Clergy urged to reach people with AIDS Rabbi says it's part of moral obligation

December 05, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Religious leaders who fail to reach out to people with HIV/AIDS in their congregations and communities fall short of their moral obligations, a rabbi who is a leader in the national response to AIDS told an interfaith gathering of clergy yesterday.

Marc S. Blumenthal, a Los Angeles-based rabbi who is the chairman of the AIDS National Interfaith Network, told a gathering at Temple Oheb Shalom that acquired immune deficiency syndrome "rolls up all the things that religion in general has a tough time dealing with," including homosexuality, drug use and death.

"But not to actively engage HIV/AIDS in our faith communities would be a dereliction of our duties and our moralities, no matter how we interpret them in all of our various communities of faith," he said. "If the work is about helping people where they are and bringing them to a different point in their spiritual life and helping them on their journey on their spiritual path, then we are all obligated to engage this."

Blumenthal spoke during events for "A Weekend of Compassion: Breaking the Barriers HIV/AIDS," sponsored by the Steven Kaufman AIDS Outreach Project of Jewish Family Services. The weekend concludes with "A Service of Memory, Healing and Hope," scheduled for 2: 30 p.m. tomorrow at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road.

Blumenthal is acknowledged as the first rabbi with the human immunodeficiency virus who openly speaks about his experiences. He got his diagnosis 11 years ago and is candid about how he contracted the disease: He is openly gay and got it through sex.

But it annoys him when others let those facts define who he is. Last week, for example, he spoke in Philadelphia, and the headlines in the local newspapers read, "Gay rabbi speaks on. "

"We're talking about AIDS," he said. "Being gay happens to be part of who I am, but it doesn't identify me. I'm not trying to get out of the issues around sexuality and homosexuality, but it is important to understand them in context."

AIDS has been a difficult subject in the Jewish community because of the spectrum of acceptance to rejection of homosexuality. Reform Jews officially accepted gay and lesbian clergy eight years ago. Conservative Judaism generally accepts homosexual members, but it does not ordain gay rabbis. Orthodox Jews consider homosexuality an abomination.

Blumenthal said that for religious communities, the experience of dealing with AIDS can be "transformative." He said clergy colleagues who were involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s "have pointed out the similarity to me, that just as civil rights was transformational for that generation, so too is HIV transformational for this generation."

Rabbi Donald Berlin of Temple Oheb Shalom, a Reform synagogue, said he still encounters ambivalence among some Jews.

"I've had some people from time to time question, 'Why don't you have a service for people with other kinds of illnesses?" he said. "I pointed out that we're doing this because this illness has such a deep stigma attached to it. And we, as Jews, know something about stigmas."

Pub Date: 12/05/98

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