June 5, 2008
Reform rabbinical school teaches students to reach out to HIV/AIDS patients
HIV/AIDS education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) means "making sure rabbinical students don't leave campus before they hone their skills to help people in need," said Michele Prince, director of the Kalsman Institute of Judaism and Health at HUC-JIR.
At a time when HIV is more easily treatable but still a serious threat to global health, the imperative to care for those who are affected by the virus is both urgent and complex.
That means that while coursework in clinical pastoral education and pastoral counseling equips students with a theoretical understanding of the particular needs of people with HIV/AIDS, the most meaningful learning experiences most often happen away from the classroom.
"They work it out right at the bedside," Prince said.
Through internships, students can also gain experience with marginalized people -- the homeless, inmates in the Los Angeles County prison system, the mentally ill -- who are less likely to have access to the new generation of medications that has allowed most HIV/AIDS patients to manage their disease more effectively.
"There are fewer patients who are hospitalized with HIV-related illnesses," said Prince, "but people with the disease are often still stigmatized. That's where the social justice component of pastoral education comes into play."
Advocating for a social justice approach to HIV/AIDS education also entails teaching the values of Reform Judaism to young people who are just beginning to awaken to their sexual selves.
Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine has developed a program co-sponsored by the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at HUC-JIR that provides information on sexual ethics and values to teenagers.
"Parents are sometimes shocked when they hear about the program, because they think we're going to be talking to their kids about the mechanics of sex," Schuldenfrei said. "What we want to emphasize is the value of beri'ut, emotional and spiritual health. As human beings we're given the gifts of a physical body and wisdom, which means it's our responsibility to learn how our bodies work and how to use them responsibly."
Schuldenfrei said she works to help teens create language informed by scientific understanding that they can use to talk about sexuality with their parents and peers.
"So much mythology goes along with sex," she said. "The science behind sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and pregnancy is part of the wisdom we have to offer when we teach about the ethics of sexuality. You have to teach the health component side-by-side with values."
In addition to reaching across generations, HUC-JIR may also soon be reaching across oceans in its effort to bring HIV/AIDS care and education to people in need, said Prince. A recent rabbinical intern from Uganda hopes to attract other interns to his community in central Africa, where the spread of HIV across a wide swath of the population has had a destabilizing effect on social and economic development.
"The possibility of extending our reach internationally on the HIV/AIDS issue is just another aspect of the social justice component of what we do," Prince said.