of high school is not enough HIV/AIDS education.” In addition to complaining about the limited education provided by the schools, Ivana Schechter, a peer educator from Riverdale. said “there is a lack of communication about HIV/AIDS within the young adult population. Many of them have never spoken to anyone about the disease.”

In recruiting and educating themselves and others, the teens have encountered many individual responses from their peers. Some, relying on the stereotypes of AIDS, believe that it is not their problem, and are driven by a sense of invulnerability. Others recognize the gravity’ of the situation through personal experience. Many of the students involved in the program believe that the most motivating experience was meeting someone living with HIV/AIDS.

The students involved in the program feel a great deal of support from their families and classmates. They remarked that only a few people were against the program. Their involvement is marked by an enthusiasm that goes beyond the education sessions. The students are proud that they are continually talking about prevention, spreading information and speaking with people who come to them for advice.

Involvement in peer education is often divided along gender and ethnic lines. Many more adolescent women are involved than adolescent men, Zielony says that it easier to recruit women for the peer education group “Because they don’t anticipate the stigma of homophobia of visibly being involved with AIDS prevention.” Another reason for this difference in participation, he notes, include the difference in adolescent gender maturity levels and the involvement in sports of many high functioning males. Ivana said that “It is O.K. for girls to be involved in HIV/AIDS education, but for men it is not macho, it is not a male thing to do.”

Many of these young women are Jewish. There appears to be a strong motivation among adolescent Jewish women to work in HIV/AIDS education. Ami explained that “as Jews we are taught to help the sick without judgment and heal the world.” In response to these commandments she says, “I hate seeing anyone suffer, so if I can help anyone I will.” Ivana echoed this sentiment, explaining how being Jewish can be a motivation for HIV/AIDS education work; “the Jewish community has always been willing to help those less fortunate. As Jews, we tend to be conscientious, liberal and charitable.” These young Jewish women have found that HIV/AIDS prevention and education is a way to fulfill the commandment to repair an imperfect world. “Everyone should realize they can defend themselves and prevent this disease,” Ami said.

Working with the peer education has enabled the students to reach out to people different from themselves. Recently, a group of the peer educators went down to the Lower East Side of New York City to run a workshop. The educators were mostly Jewish girls; the students from the Lower East Side were mainly African-American and Latin-American. At first the Jews felt out of place and feared they would not be able to say effectively what needed to be said. Ivana was proud to report that, “We quickly transcended our differences and were able to communicate about a disease that threatens us all.”