Put to the test: A young woman talks life with HIV

While growing up in a suburban Jewish home in Granada Hills, Kelly Gluckman never thought she could become HIV positive.  

“I knew that AIDS was a huge problem in Africa, in the gay community and among drug abusers, but it was something that happened to ‘them’ over there,” Gluckman, 29, said during an interview at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org) in Beverly Hills, where she is now an activist who speaks to young people about HIV and AIDS.  

“Essentially, I was a heterosexual female who had sex with men who had sex with women. So while I knew that HIV existed, I never thought it could happen to me.”

Gluckman will turn out to urge people to get free testing for the virus during an event at The Abbey in West Hollywood, hosted by the foundation in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, on June 27, National HIV Testing Day. 

Despite Gluckman’s early naiveté about the virus, condom use was mandatory with every one of her partners, and Gluckman made sure to get tested for HIV every time she got together with a new boyfriend. That is, until she began dating “Adam” (not his real name), a good friend who eventually became her boyfriend when she was 22.  

They were living together and had been intimate for a couple of months when, Gluckman said, her judgment lapsed and she decided to forego condoms during sex. Not long thereafter, Gluckman realized her mistake and insisted that they both get tested for HIV.  On Oct. 25, 2010, she and Adam arrived at the offices of Planned Parenthood in Santa Monica, where he was called first into the doctor’s office.  

“He came back and said he had tested positive, and I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Gluckman recalled.  “We had the kind of relationship where we bantered all the time, so I thought he was joking. But then I looked at him and his face was white. All that was flashing through my mind was the last number of months of unprotected sex.”

Gluckman said she felt numb when her own test came back positive as well; but she perked up on the way back home to the couple’s apartment. Magic Johnson had been infected with HIV, but he was cured, she erroneously thought. A subsequent Google search revealed that while Johnson is healthy, he still has the retrovirus. 

“I was crushed,” Gluckman said.

She asked Adam if he had been faithful, and whether he knew of any previous partners who could have infected him. He adamantly told her no. But before long, a mutual male friend admitted to Gluckman that he had slept with Adam while the couple was together. 

“I screamed and cried,” said Gluckman, who was working as a server at a Sherman Oaks restaurant at the time.  

When she confronted her boyfriend, he at first denied any infidelity. But eventually he confessed to having sex with their friend, as well as more than 12 other men before he had started dating Gluckman.

Still, she said, “One reason it took me so long to break up with Adam is that I was scared other people wouldn’t find me attractive anymore.”

She also hoped that she and Adam could face their health crisis together. But while she diligently researched the virus and arranged for the couple to be treated at the Los Angeles LGBT Center (previously the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center), Adam did nothing to help her.  

“Then I noticed that he was making no effort to contact his previous partners about his HIV,” Gluckman said. “It turned out that being with Adam was like carrying a monkey on my back, apart from the cheating and the betrayal.”

Nine months after her diagnosis, Gluckman finally broke off the relationship, but her journey to getting treatment was fraught. Gluckman initially declined to take her prescribed anti-retroviral drugs “because I didn’t trust the government or the pharmaceutical companies,” she said. She even dabbled in HIV denialism. But she was alarmed when she discovered that her viral load had tripled after three months. Learning about the death of one denialist who had refused treatment finally convinced her to take the crucial drugs.

In person, Gluckman is petite, brunette, and has inspirational tattoos inked across her forearms.  One of them reads, “no regrets,” which is how she now feels about her HIV. 

“It’s become a blessing in disguise,” Gluckman said. It is because of her HIV that she has finally found her calling in life: as an advocate for HIV and AIDS prevention among young people.

Her activism began in 2011 when an official at the LGBT Center suggested that she participate in an advertising campaign, “Let’s Stop HIV Together,” sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. Gluckman went on to appear in an MTV documentary, “I’m Positive,” produced by Dr. Drew Pinsky, which focused on three young people living with HIV. She spoke to homeless youth and began working as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, lobbying in Washington, D.C., on behalf of sex education as well as lecturing to diverse young people.  Gluckman also became a member of the UCLA Sex Squad, a performing troupe devoted to sex education for high school students.

“Kelly’s openness to tell her story has been invaluable for furthering [our] mission to see an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” foundation spokeswoman Cristin Klein said in an email.  “Her story has allowed [us] to get her message in front of young people across the country, which has been far more receptive coming from a peer. Every time Kelly shares her story, she is helping to remove the stigma that surrounds HIV.”

Not that everything has been smooth sailing for Gluckman.  

“Dating has been extremely difficult,” she said.  

Gluckman has disclosed her HIV status on every first date: “I don’t want to invest my time, energy and emotion into someone who is not going to take an interest in me as a person,” she said.  

Most often, her dates would tell her she is an amazing person and that they respect her — and then she would never hear from them again. When one man learned of Gluckman’s HIV status, he ordered her to leave his home.

Today, however, Gluckman is in a committed relationship going on eight months with a man she met on Tinder; her viral load is undetectable, and she takes just one pill a day to keep healthy. Her family and friends have been supportive.

When she speaks to young people, she wants them to know that “HIV can happen to anybody; viruses don’t discriminate,” she said. “But you’re not a lesser person if you have acquired the virus; the vast majority of us are sexual beings.”

She also emphasizes, “If you get HIV, it’s not the end of the world. It sucks; I’m not going to tell you it’s a walk in the park. But it can be manageable. However, you need to get tested right away and if you’re positive, take care of it. Nip it in the bud, because if you wait until you land in the hospital with full-blown AIDS, it’s already done major damage to your body and probably will have taken some years off of your life.”

Gluckman also advocates the importance of safe sex. “Since becoming HIV positive, using condoms has become something that can be fun,” she said. “I get to have as much fun as I want, because of this safety net.”

In the fall, Gluckman will attend UCLA to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts advocacy toward HIV and AIDS education.  

“Through getting diagnosed, starting to do advocacy work and becom[ing] more and more passionate about it, I’ve found a real sense of purpose,” she said.

Shkreli insults Congress on Twitter after refusing to testify

Former Turing Pharmaceuticals Chief Executive Officer Martin Shkreli on Thursday called members of Congress “imbeciles” on Twitter, moments after he refused to testify before a House of Representatives committee on why his company raised the price of a lifesaving medicine by 5,000 percent.

“Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government,” said Shkreli, using his @MartinShkreli Twitter handle.

Earlier, Shkreli invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions from lawmakers about drug price increases he engineered, such as hiking the price of 62-year-old Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50. 

During the hearing, Shkreli, whose youth and attitude have prompted some critics to label him “Pharmabro,” responded to questions by laughing, twirling a pencil and yawning. 

After his appearance, he tweeted: “I had prior counsel produce a memo on facial expressions during congressional testimony if anyone wants to see it. Interesting precedence.”

He retweeted several posts, including one from Michael J Lis (@mikeylis) that said: “Congress should just ask @MartinShkreli questions on Twitter instead of putting them in front of the house committee.” 

Shkreli, 32, also interacted with some journalists, responding to one remark on his voting record with “have never voted and never will.”

Shkreli, who sparked outrage last year after the big hike in the price of 62-year-old Daraprim, was a trending topic on social media following the hearing. There were about 40 posts per minute about him on Twitter as of midday Thursday, according to analytics firm Zoomph. About 92,000 people were talking about Shkreli on Facebook.

