U.S. Jewish groups respond to World AIDS Day by pushing for more financial support

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new york | “For the sake of our shared humanity, we cannot afford to fail.” So says an open letter to the Jewish community issued by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, together with Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish leaders, calling on “synagogues and rabbis to renew and affirm our commitment to ending the AIDS crisis in Africa and elsewhere around the world.”

The letter was issued Dec. 1, the 16th annual World AIDS Day. Jewish groups from across the denominational spectrum are calling on the Jewish community to help fight AIDS in Africa and other places hit hard by the pandemic.

Worldwide, 40 million are infected with AIDS or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“In the case of AIDS, we think that these are preventable deaths. There are few mandates in Judaism as clear as pikuach nefesh, to not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” said Ruth Messinger, president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service.

Jewish groups have been involved for the last 15 years in confronting the epidemic, from reaching out to sick community members to working on legislation that would relieve developing nations of their debt so they can use resources on education and health care instead of paying off loans.

AJWS has taken the lead in AIDS relief efforts within the Jewish community. The relief organization spends more than one-third of its $3 million international development and relief budget on AIDS relief programs.

Over the past three years, AJWS has supported 47 grass-roots organizations that focus on AIDS prevention, education and care.

“We don’t fund large international organizations; we fund on the ground, like a group in Zimbabwe that trains peer educators to alert their peers to the threat of AIDS and the danger of sexually transmitted diseases,” Messinger said.

AJWS helped found the Jewish Coalition, a coalition made up of 18 organizations and congregations in the United States. The coalition works on an advocacy level in Washington to make sure U.S. allocations get to those who need it.

In his State of the Union address last January, President Bush set aside $15 billion over 5 years to fund AIDS relief.  Last week, Congress allocated $2.4 billion for the first year of that commitment.

But all evidence points to the need for increased care, especially among people suffering from HIV and AIDS in poor and developing countries.

The AIDS epidemic has continued to spread since the first case was diagnosed in the early 1980s. According to World Health Organization statistics, 5 million people were newly infected and 3 million people — or about 8,000 a day — died from AIDS this year alone.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where 2.4 million people died of AIDS in 2002, only about 50,000 people are getting treatment, according to UNAIDS, the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS.

Of the 5 million to 6 million people in developing countries who are infected with HIV and need access to drug treatment programs like anti-retroviral care, only 300,000 have access, according to the UNAIDS Web site.

Part of the intent of the Jewish community’s open letter was to make people aware of how seriously the Jewish community is taking the AIDS epidemic, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center.

“Now we hope the letter will be distributed to synagogues and rabbis across the country and lead them to do more educational programs and look for ways to be helpful in expanding the response to this issue,” Saperstein said.

AJWS’s Messenger added, “We follow what we believe are the obligations of Judaism: tikkun olam,” or repairing the world, and an obligation “to reach out to the stranger and to intercede where possible to save a life, which is the case with AIDS.’