AIDS quilt teaches teens lessons about Jewish living

Michele Silver remembers the last time she saw her cousin Alec Lerner. It was four years ago. She was 8. He was 37.

"I didn't want to see him," recalls the bat mitzvah student at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland. "He had AIDS. He was in the hospital and I was scared. But we [my family] went anyway.

"He died the next morning."

Silver's been thinking of her cousin a lot lately. Last week she honored his memory by creating part of a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Hoping to jump-start the Reform congregation's new b'nai mitzvah curriculum, Beth Abraham education director Adina Hamik set Silver and other seventh graders to work on an AIDS quilt panel with ribbons, markers, glitter and glue.

A section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, an ongoing tribute made by friends and family of those who have died of the disease, hangs in the synagogue's foyer throughout October. It is an example of what the students can do and a reminder to the congregation of the AIDS crisis.

Before the students unleashed their creative energies on fabric, however, they toured the Names Project Visitor Center, sponsors of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, in San Francisco.

This month they're meeting with an HIV-positive teen. They're also joining their parents for a lecture and discussion about AIDS and HIV. And in November the students will serve a dinner for people with AIDS.

"It's all in the name of zikaron (memory)," explained Hamik. With hopes of "putting the mitzvah (commandment) back in b'nai mitzvah," Hamik restructured the congregation's seventh-grade program.

She divided the year into eight themes, ranging from kedushat halashon (guarding one's tongue), to tza'ar ba'alei chayim (preventing cruelty to animals), and beginning with zikaron.

For three weeks students will study text related to a specific mitzvah. On the fourth week they'll connect learning with real life in the form of a field trip — like this month's visit to the Names Project, or a beach clean-up or trip to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

"The whole idea is to get away from a one-day performance [of the b'nai mitzvah]," Hamik said. Instead, educators will "teach our students the skills of day-to-day Jewish life.

"We have to quit lecturing. We have to show our students how to live as Jews."

Although the new curriculum is in its fledgling stage, Hamik is convinced her students are "getting the message."

For example, like Silver, classmate Maya Joseph-Goteiner also lost a family member to AIDS — her cousin Paul Trof.

The day the students worked on their panel, Joseph-Goteiner arrived for class with one of her cousin's bracelets and one of his personal checks. She attached the belongings to her square, which was sewn together with all the other students' squares to form the panel.

The Beth Abraham contribution will join the national quilt display in Washington, D.C., in December 1996. Meanwhile, the class decided to dedicate its panel to Silver and Joseph-Goteiner's relatives.

"That was really nice," Silver said.

Although she has learned a lot about AIDS since her cousin died, she knows even more after completing the zikaron unit, she said. In fact, she's even considering volunteering with an AIDS education or service organization.

Silver credits the student's meetings with HIV-infected volunteers at the Names Project for her increased awareness and sensitivity.

"I knew about AIDS, but I knew next to nothing about the Names Project. Going there made me realize just how many people have died from AIDS," Silver said. "I realized what a privilege it is to make a memorial panel.

"And I realized AIDS doesn't scare me anymore. I try not to feel sorry for them [people with AIDS] either. They don't want that. But sometimes it's hard."