His appearance on Thursday angered members of Congress. Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders), U.S. senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted: “The American people are fed up with the blatant profiteering of pharmaceutical company CEOs like Martin Shkreli. It must end.”

U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (@RepLujanGrisham), a New Mexico Democrat, said: “With all of the smirking, does @MartinShkreli really take this issue seriously? #PharmaBro.”

Twitter sentiment was negative overall toward Shkreli, according to Zoomph, and some tweets indicated it was not much better toward members of Congress. 

WDW Vacationer (@WDWVacationer) tweeted: “Trey Gowdy might be worse than Shkreli,” referring to an exchange in which the Republican representative from South Carolina got Shkreli to confirm how his last name is pronounced and then said: “See? … You did just answer a question.”

Gay-rights pioneer, playwright Kramer subject of new HBO doc

When young gay men began dying in 1981 of a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, waves of shock and fear spread throughout the gay community. The media coined the term “GRID,” for gay-related immune deficiency, until the term “AIDS” replaced it the following year. 

Watching his friends die one after the other, author and screenwriter Larry Kramer knew he had to act. By 1982, he’d helped found Gay Men’s Health Crisis to provide support and needed services to people living with HIV and AIDS. In 1987, he founded the more militant ACT UP to demand political action to fight the epidemic of AIDS. As Kramer said in a TV interview during that era, “We have to start being powerful or we are going to die.”

In the documentary “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and premieres June 29 on HBO, filmmaker Jean Carlomusto weaves together interviews with Kramer and other gay- rights leaders, shot over more than three decades with footage of street protests and tense activist meetings, to uncover the complex man at the heart of the story.

The film begins in September 1991 at an AIDS forum in New York City. AIDS had already killed 150,000 people in the U.S., and the death rate showed no sign of slowing. Kramer took the podium. He looked tense, his brow furrowed, his head resting on his palm. Finally he broke his silence and screamed out the word no one wanted to hear: “Plague!” People around the world are despondent, he shouted, as his eyes searched the room as if looking for a solution. Throughout the film, Kramer is as fiery as a biblical preacher railing against apathy and effeteness, going so far as to call his fellow homosexuals “sissies” for not being aggressive in demanding more.

In his semi-autobiographical 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” which won a Tony Award for best play revival on Broadway in 2011, Kramer made the protagonist Ned Weeks (based on himself) an obnoxious character. Kramer has a reputation of being a bombastic loudmouth and a contrarian. He admits it openly, almost gleefully. But, as the writer Calvin Trillin points out in the film, “a certain generation of gay men have reason to believe that Larry saved their lives.”

Kramer was, and still is, a controversial and divisive figure. He alienated many in the gay community for criticizing promiscuity and recreational drug use in his 1978 novel “Faggots,” though he was slightly redeemed when those activities were shown to have increased the spread of AIDS. He resigned from the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1983 because the other members weren’t as confrontational as he felt they needed to be. His next group, ACT UP, galvanized a community of activists to demand the Food and Drug Administration speed up the approval process for AIDS drugs, staging violent demonstrations and singling out government and medical officials for criticism.

Although much of the film takes place in New York, AIDS activism also had a strong presence on the West Coast, with groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles marching in solidarity. Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger,   one of the country’s first openly lesbian rabbis, began working at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in 1988 as its first full-time rabbi, at the height of the AIDS crisis. 

“People were diagnosed and dead within six weeks,” Eger said. “It was a very bad time. People were in deep mourning, in crisis and traumatized.”

Eger ran a support group for HIV/AIDS patients and their loved ones, which continues to meet. 

“Most of my days as a rabbi were spent simply driving from hospital to hospital,” Eger said. She went from West L.A. to downtown, Sherman Oaks, Long Beach and UCLA, visiting sick congregants. “In 1988, people didn’t understand the disease. You’d go into a hospital, and they’d make you put on a full-body gown,” she said.

In “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis are shown visiting hospital patients in New York, bringing them trays of food that nurses had left outside their doors because they were too afraid to enter. 

The documentary also explores lesser-known aspects of Kramer’s life: his contentious relationship with his parents, the affection he shared with his older brother, Arthur, and his difficult experiences as a closeted gay college student at Yale, where he attempted suicide. Kramer lived in London in the swinging ’60s, where he came to terms with his sexuality and also blossomed creatively. He worked for United Artists on several films and wrote the screenplay for “Women in Love,” a provocative adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel that won him international recognition.

Kramer tied his background in the film industry with his success as an activist. “We really were doing street theater, and we had a lot of really talented people,” he says in the film. “I was trained in the movie business. You call it direct action, I call it putting on a show.”

It’s remarkable to see Kramer deliver fiery, impassioned speeches in the 1980s and ’90s, contrasted with footage of him in July 2013, hospitalized for complications from a liver transplant related to years of living with and battling HIV. At 78, the disease that he spent much of his life fighting, both politically and personally, had taken its toll. He could barely lift his head or speak.

The film ends triumphantly, as Kramer marries his longtime partner, David Webster, while in the intensive care unit of New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Kramer left the hospital in May 2014 and is currently at work on a book about gay history in America. He has led an unconventional life, and continues to fight for AIDS victims as they continue to wait for researchers to develop an AIDS vaccine and cure.

Facebook’s Zuckerberg to donate $25 million to tackle Ebola

Facebook Inc Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on Tuesday he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would donate $25 million to the Centers for Disease Control Foundation to fight Ebola.

“We need to get Ebola under control in the near term so that it doesn't spread further and become a long-term global health crisis that we end up fighting for decades at large scale, like HIV or polio,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post.

The death toll in the outbreak, first reported in Guinea in March, has reached 4,447 from a total of 8,914 cases, World Health Organization Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward said on Tuesday.

Reporting by Anya George Tharakan in Bangalore; Editing by Simon Jennings

Donald Sterling TV tirade puts surprise spotlight on Jewish free loan groups

Not every celebrity endorsement is a welcome one.

The saga of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling took yet another bizarre turn when he went on national television this week and started touting the virtues of Jewish mutual aid organizations.

In a CNN interview that aired Monday night, Sterling’s attempt to apologize for the inflammatory racial remarks that may cost him his team veered into a tirade against Magic Johnson. The Jewish tycoon argued that the basketball legend, who has a charitable foundation that addresses HIV/AIDS issues, is insufficiently philanthropic, and Sterling invoked the tradition of Jewish free loan associations to make his point.

“What does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything. The Jewish people have a company, and it’s for people who want to borrow money at no interest,” Sterling told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “They want to give them a fishing pole. We want to help people. If they don’t have the money, we’ll loan it to you. You don’t have interest. One day you’ll pay us back.”

Earlier in the interview, during another attack on Johnson, Sterling said, “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African-Americans — maybe I’ll get in trouble again — they don’t want to help anybody.”

What Sterling was describing — and thrusting rather uncomfortably into the media glare — is a more than century-old communal institution that has helped both Jews and non-Jews with interest-free loans.

His words were not exactly welcome news to the professionals who run these organizations.

“I’m sorry that he mentioned us,” said Cindy Rogoway, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Francisco and vice president of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. “I just think he’s a disgrace to himself.”

Sterling’s remarks,  however, do shed light on what has been a quiet corner of the Jewish charitable world.

Jewish free loan societies grew out of the landsmanschaften, or mutual benefit societies, organized by Jews from Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and transported to America when they immigrated.

