Volunteers who helped Jews with HIV and AIDS when little was known of the virus have said Anglo-Jewry’s response was “way ahead” of other faiths at the time.
The early years were filled with myths and stigmas, said Laurence Lewis, among the first cohort of volunteers for the Jewish AIDS Trust (JAT), but the community’s attitude to the issue and its impact made a huge difference. “There was a pragmatic approach, which meant our community listened to information about the disease.”
“I was determined to see all those myths out there debunked, like the idea that you could get it from saliva, or touch. So JAT made sure the message got out to synagogues and to our youth groups, that this was a disease that could only be contracted in two ways – through blood and sexual fluids.”
He said “people listened, and it helped greatly”. It “meant people living with HIV/AIDS were treated with more empathy and dignity… It also dampened some of the hysteria that communities can sometimes whip up.”
The 63-year-old, who lives in Finchley, said he joined a group of 20 volunteers who helped to support Jewish people who received an HIV diagnosis in the 1980s and 1990s because he was used to visiting the elderly on a regular basis.
“As we know, the HIV/AIDS virus was a death sentence up to the mid-90s,” he explained. “I arranged kosher food for a patient to arrive before Shabbat out of respect for his religious parents who didn’t want him to receive food during Shabbat. Things like that were often important in bringing together families.”
Lewis is proud of the way the community communicated the needs of every person. “We quickly identified that there were women with the illness too, and a British-Jewish woman became a volunteer speaker to schools,” he said. “We were always talking to a mainly heterosexual audience, and she was proof that the heterosexual community was at risk too.”
It was a particular tragedy during the height of the epidemic in the early 1990s that led to a change in the community’s relationships and sex education, he said. “A former head boy of JFS died of an AIDS-related illness in his mid-twenties, and it was that closeness of impact that led to us being given a platform to speak about sexual health.
“It was a classic example of pragmatism. I could go in and talk at JFS, I couldn’t proactively say the ‘c-word’ – condoms — but if asked, I could tell pupils that condoms were something that could protect them from serious woes.”
Today, medics are winning their battle against the virus, and a new vaccine is expected in the next year or two.