At long last, mainstream synagogues are beginning to offer special programs for People With AIDS (PWA’s) and their families.
One such program is taking place at B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where 120 PWA’s and their families attended a seder this past Passover. The hagadah was enriched to include ten contemporary plagues, as well as “Four Children Confronting Illness!’ (“What kind of child am I in my illness? Angry? Silent? What kinds of questions do I ask?”)
Eating maror and charoset prompted reflections on “how bitterness and sweetness inevitably blend together in life!’ and people shared memories as others cheered and sang, according to Rolando Matalon, associate rabbi of the congregation, “People could be who they are. Many gays were openly being themselves in a Jewish setting for the first time!’ he said.
One woman, whose daughter, son-in-law and grandchild have AIDS, shared how her husband risked his life in the Warsaw ghetto procuring matzah for Passover. “This seder was one of the most powerful spiritual experience I ever had’,’ Matalon said.
B’nai Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue, also sponsors bimonthly Shabbat luncheons and special afternoon prayer services in which the theme is “home and comfort.”
At Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, also on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, dinner is provided weekly for 100 PWA’s. During the same hours, the Reform synagogue holds a clothing exchange, food distribution program and counseling sessions for PWA’s and their families.
In Los Angeles, three separate projects which provide brunches to AIDS patients at area hospitals are currently taking place. Five congregations — four Reform and one Conservative — serve brunch monthly at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital. They also bring “feel better” cards made by children in their congregations, according to Janet Marder, assistant director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in the Pacific Southwest Council.
Another such program is being run at the Kaiser Hospital on Sunset Boulevard. There, volunteers from the five Reform congregations also visits patients in their rooms if they are too sick to eat, Marder explained.
A third program, at County-USC Medical Center, is geared to outpatients. Marder explained that the outpatient population at this hospital is largely indigent. “They line up for hours before the brunch, waiting for food’,’ Marder said of the weekly lunches.
The LA programs are not restricted to Jewish PWA’s, according to Marder. In fact, initially staff at County-USC Medical Center had been apprehensive about that program, fearing that the coalition of synagogues involved was seeking to proselytize, she said.