Drawing on the biblical admonition not to charge interest to fellow Jews, the interest-free loan societies became a key financial resource for immigrants, providing funds for housing and education, as well as capital for small business expenses such as pushcarts and sewing machines.

“One of the main reasons that Hebrew free loan societies became so popular in the United States is that many immigrant Jews used these as access to capital for business,” said Shelly Tenenbaum, a professor of sociology at Clark University and the author of “A Credit to Their Community: Jewish Loan Societies in the United States.” “Business was a very important vehicle for Jewish immigrant mobility.”

Free loan societies proliferated. According to Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor of Jewish nonprofit management at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, a 1927 survey by the American Jewish Committee counted more than 500 Jewish free loan societies in the United States.

But by the mid-1940s, free loan societies were on the decline. Banks began to provide better access to capital through personal loans and the needs of growing Jewish businesses outstripped the societies’ resources.

The website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans lists more than 30 Jewish free loan associations in the United States that belong to its network, along with others overseas.

Interestingly, the two largest American Jewish free loan societies, in New York and Los Angeles, were founded more than 100 years ago as nonsectarian institutions, giving loans to Jews and non-Jews. San Francisco, the third largest, has been sectarian since it was founded in 1897, but it has just launched a pilot program to offer student loans on a nonsectarian basis.

The Jewish free loan societies now fund an array of programs ranging from loans for education and small business, but also for camping, adoption and even fertility treatment. Borrowers are required to have one or more co-signers. All the free loan societies boast repayment rates of more than 99 percent.

A number of free loan societies have seen their assets and loan pools grow in recent years — the Jewish Free Loan Association in Los Angeles, for example, has some $18 million in assets and approximately $11 million circulating in loans, a figure it estimates has risen by about $1 million a year in the past few years.

The organization said Sterling has not been a donor but declined to comment further on his remarks.

Recent economic turbulence also has returned free loan societies to their roots as a last-resort safety net for American Jews and others.

The San Francisco association recently implemented an unemployment loan program. Rachel Grose, an associate director for the Los Angeles group, said that starting with the recession, her organization has seen its applicant pool expand from the poor and working classes to include more middle-class people.

“You had a lot of people who lost their jobs,” Grose said. “They weren’t necessarily living extravagant lifestyles, but they weren’t our typical caseload.”

Jewish free loan associations have inspired other ethnic groups to emulate their model. In San Francisco, the Hebrew Free Loan Association has been working for more than a decade with members of the local black community, including former Mayor Willie Brown, to help establish the African American Interest Free Loan Association.

Timothy Simon, the board chairman of the AAIFLA, said his organization is restructuring but hopes to begin making loans later this year pending approval by the state, with the San Francisco Hebrew Free Loan Association helping to evaluate, serve and process loans.

The city’s Hebrew Free Loan Association “has been not only extremely supportive but overwhelmingly empathetic to the needs of underserved communities in San Francisco,” Simon told JTA. “Our alliance is very strong.”

Ron Diskin: Mapping defenses against HIV

The race to find a cure for AIDS, one of Earth’s most pressing epidemics for more than three decades now, is often more of a chaotic relay. Thousands of international scientists must constantly revise their own projects to keep up with findings from across all scientific disciplines — always collaborating toward a common good, yet also trying to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Israeli biologist Ron Diskin, 36, knows this cycle well. Still, he’s more of a team player than a superstar. Despite his status as a standout in the global AIDS research community for his investigation into the microscopic structure of the HIV virus — and, most recently, his revelations on the human body’s own natural HIV defense system — Diskin is hesitant to hype his individual results. 

“I know people want to hear about [a cure], but this is not my research,” said Diskin, sitting in his spacious new office at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “My research is purely structural.”

The young scientist — who casually inhabits his swivel chair in a pair of khaki shorts, an orange T-shirt and a wide, geometric smile — said that applying his findings to the creation of a therapeutic agent will likely take years, although there are constant reminders that one is needed today.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, with financial help from the Weizmann Institute, decided to fly Diskin out for a visit Oct. 10-16 for a whirlwind week of AIDS events and speaking opportunities. These include the annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles — in which Diskin will participate on Oct. 13 — as well as a town hall meeting at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and a series of more scholarly presentations at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, USC and UCLA.

Of the various paths that scientists are currently forging toward an HIV vaccine, Diskin’s research has provided some of the most stable footing, said Z. Hong Zhou, a UCLA professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics who invited Diskin to speak about his research at UCLA this month. 

Diskin was part of a U.S. team which recently identified a group of potent antibodies that grow naturally in some HIV patients after a few years of infection — proteins produced by the patients’ own immune systems to fight off the HIV virus. In 2012 and 2013, Diskin’s team published a series of groundbreaking papers showing that these exceptionally strong HIV antibodies, called “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” could be synthetically reproduced — and even strengthened — in the lab.

Unlike previously studied antibodies, Diskin’s new, more versatile antibodies proved effective against many different types of HIV, including those more prevalent in Africa and Asia, where the AIDS crisis is ugliest. They also stood up to sneaky mutations within the HIV virus over time.

In December 2012, Diskin’s team proved in a paper that these new antibodies could “effectively control HIV-1 replication in humanized mice, and should be re-examined as a therapeutic modality in HIV-1-infected individuals.”

UCLA’s Zhou praised Diskin’s contribution to the breakthrough. 

“What is very, very interesting about Ron’s research is that he’s working on the antibodies produced by human cells — a human mechanism of defense,” he said. “Knowing how the antibody [defends human cells] is very important, and Ron basically determined how the antibody binds” to the HIV virus.

The hope, according to Zhou, is that scientists will eventually use Diskin’s research to “design something — sort of a mimic of this kind of antibody — and perhaps use this designed antibody as a vaccine or another therapeutic agent to prevent HIV infection.”

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, said stateside visits from Israelis like Diskin are necessary to educate skeptical Americans about Israel’s more progressive side.

“It’s one way to help Israel academically and scientifically, and it’s also a much more proactive way of dealing with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] issues on campus,” he said.

Much as Miss Israel Yityish Aynaw’s recent visit to L.A. drew interest from Ethiopian immigrants and other African descendants in the area — Aynaw was born in Ethiopia — Siegel said he is hoping the Diskin tour will highlight Israel’s social and scientific advancements, as opposed to its widely criticized activity in the Palestinian territories. 

In particular, Diskin’s speech at Kol Ami, an LGBT congregation, is expected to attract many interested members of the West Hollywood community, some of them not necessarily connected to Israel, but eager to hear about Diskin’s world-famous HIV research.

After growing up an outdoorsy kid in Jerusalem and receiving three degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, including a doctorate in biochemistry, Diskin flew to the United States for his postdoctoral studies. He worked under Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, which has been ranked the world’s No. 1 research university for the last three years by Britain’s Times Higher Education magazine.

Diskin had been trained at Hebrew University in structural biology — specifically, in using a 3D imaging method called X-ray crystallography to examine structural differences within families of proteins. But when he came to work under Bjorkman at Caltech, she surprised him with an offer to work on a new project in her lab: HIV.

Initial results were promising. The Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, a network of scientists, research entities and supporters working to turn myriad HIV research efforts into a tangible vaccine, recognized Diskin as a “Young/Early Career Investigator” in 2010.

During his first couple of years at Caltech, the Israeli biologist used X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of glycoprotein 120, or GP120, the notorious binding protein on the surface of the HIV virus, which allows it to latch onto and infect host cells. 

