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New York Synagogue Launches World’s First HIV Prevention Program Aimed at Jewish Clergy

Congregation Beit Simchat Torah’s new initiative hopes to fight stigma and help rabbis talk to their communities about safe sex

Rachel Delia Benaim
July 07, 2017
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah
This article is part of AIDS and the Jewish Community.
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A New York City-based synagogue recently completed the first Jewish clergy and leadership training about HIV prevention and safety. The program raises awareness about HIV risk, prevention, treatment, and stigma, with the hopes that the religious leaders will bring the message back to their communities.

“Talk to me about HIV” is the brainchild of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), which describes itself as the world’s largest LGBT synagogue. Over the last two months, they ran six trainings to address HIV/AIDS prevention, and to break the stigma surrounding the disease, creating a curriculum and a toolkit to accompany the program. Two of the training sessions took place at rabbinical schools; one at New York City’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school; and one at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Open Orthodox rabbinical school in the Bronx. The synagogue has posted several conversations about HIV online, and are in the process of compiling a digital tool kit, which will soon be posted on CBST’s website.

While many assume that the end of the AIDS crisis virtually erased HIV, the program seeks to educate people about the realities on the ground. “AIDS might be in the past but HIV is here and presents,” explained Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, director of social justice programming at CBST. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and weakens the individual’s ability to fight infections and disease; AIDS is the medical syndrome that develops when HIV goes unchecked, and is the point at which an individual’s body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. Since 1984, 34 million people have died of HIV, making it one of the most destructive pandemics in history. In the last 30 years, scientific advances have made the disease more manageable and treatable.

The history of HIV/AIDS has hugely impacted CBST, as the synagogue’s previous location in the West Village—it has since moved to 30th Street—and LGBT congregation put it at the epicenter of the epidemic. “We lost 25 percent of the male congregants during the AIDS crisis,” Bauer said. Currently, the community knows of 90 congregants who are HIV positive, but more are likely to be living with the disease without admitting it publicly.

The new program came to fruition when one congregant suggested to the synagogue’s leadership that CBST had a trove of knowledge about HIV/AIDS and should share it with the broader Jewish community. Simultaneously, the synagogue received a grant from the New York City Council, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Public Health Solutions for HIV/AIDS Faith Based Initiative. According to Bauer, CBST is the only Jewish group to have applied.

Putting the program together, the synagogue’s leadership chose to work specifically with rabbis, chaplains, and community leaders because they felt training religious leaders will have the most widespread impact. CBST, Bauer said, is hoping to train rabbis who “can say yes, I am informed and non-judgmental. You can talk to me about HIV.”

Silence around HIV/AIDS, Bauer, who came out to the congregation as HIV positive in 2014, added, “also means people are not talking to their teenagers about HIV when they’re becoming sexually active,” which further increases risk. And stigma against those with HIV/AIDS is still commonplace. “There’s such a huge stigma against HIV—people judge people who have HIV,” Bauer explained, assuming that “people have HIV for sexual decisions and will assume: Well, were you being a slut? Were you careless?”

Rabbi Bronwen Mullin, who received her ordination from Jewish Theological Seminary this spring, said the program helped her realize that “the stigma around HIV/AIDS is just as bad as it was 30 years ago.” The program, she said, “gave us a tool of practical knowledge,” including the history of HIV/AIDS, a survey of how the research has progressed, and discussions of “how we can advise people how to practice safe sex.”

“Maybe in some rabbinical schools it can feel like this isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing as rabbis,” Mullin said, “but this is what we’re supposed to do. We have to address all facts of life.”

Rachel Delia Benaim is a freelance religion reporter. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and The Diplomat, among others. Follow her on Twitter @rdbenaim.