September 14, 2006
Phone call sparks memory of young AIDS victim
I recently received a phone call from an extraordinary woman.
"This is Robin Jacobs," she said. I couldn't place her at first.
She started to cry as she continued, "I wanted you to know how much we cherish the wonderful book you made for Ariel's bat mitzvah." And then it hit me. I knew immediately who she was. My mind raced back 11 years to the summer of 1995. It was shortly before my nephew Aaron's bar mitzvah. There was an article in The Jewish Journal about a girl named Ariel Jacobs, who was preparing for her bat mitzvah.
I vividly remember her picture. She was angelic and beautiful -- her head was gently resting on the backs of her two Weimaraners. Coincidentally, both Aaron and Ariel were born at Cedars in 1982, within just a few weeks of each other. However, there was one big difference between them. Ariel had been jaundiced at birth, because of a blood-type incompatibility with her mother, and required a transfusion. As a result of contaminated blood, she contracted HIV, which later developed into AIDS.
As her bat mitzvah approached, Ariel was struggling with severe complications from the disease -- shingles, thrush, high fevers, severe rashes. Because of her frail condition, the ceremony was going to take place at the Jacobs' San Fernando Valley home. Ariel's incredibly supportive and loving family, which included her parents, Robin and Larry, and brothers, Ethan, then 17, and David, then 9, would be by her side.
I was deeply touched by Ariel's strength, courage and intense determination to celebrate her bat mitzvah. I was also acutely aware of how easily things could have turned out differently for my own family. I was so grateful to God that Aaron was healthy.
I wanted very much to do something special for Ariel to recognize her wonderful accomplishment. I loved the concept of trees as symbols of life. So, I contacted family members and friends (some as far away as Jerusalem) and asked them to honor Ariel by planting 18 trees, representing chai (life), in the Children's Forest in Israel.
I compiled the tree c ertificates and a special letter from President Bill Clinton into a book. Ariel loved it. Her parents said the book brought her much joy. She found it meaningful and comforting, and enjoyed sharing it with her friends. They displayed the book, along with a few other special gifts, at her bat mitzvah ceremony.
Ariel fulfilled her dream. Her bat mitzvah was an extremely moving experience for her family and friends. In an especially touching gesture, Ariel honored the memory of Anique Kasper by twinning the bat mitzvah with her. Anique, who was also born at Cedars during the same period, died of AIDS before reaching her 13th birthday.
In the years that followed, I thought about Ariel many times, but was reticent to call her parents. I wondered how she was doing and what had happened to her. I didn't know whether she had survived because of the new treatment regimens, or whether she had died. Unfortunately, as soon as I heard the pain in her mother's voice, I knew the answer -- my worst fears were realized.
Robin told me that after the bat mitzvah, Ariel's condition deteriorated. She developed a serious opportunistic infection, pneumocystis pneumonia, was wheelchair-bound and lost most of her vision. She suffered a great deal. Ariel fought a valiant battle with enormous dignity and grace. She died on Jan. 11, 1998, at the age of 15. She was surrounded by the family that loved her so deeply, the family that supported and stood by her every step of the way.
Ariel's indomitable spirit lives on. Robin and Larry Jacobs are anticipating the birth of their first grandchild at any moment. Her middle name will be Ariel. Robin called to share this wonderful news and to tell me that she plans to pass the book on to her new granddaughter one day.
Robin said that the book was one of the most meaningful gifts that Ariel and their family had ever received. She told me they often looked at it, and that it brought them great comfort -- especially after Ariel's death. Robin felt that the book inspired many of their friends to reach out to others in special ways. Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "The heart is revealed in the deed."
I believe Ariel's heart is truly an inspiration for all of us. She had limitless compassion and love. Her story has great meaning and can teach us valuable life lessons, especially during this introspective period of the Yomim Noraim.
Zichrona L'vracha. May her memory be a blessing.
Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.