But the HIV research field was turned on its head in 2011, when Michel Nussenzweig, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, discovered how to clone a whole new set of natural antibodies that were developing in some longtime HIV patients — much more aggressive and diverse than the antibodies that scientists had previously been trying to reproduce as therapies.

“The new [antibodies] were so superior to the old ones,” Diskin said. “It was a completely new story. All of a sudden, it sparked the optimism that some vaccine that will elicit those HIV antibodies will work.”

Nussenzweig’s lab reached out to Diskin and the Caltech team for a fateful pairing that would alter the global landscape of AIDS research.

“We were able to get some structural information about the antibodies, and that was interesting,” Diskin said. “But we did something else that was less expected: We had the structural information in our hands, and we realized that we could actually maybe improve the antibody. … That was the first time that had been done in the HIV field.”

Today, Nussenzweig’s and Bjorkman’s labs continue to collaborate on this mission. However, at the height of Diskin’s antibody research last year, the Weizmann Institute began courting the Israeli HIV prodigy back to the Holy Land. He’s now the hottest new addition to the institute’s structural biology department, where he’s opening a lesser-traveled inquiry into a family of deadly, tropical Arenaviruses — such as Lassa fever — currently plaguing millions in Africa and South America.

“I’m still working on HIV — I have open questions and I have things I will study,” he said. “But considering the major forces in the world, it could be very hard to compete on the very hot topics” in the HIV field.

So Diskin is going back to basics as he builds his own lab among the sleek modern buildings and leafy canopies of the Weizmann Institute, laying the groundwork to do what he does best: map the structure behind some of the world’s most deadly viruses.

A feast for Mollie Pier

In 1989, Mollie Pier co-founded Project Chicken Soup (PCS), a nonprofit organization that makes and delivers free kosher food to Angelenos living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. Today, at 92, she still volunteers, spending eight hours a month in the kitchen and calling recipients when their meals are ready.

On Nov. 11, Pier was honored at Temple Beth Am by Project Chicken Soup for her efforts over the past 23 years. The event featured food from Jewish chefs around Los Angeles as well as speeches from Pier’s colleagues, a silent auction and performances from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Cantor Magda Fishman of Temple Beth Am, Cantor Juval Porat of Beth Chayim Chadashim and pianist David Silverstein. 

Of her honoring, Pier said, “It’s just overwhelming. I can’t believe this is me; I don’t think I deserve what everybody else thinks I do. It’s just breathtaking.”

More than 1,500 volunteers work for PCS each year, helping to serve as many as 30,000 meals. Every month, 125 clients each receive 20 meals, and the organization plans to double that number once fundraising goals are reached. 

“Most of our clients are low income, and many are food insecure,” said Cathryn Friedman, executive director. “There is evidence regarding the importance of appropriate nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS and the role it plays in delaying [or] preventing the progression to late-stage disease. For people with cancer or other serious illnesses, an inability to acquire [or] prepare food results in food insecurity and negative health consequences. PCS services contribute to improved health status.”

Food at the event included all the traditional Jewish dishes, with a modern twist. Alex Reznik, formerly executive chef at the now-shuttered kosher steak house La Seine, served pickled herring and smoked whitefish, and Akasha Richmond, who owns AKASHA, made kale Caesar salad with olive oil croutons and parmesan. Susan Feniger of Street provided chilled Asian noodles with deviled egg and sriracha sauce. 

“Molly’s been the driver of some work that literally needed to be done,” Feniger said. “She’s made a strong statement certainly for all of us. We’re in the hospitality business, and we try to give back. To be here to support her is critical.”

Another guest chef, The Foundry on Melrose’s Eric Greenspan, who defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America,” made potato and apple kugel with garlic horseradish crust. “We spend so much time in an insular world in our kitchens,” he said. “It’s important every once in a while to poke your head out and take a look at the world around you and make sure that you’re a part of it. ‘Try to do a mitzvah a day,’ is what my dad always said, so this is definitely one of them.”

Joanne Feldman, a volunteer with PCS for five years who owns Mr. Pickles Kosher Catering, said she is proud of the work that the group has done. “We have been blessed to have somebody as wonderful as Mollie Pier being a part of the glue that holds this organization together,” she said. “She does it with such love and heart, and it’s amazing.”

Ronna Sundy, events coordinator at Temple Beth Am, said she and her family were given help by PCS when they needed it. 

“My adopted daughter’s father died of AIDS, and the family was fed through PCS,” she said. “They fed us during shivah, and it was a wonderful thing. What Project Chicken Soup has done for the community and for everyone is also part of Temple Beth Am’s being. We give back and want to help everyone. Mollie is volunteering, still, at 92 years old. I would only like to follow in her footsteps.”

Pier co-founded PCS not only to help the sick, but for personal reasons as well. Her son Nathaniel, a doctor who treated AIDS patients, came out as gay in the late 1970s. In 1989, he died of the disease, and she wanted his legacy to live on.

At the event, Pier said that was happening. “I think he’d be proud of me, as I was of him. I have a very spiritual feeling that he helped so many people with his medical knowledge.”

For recipes, visit jewishjournal.com.

Israel for a Cure participates in AIDS Walk

Israel and American men and women of all ages, representatives of Israeli and Jewish community organizations and others turned out to walk with Israel for a Cure, one of approximately 1,700 teams that participated in the AIDS Walk Los Angeles on Oct. 14.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles organized the Israel for a Cure group to demonstrate Israel’s support for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“The reason we do this is because it really is a global issue — it affects Israel, it affects the Jewish people,” said Consul General of Israel David Siegel, who was among the participants. This was the fourth year that the consulate has organized a team for the walk.

The Israel for a Cure team drew approximately 50 participants wearing Israel for a Cure T-shirts and carrying blue and white balloons, Israeli flags and a banner proclaiming “Israel for a Cure.” Participants included representatives of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group; Na’amat, an Israeli movement dedicated to women’s rights; members of the Israeli Leadership Council; and of Congregation Kol Ami, a synagogue based in West Hollywood.

Additionally, community leaders — including Congressmen Howard Berman and Adam Schiff, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and L.A City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Dennis Zine — stopped by the team’s meeting station — near the intersection of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards — to express support.

Also among the participants was Drew Michelman, a student at Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, who raised more than $2,000 for the event as part of his bar mitzvah project.

“It was a good experience to just know that while you’re walking, you’re helping people around the world,” the seventh-grader said.

In addition to being committed to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS on a community level, Israel is focused on ending the epidemic on a scientific and policy level, Siegel said. Last year, Israel signed a multiyear cooperative agreement with UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. The Israeli biotech industry is currently working on developing cutting-edge methods of battling deadly viruses such as HIV. 

AIDS Walk Los Angeles is an annual event that raises funds and awareness to improve the lives of people affected by the disease, reduce the incidence of infection, and advocate for fair and effective HIV-related policy. This year, the 28th annual walk — a 6.2-mile trek in West Hollywood — drew a reported 30,000 participants and raised $2.9 million.

African AIDS experts visit, learn from Israel

A delegation of prominent HIV/AIDS doctors from across East Africa is visiting Israel to expand medical partnerships and benefit from Israel’s expertise.

The 10 African medical experts from Botswana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya arrived Sunday in Israel for a weeklong visit under the auspices of Project Interchange and the Israeli Consortium on AIDS Medicine in Africa.

