Twenty-five rabbinical students, including a few from American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, came away from the trip with an understanding of AIDS in Africa -- and the poverty that has helped turn the disease into an epidemic on the continent. Participants say the experience left a deep impression on them and convinced them of the need to do more to stop the spread of AIDS.
"I can't teach a lesson about poverty, I can't teach a lesson about tzedakah [charity] without drawing on this experience," said tour participant Dan Kaiman, 23, of AJU's Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. "Because it's part and parcel of so many of the tikkun olam -- the repairing the world issues -- that we deal with on a daily basis."
The students visited Ghana for 10 days in January on a trip organized by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which supports the removal of restrictions from U.S. world AIDS policies, such as an abstinence-until-marriage earmark or an anti-prostitution pledge.
The students learned how desperate poverty contributes to the spread of AIDS in Africa when they visited a refugee camp in Ghana, where residents live in concrete-block houses on dirt streets, unable to find legal work because of their alien status.
Liberian refugees living in the camp told the rabbinical students some young mothers are forced to work as prostitutes to feed their children, often becoming infected with HIV as a result.
"The poverty was just something on a scale that I couldn't quite imagine, living in Los Angeles my whole life," said tour participant Adam Greenwald, 23, a student at AJU.
"To imagine if the choice is feeding your children today or a health risk down the road, I do certainly understand how a person could make the choice that they simply need to provide food for their family," Greenwald said.
The students stayed in an area of Ghana called Hohoe, where they met with a Cuban doctor sent by his government to serve the country. The doctor, who is one of only a handful of licensed doctors in the area, explained that he sometimes diagnoses a dozen cases of HIV infection each week, said tour participant Joshua Corber, 25, of AJU.
The students also got an introduction to another side of health care in Ghana when they visited a healing clinic in a village near Hohoe, where patients with broken bones were bandaged with herbs, students said.
Chickens roamed the clinic's dirt floors, and saws for amputations were among the few pieces of medical equipment on hand, students said.
An herbal healer at the clinic gave a disconcerting response when asked what he does to prevent HIV infection, Greenwald said.
"He said after each amputation he purchased a new saw," Greenwald said.
For Corber, the tour revealed the social stigma that people with HIV encounter in Ghana.
"Nobody wants to admit that they have it, because basically the fear is and the reality is that they will be ostracized from the village, the community and their family," Corber said. "And then they really will have no support at all."
An estimated 2.2 percent of adults in Ghana had HIV or AIDS in 2006, which is relatively low for Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounts for one-third of all the world's new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.
The rabbinical students who toured Ghana saw measures that are being taken in the African country to prevent the spread of HIV.
At the refugee camp for Liberians who have fled the civil wars in their home country, a bowl of free condoms was set outside the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Kaiman said. The camp was near Accra, the capital of the country.
And at the office of an AIDS-fighting group in Hohoe, the rabbinical students played the part of audience members, as a group of local teens put on a play about resisting the peer pressure to have sex at a young age. The teens present the play at schools in Ghana, as a way to educate youths to avoid HIV infection.
Corber, Greenwald and Kaiman, who all attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU, said their tour of Ghana left a deep impression on them.
"It certainly opened my eyes," said Kaiman, who grew up in New Jersey. "Africa isn't something far away and distant anymore. It's something very personal, and it's something that you can't avoid."
Since returning to the United States, Kaiman has given a presentation about his Ghana experience at a synagogue, and he has contacted his representative in congress and members of the House Foreign Relations Committee to call for changes to the president's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
Corber, who grew up in Vancouver, Canada, said that after having seen the work that New York-based AJWS is doing in Africa, he is convinced that a little money goes a long way in Africa. That's especially the case when the money goes to groups such as AJWS that work with established organizations in the developing world, Corber said.
Greenwald said the experience reinforced his own core beliefs.
"The core of my religious commitment is the idea that all human beings are children of a single God," he said. "And if a large chunk of those human beings are sick and dying, then those are not others -- there are no others -- those are brothers and sisters and cousins who are my responsibility."