Dr. Mark Wainberg, former president of the International AIDS Society and currently drector of the McGill University AIDS Center, also joined the seminar.

The program is designed to launch collaboration between Israeli and African universities and hospitals, and also will help expand medical partnerships across Africa, as well as provide Israel’s medical advances and expertise as a resource for global public health concerns.

In addition to the medical sessions, the group is scheduled to meet with experts from across Israel’s political and social spectrum who will discuss strategic and regional issues, as well as Israeli and Palestinian politics and society.

The visit is being held in cooperation with MASHAV, Israel’s national agency for international development cooperation, and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Africa Division.

Cedars-Sinai studies liver transplants for HIV patients

Although he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1991, Brent Carrillo had been well enough to pursue careers in custom stone and tile installation and interior design with relatively few health setbacks. A lifelong resident of Burbank, Carrillo moved to Portland in 2005 to enjoy a home set on half an acre of forested land.

But right about that time, a blood test revealed that Carrillo had elevated liver enzymes. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, but the medication he was prescribed made Carrillo’s blood so thin that he had to discontinue taking it. His condition worsened, and in the fall of 2007, Carrillo’s doctor said his liver would cease functioning in about a year.

“The doctor said there was nothing more they could do,” Carrillo said. “He didn’t give me any options.”

Like Carrillo, many others with HIV are living decades after their diagnosis, thanks to the development in the mid-90s of a new class of AIDS drugs, which drastically slow the progression of the virus. But while the threat posed by infection has declined, the danger of organ failure has become more likely.

“As treatment has improved, patients are not dying of HIV complications but from liver disease and cirrhosis complications,” says Dr. Nicholas N. Nissen, assistant surgical director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Center for Liver Diseases and Transplantation. “Individuals with HIV should know that, despite excellent control, liver disease and liver cancer are increasingly likely.”

Carrillo, 46, had resigned himself to the idea of having a year to live, but his mother, Sandy, was unwilling to accept such a fate for her son. While scouring the Internet for information, she found a study involving liver transplantation for individuals with HIV. One of the study locations was Cedars-Sinai.

The medical center is participating in a National Institutes of Health-sponsored clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of liver transplantation among HIV-positive patients. Cedars-Sinai is one of only 11 hospitals in the country and two in the state participating in the study. The other California facility, University of California San Francisco Medical Center, is also studying the effectiveness of kidney transplantation in HIV-positive patients.

“This is a tremendously important question,” Nissen said. “Patients ill enough to be a candidate for liver transplantation are out of other options. This is the best and sometimes only option they have.”

Nissen says that many transplant centers have been reluctant to perform transplants in HIV-positive patients with liver failure because little is known about how they fare afterwards. In addition, it had been assumed that the immune-suppressing medications required for an organ transplant would “allow HIV to run wild.”

Patients who are part of the study have agreed to be monitored for effects of the transplant and immuno-suppression drugs for five years following their transplant. As with any liver transplant recipient, their status on the waiting list for an organ is based on a numerical score determined by medical tests.

“Liver transplantation is a well-established procedure,” Nissen said. “We are not comparing two types of therapy, as is often done in a clinical trial. Rather, we are evaluating how these patients do when transplanted.”

Patients admitted to the study must have a strong enough immune system and no severe infections or malignancies. Carrillo underwent a series of tests to assess his health status before being accepted to the study.

An earlier study published this year in The American Journal of Transplantation concluded that liver transplantation was “an option for selected HIV-infected patients cared for at centers with adequate expertise.” However, it involved only 11 patients. The current, multicenter study will follow 125 liver transplant patients and publish findings next year.

The biggest challenge, Nissen says, is integrating the combination of medicines this group of patients requires after transplant. The combination includes those designed to prevent organ rejection along with medications addressing HIV and other recurrent disease. “It’s not just the transplant itself, but the effect of medication on HIV…. Any change in medication would require involving [a team of] physicians.”

Cedars-Sinai has assumed some risk by being part of the trial since the hospital’s overall liver transplant results — available online to the public — could be negatively affected were the HIV positive group to show poor results.

Carrillo is glad the hospital was willing to take that risk. His condition had been deteriorating since he was accepted into the study in January. On Sept. 10, he received a new liver, and was discharged from the hospital a week later.

He says he has more energy and feels like “a whole new person.”

“This has given me another 20 or 30 years that I didn’t know I would have,” Carrillo said. “My brother has two young children, and now I have hope of seeing them grow up.”

Malibu camp offers respite and community for kids with HIV

It's nearly dusk at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu and teenager Stephon Cooperawls sits beside me, watching the summer sun sink into the sea. All the other campers are in the dining room having dinner, but Cooperawls has a story to tell, and this is the only place he feels safe talking about it.

“I first got involved with camp when I was 7 years old. I didn't know I had it when I was 7. I was living with a foster parent, and she just brought me here,” Cooperawls began.

“As I got older, I started to have a clue, wondering 'Why am I here?' and 'Why am I taking meds?' and 'Why am I going to the hospital?' It all just added up, and one day, my father came to me and said, 'Stephon, I just want to tell you something: You have HIV.'”

Cooperawls, a 17-year-old African American, was born with HIV. And like many of the children between the ages of 6 and 20 who have passed through Camp Pacific Heartland or its sister arts camp, Camp Hollywood Heart, he is battling what is considered one of the greatest epidemics of our time.

Cooperawls is both infected and affected by the disease: his biological father died of AIDS, and his mother, who abandoned him as an infant, is also infected.

“When I found out I had it, I always thought I was just going to up and die one day, but I've learned that you're not going to die. You die when it's your time to go,” he said.

But nobody is going anywhere this week. Nestled high in the Malibu Mountains at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Gindling Hilltop Camp, Cooperawls and the other campers enjoy what many call the best week of their lives. It is the one week of the year when they are free from judgment in a place where they can swim and use the bathrooms without any erroneous worrying about disease transmission, and where they make new friends with whom they can share their secret.

It is an empowering and life-altering experience for each camper, but it has also transformed the life of David Gale, the Hollywood executive whose quest for meaning brought Camp Heartland to Southern California.

“Every one of us asks what our purpose is in life,” Gale said, reflecting on what this experience has meant to him.

“Very often, it's your career, maybe your family, but for me it's been, 'How can I make an impact on people in the world?' But this is not a one-sided exchange. These kids have made me appreciate the value of life.”

Having grown up with Crohn's disease, itself a serious illness, Gale shares a unique kinship with the hundreds of children he helps. An otherwise unassuming individual, today dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with a digital camera hanging from his neck, his sensitivity to the kids' condition is visceral and palpable. At camp, Gale is not one of the top executives at MTV, he's just “David,” and he doesn't really want to talk about his professional success. He wants this story to be about the kids.

Working in an industry characterized by tough personalities and superficial values, Gale's genuine modesty is rare. Inasmuch as his talent and ambition have earned him considerable success (he is a Stanford graduate and also holds a law degree from New York University), the vice president of MTV new media and specialty films has coupled his personal achievements with giving to others. He believes lasting happiness results from three things: doing what you love, contact with people you love and philanthropic giving.

“There's not even close to enough of that happening in Hollywood. That's why there are so many unhappy people despite their success — because they're not giving, they're taking, they're demanding, they're insisting — and they judge their success in life based on the box office, based on their power, their deals and who knows them,” Gale said.

“This camp, this organization [Hollywood Heart] gives me true happiness. I get back so much more in ways that are impossible to quantify, in ways I couldn't get from anything material or anything else I've ever done,” he said.

Gale's desire to give was the result of a tremendous loss. When his mother was dying of cancer, he saw the outpouring of community support coming from her synagogue, which inspired his own involvement with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. And it was 15 years ago, when he sat on the social action committee, that Gale, now 50, realized he could do more than chair the synagogue's food pantry.

At the time, Gale was vice president of MTV Films, a division he created and through which he produced a bevy of hits, including, “Election,” “Jackass,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Varsity Blues.” During his 11 years at the helm, MTV Films grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and garnered their first Academy Award nomination (for “Election,” which Gale says, is the film that makes him most proud). Without any personal tie, he was struck by the horrors of the rising AIDS epidemic and immediately decided to start a camp for HIV/AIDS-infected youth.

“I love the movies I've made and I'm very proud of them, but it's just a credit, whereas something that's extremely deep and meaningful and lasting is truly the thing that I would want people to remember me for. Not my movies,” he said.

As fulfilling as philanthropy is, Gale is quick to point out that his commercial success has significantly enabled his ability to give.

“I could not have started this charity without my success and without my connections,” he said plainly. For starters, although Wilshire Boulevard Temple did not wish to directly sponsor the camp project, they offered Gale use of their camp facilities in Malibu at a greatly reduced rate.

With access to money and powerful industry connections, Gale could offer financial support for a camp, but with the demands of his job, did not have the ability to program his dream from scratch.

Enter Neil Willenson, a fellow Jew from Wisconsin who had already established a camp for at-risk kids but without a permanent home yet.

Willenson's journey began when he read a disturbing article in his local paper titled “AIDS Hysteria” about 5-year-old Nile Sandeen, who contracted HIV from his mother and suffered cruel abuse at the hands of his community. Through his friendship with Sandeen, Willenson discovered that the stigma of the disease and the many misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS often caused more emotional suffering than the disease itself.

“The scourge of paranoia is worse than HIV,” said Willenson, 37, the founder of Camp Heartland. “HIV may be the most manageable part of their lives.”

In 1993, Camp Heartland's inaugural summer, Willenson welcomed 72 kids from 20 states to a one-week, cost-free retreat at a leased campsite in Milwaukee where there was hiking, horseback riding and archery. The following summer, he received a call from Gale, who took a red-eye to visit Willenson's Camp Heartland. By the summer of 1995, Gale and Willenson launched Camp Pacific Heartland, the West Coast version of Willenson's concept, funded through Gale's efforts and with the goal of recruiting at least 50 percent of its campers from Southern California.

The night I visit is “MTV Night” at camp, and the speakers are blaring Madonna. All 60 kids are breathless with anticipation over who this year's surprise celebrity guest will be. Gale's connections in Hollywood have produced a gaggle of celebrities here over the years, including Chris Tucker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Brandy and David Arquette.

When Wilmer Valderrama of “That '70s Show” arrives, he joins his screaming, adoring fans for a late-night dance party.

A 7-year-old girl gasps, “He's handsome! He's everything!”

She could be talking about Hollywood writer/director John Gatins, one of Hollywood Heart's most passionate advocates and a current board member, who is visiting tonight just for fun.

Gatins, who wrote “Coach Carter,” will return for Camp Hollywood Heart (the arts camp for Heartland graduates ages 16-20) to teach a writing workshop. He says he charts his life by this camp and that it inspired him to have children (he has three, ages 7, 5 and 18 months). Just prior to the release of his first feature film, “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story,” DreamWorks gave him special permission to screen it at the camp.

“The night that I showed my movie here, I remember driving down that long, crazy hill to leave, and I just started laughing, and then I started kind of weeping, thinking, 'Wow I've never had such an amazing audience,'” Gatins recalled, almost tearfully.

“You work in the business, and everything is about the business. Everything is about, like, 'How did it play?' 'Will it work?' 'How do you sell it?' And to hear 100 kids laugh in the situations they're in, I sent DreamWorks an e-mail the next day that said, 'Look, I just have to tell you that I had an experience last night that for the first time my work felt meaningful on a level it never has.'”

AIPAC, Persian tragedy, Christian support for Israel


Do You think it is fair and balanced news to print only Sen. John McCain’s comments to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]?

I listened to Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hilary Clinton’s comments and feel they deserve the same coverage in The Jewish Journal (“McCain Raps Obama on Iran and Iraq at AIPAC“).

How do you justify not printing their comments? Not everyone has access to a Web site.

Charlotte Novatt
Los Angeles

Editor's Note: The Journal went to press before Clinton and Obama gave their speeches at the AIPAC conference. Sen. Obama's prepared remarks are online here, and Sen. Clinton's speech is online here.

Persian Tragedy

I think I speak for the entire Jewish community when I say that we are all saddened and in disbelief at the tragedy surrounding the death of Bianca Khalili (“Persian Tragedy,” June 13).

However, the horror is further exacerbated by the fact that we have not been able to stop the labeling of Jews. There are Russian, Moroccan, Mexican, Israeli, Sephardic, Ashkenazi and, yes, Persian Jews in our midst. Some of us are more or less observant; and, some of us are more or less accepted. Why? Persian Jews have been here since the late 1970s ,and I think that they have earned the right to be part of the entire community. Not Persian Jews, not separated from the rest of the Jewish community, but an integral, accepted and loved part of the Jewish community. Isn’t it time for all Jews to finally unite and stop putting up a mechitzah between us? This was not a Persian tragedy.

This was a Jewish tragedy.

Tamar Andrews
Los Angeles

I learned many huge lessons from the tragic events that recently occurred:
I will not allow myself the audacity to stand in judgment of another: will never “assume” anything about a person’s state of mind. No one knows who a person really is, what they are feeling or thinking at any given moment, what goes on in their homes, their hearts, their wallets…. I will not assign meanings to anyone’s behavior, or judge them to be anything, other than “an imperfect human being” just like me.

People talk, and that’s all it is: “talk.” You want facts? Good luck. I hear of lashon hara, I hear of police reports, of the “Jewish Way,” and you are one of the first to mention the human way.

I do not hear about “judgment,” or the law where you are innocent until proven guilty. I used to go to Beverly Hills High School; I have two teenagers, and I see what goes on … it can be brutal. However, I believe the real tragedy here is living within us, today.

There were two people there that night. One cannot ever talk again, and the other talks but no one wants to listen. The bottom line is none of us were there. None of us know what really happened, so for anyone to pass such cruel and dignified judgments is an utter tragedy of epic proportions, and a disgrace to logic and common sense.

I have spent three weeks at parties and gatherings listening to such ugly, baseless gossip, all of which was hearsay, illogical nonsense and just pure fantasy. People talked and talked, spewing words from their mouths so easily, as if they were reciting a poem, or reading street signs, without a moment’s hesitation to consider what they were saying, where it all came from, whether it was fact or hearsay … living their “C.S.I.” fantasy moment … well, because they just know everything and that makes it automatically a fact, of course; right?

The deceased is gone. Yet the living is left sinning, hurting, reeling, and lost. I only hope and pray that our people can find ourselves again, and learn from this.

It is time to stop, and put an end to this vicious cycle. Let the police and the courts take care of their business. Let us allow some breathing room for the families involved to grieve in peace and, God willing, someday heal.

Tannaz Rahbar
via e-mail

AIDS/HIV Supplement

I seldom miss an issue of The Jewish Journal, and I’m so glad I found the June 6 issue. Thanks so much for the supplement “AIDS and HIV” — it is fantastic and so important.

I have donated to AIDS Project Los Angeles and Project Angel Food but just learned of Project Chicken Soup.

GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network] is a fine group helping students and schools become inclusive for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students. They all need the same safe environments to study, learn and become productive, useful citizens, unharmed.

For me to realize (thru this supplement) that the Jewish community is open to helping is so rewarding and welcome. Please accept my sincere appreciation.

Dorothy L. Linder
Culver City

Christian Support for Israel

Thank you for finally publishing a positive article about Christian support for Israel in the May 30 article, “Interfaith Pep Rally For Israel Rocks the Forum.”

Instead of constantly looking for fault in Christian support for Israel we need to embrace their support, which is genuine and based on a shared belief in a common Bible and common God not just on a “common enemy in Islamic extremism.”

I have personally witnessed Christian pilgrimages to Israel on the Jewish holidays and seen their genuine love and devotion to the State of Israel and the Jewish people and we must never forget to appreciate their support.

Amanda Gelman
Los Angeles


Due to editing errors in "Orthodox Schools Share Concern For Greener World" (June 6), Master Solar and Madam Geothermal were erroneously attributed to David Chameides. Chameides is not associated with those characters or with the Big Mountain program at Camp Max Strauss. Chameides has not spoken at Yavneh, nor did he speak with Shalhevet parents, though he was invited to attend Shalhevet's trip to the landfill.

HIV/AIDS impacts the vulnerable across the city, up the state, over America and around the globe

Los Angeles resident Darryl Hendrix often struggles to get by. Like many of his neighbors, Hendrix’s costs for housing and personal necessities sometimes exceed his modest monthly income. But Hendrix, an African American gay man and a client at AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), is also living with HIV.

His diagnosis has complicated daily living. To stay healthy, he must maintain a nutritious, balanced diet in the face of rising food prices. He must confront HIV-related dental problems as health care costs climb. He must travel to medical appointments as gas prices and transportation fares skyrocket. And he must live with a disease that still carries tremendous stigma.

Hendrix’s story repeats itself locally, nationally and globally, among the most vulnerable populations: communities of color; the poor and disenfranchised; people struggling with addiction, mental illness and histories of abuse; and gay and bisexual men. More than 25 years into the epidemic, HIV/AIDS is the greatest public health crisis we’ve known.

A Global Crisis

Worldwide, there are more than 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and the epidemic continues to expand. In 2007, there were more than 6,800 new HIV infections globally each day. And while new treatment options make longer, better life with HIV possible, more than 5,700 die from AIDS-related complications daily.

Internationally, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the hardest hit. The region, which accounts for only 11 percent of the world’s population, is home to 68 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS. In response, APLA has partnered with several agencies on the ground in South Africa to develop sustainable food programs that support the nutritional needs of people living with HIV/AIDS.

APLA has also formed key collaborations with local organizations in India, which has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world; in Latin America, where 100,000 new cases of HIV were reported in 2007; and in China, where high levels of stigma surrounding homosexuality complicate intervention efforts.

A Growing Epidemic in the U.S.

Since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States in 1981, more than 1.7 million Americans have been infected. More than 550,000 have died, and approximately 1.2 million are living with HIV/AIDS today. More than 25 percent of those who are infected do not know it.

The national epidemic is also growing. While previous estimates indicate 40,000 new HIV infections occur each year in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is soon expected to raise that estimate to as many as 60,000.

The disease disproportionately affects communities of color and other minorities in the United States. African Americans, who comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for nearly 50 percent of 2006 AIDS diagnoses. Latinos and Native American/Alaska Natives have the second- and third-highest rates of AIDS cases, respectively. Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men account for nearly 60 percent of AIDS cases among men annually. And more than one-quarter of all new AIDS cases are among women.

Responding to these trends, APLA formed the Sexual Health Exchange (SHX) in 2007, a nationwide partnership with other AIDS service organizations to address these disparities in HIV infection rates among communities of color.

The Face of AIDS in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is the second-most HIV/AIDS-impacted community in the United States. Today, more than 60,000 Angelenos are living with HIV/AIDS — more than ever before — and Los Angeles sees 1,500 to 2,000 new infections each year.

As nationally, HIV/AIDS continues to impact communities of color and gay and bisexual men. Where these communities intersect, the statistics are even more striking: an estimated one in three African American gay men in Los Angeles is living with HIV.

APLA’s client profile offers a snapshot of the Los Angeles epidemic. APLA clients are diverse, with 37 percent Latino, 36 percent white and 23 percent African American. They are poor. Nine out of 10 live on less than $20,000 per year. Too many are uninsured. And while they are living longer thanks to treatment advances, their need for food, dental care, mental health services and other programs is also increasing.

Challenges Ahead

Darryl Hendrix’s story is a common one among APLA clients. For many, the cost of daily living is rising, while income is not. Necessities like food, housing and medical care are too quickly becoming expensive luxuries.

Government funding for HIV/AIDS services is also shrinking. Last month, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced plans to slash nearly $10 million from the state’s HIV/AIDS programs, along with proposed cuts to Medi-Cal dental benefits for adults that could leave millions of low-income beneficiaries (including people living with HIV/AIDS) without dental coverage.

Still, in the face of these challenges, APLA is doing more to support the hardest hit. Last year, more than 9,600 people living with HIV/AIDS accessed APLA’s direct services and education programs, including our countywide network of food pantries, our state-of-the-art dental clinics and a wide array of supportive services.

We reached nearly 600,000 through our publications and Web sites, working to prevent HIV infection through comprehensive HIV risk reduction and health education programs that target those at highest risk.

And we’re in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., responding to budget cuts by bringing our clients face-to-face with lawmakers to find solutions and shape the future of HIV/AIDS-related policy.

But our work would not be possible without our generous supporters. Two-thirds of our operating budget comes from private donors. We are particularly inspired by the generous contributions of the diverse communities of faith in Los Angeles. It is these gifts that allow us to fight an epidemic that still outpaces our most aggressive efforts to control it.

Ghana’s plight motivates rabbinical students

The dirt streets and makeshift shacks of Ghana may seem an unlikely place to learn to be a rabbi, but not for a group of students who recently visited the African country.

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.”

Project Chicken Soup brings comfort by the bowl

The food is superb! You can taste the love and care.

I want to thank you for providing me with a beacon for my faith in good people.

I do so love the joy, peace and happiness your organization brings to my life. Thank you.

The notes are short, direct and never signed. They come from all over Los Angeles, from the South Los Angeles tenements to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Their authors differ in age, ethnicity and religion, but have at least one thing in common: They all live with HIV/AIDS.

Their gratitude is directed at Project Chicken Soup, an L.A.-based nonprofit whose volunteers gather twice a month to cook nutritious, kosher meals and deliver them, free of charge, to the doors of clients across the city. The organization’s goal is to provide nechama, or comfort, to those in need.

“When you are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, you often withdraw within yourself, and sometimes your family and friends might have a negative reaction to you,” said Paul Chitlik, president of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services/Project Chicken Soup. “What we do is we show that they are still part of the Jewish community by delivering kosher food that might remind them of their families in a better time. What Jew doesn’t feel comfort when having a bowl of chicken soup?”

For those whose families live too far away to care for them, he added, the group’s door-to-door service also offers a welcome chance for human contact.

As several clients testify, the nourishment volunteers deliver is more than stomach-deep: Your services feed my soul with love as well as keep me from hunger.

The experience is just as rewarding for the volunteers themselves, many said, some of whom have returned faithfully every other Sunday, year after year.

Among the 40 to 45 volunteers who typically show up each session are retired grandparents, high school students from places like Harvard-Westlake and Campbell Hall and college students from UCLA, which once sent their entire women’s volleyball team to lend a hand in the kitchen. Synagogue groups and b’nai mitzvah boys and girls work side by side with charity-minded locals of all races and creeds, who just want to help.

“Cooking food for people is the most direct form of community service you can do,” Chitlik said. “You cook, that day it gets to the house — still warm — and people eat it. You provide something that people need and that they will use right away. It’s very satisfying.”

That’s how Century City resident Eve Lasensky feels, who, at 89, has been cooking with Project Chicken Soup twice a month for the past 15 years.

Lasensky doesn’t know anyone with HIV/AIDS, but she wanted to contribute to the cause in a more hands-on way than by simply donating money.

“It’s such a rewarding thing to do,” she said. “It’s all wholesome food, and it’s all done with such love. Everybody there does it because they really want to be there. It makes my day.”

Clients have noticed the enthusiasm of people like Lasensky:

I’m so glad that there are wonderful volunteers like you. You are a Godsend!

The idea for Project Chicken Soup first began to simmer in 1989, when a group of volunteers calling themselves Nechama started to prepare and distribute baskets of kosher food to people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. Chitlik, who has been with the nonprofit in different capacities for the last decade, said the group formed to fill a need in the community — organizations like Project Angel Food and Meals on Wheels weren’t delivering kosher fare.

“We saw that there was a gap there, because there was a significant number of Jewish people with HIV or AIDS,” he said. “We saw a hole in services, and we were the only ones who filled that.”

Still the only regional provider of kosher meals to the HIV/AIDS community, Project Chicken Soup now gathers at the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue and cooks for about 120 clients per session, with a waiting list to boot. Last year, the group involved more than 1,200 volunteers who spent over 10,500 hours preparing and delivering nearly 8,000 meals.

Recipients don’t have to be Jewish to qualify for meal deliveries, which usually include three complete entrées, two 32-ounce containers of soup (one always being the requisite chicken soup), two vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit, a breakfast package and a week’s supply of nutritional supplements.

Special holiday menus also feature seasonal treats. On Purim, volunteers bake hamantaschen. For Passover, they kosher the kitchen and deliver gefilte fish.

The group’s pervasive emphasis on comfort — both physical and spiritual — has seemingly struck a chord. Some clients write in to voice their appreciation for a service they can’t do for themselves: I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated receiving my first delivery last Sunday. The food was really great and since I have little energy and failing health, it was a real treat.

Others write to share personal victories: I am in a much better position now both with health and finances and I’ve decided to leave the program. I cannot thank you enough for your warmth and dedication.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Jews in Los Angeles live with HIV/AIDS, Chitlik said, since the county doesn’t keep track of religious information. But he noted that the Jewish community in recent years has taken steps to be more inclusive to this population.

“I think the community has opened its arms to help people come back,” he said. “At first, 20 or 30 years ago when the epidemic started, there were a lot of taboos around it. But now, almost everybody in the community has been touched by it — you know somebody who died, something like that. It’s been personalized.”

Project Chicken Soup has been recognized for its role in promoting “food as medicine” for people living with a life-threatening illness. Last summer, the group was chosen from 45 organizations nominated by members of Congress to receive the national 2007 Victory Against Hunger Award. Project Chicken Soup was nominated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

The over-50 crowd relearns the ‘facts of life’

For years, single seniors would find the idea of meeting new people following a divorce, or loss of a partner, daunting at best. But with today’s online dating services, success in finding the perfect partner is ostensibly only a click away — all you need is a computer and a little courage.

But Jane Fowler, retired journalist and now HIV/AIDS prevention educator, waves a red flag of caution for older singles. As founder and director of the national HIV Wisdom for Older Women, Fowler says that older single people — “the fastest-growing segment of the dating services” — may put themselves at risk by engaging in new relationships.

“The perception among both the older, public population and providers of health and social services is that seniors are not at risk for sexually transmitted disease, and as a consequence they have low awareness about HIV,” Fowler said.

While HIV can pose health problems at any age, there is additional risk of having the virus as an older person. People 50 and older have less vigorous immune systems, and studies report that a majority of older adults have at least one or more chronic, age-related condition such as diabetes, arthritis or heart disease.

Fowler, a vibrant and active senior, has a personal commitment to HIV awareness for women older than 50: She was diagnosed HIV positive in the mid-1980s, having been exposed to the virus from an unprotected, heterosexual contact following her divorce.

“I am very concerned about women who, like me years ago, may be re-entering the dating scene after an absence of several decades,” she said.

The Myth of Age-Related Immunity

According to Fowler, AIDS cases in women over age 50 are reported to have tripled in the last decade. Furthermore, the findings of the recent landmark ROAH (“Research on Older Americans With HIV”) study by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America reported conclusive evidence that heterosexual contact is now the predominant mode of virus transmission.

“It is important to get the message out,” Fowler said, “to both women and men over age 50, that unprotected sexual contact is a risk.”

She said physicians do not typically discuss sexual behavior with their older patients, and this fosters a false sense of security that age imparts “some special kind of immunity.” Plus, as people age and their immune systems weaken, many of the symptoms of age-related conditions, such as fatigue, dementia, weight loss and skin rashes, are very similar to those of HIV.

“When these symptoms are overlooked and attributed to natural aging, people who are HIV positive end up walking out the door,” she said. “By the time they are diagnosed, they may be very ill and the window of opportunity to begin a therapy that helps prevent the virus from progressing to AIDS has already passed.”

However, the problems of older people affected by HIV are “much more than physical ones and a regimen of taking pills,” said Dr. Stephen Karpiak, lead investigator of the ROAH study. While the latest antiretroviral drug therapies allow people to live longer and healthier, their research data on the quality of life “paints an unsettling picture of the older person with HIV.”

“More often than not, these older, HIV-positive adults are not only alienated by friends and family, they are afraid to disclose their status and have few places to turn to for help,” said Karpiak, who described “help” as “the little things that make the big difference.”

“We’re talking about having someone to help buy groceries, take you to the doctor or to church,” he said. “Our study reported just how disconnected these people are from society — not just from their disease and its stigma, but also because they are old with this disease.”

There’s a stereotype of older people as being no longer productive, with failing mental competency and low value to society.

“There is this prevailing cultural attitude,” Fowler recounted, “of ‘so what if old people get HIV and die?’ — the assumption being that they have already lived their lives and are no longer productive contributors.”

Need for Community Involvement

Dr. L. Jeannine Burkhardt-Murray, medical director of Harlem United Community AIDS Center, who helped Karpiak write the spirituality component of the ROAH study questionnaire, adds another dimension to the picture of social disconnection.

“Informal caregiving by friends and family is provided to millions of people in this country who have chronic illness, disability, are elderly or just need some day-to-day maintenance help,” she explained. “But older people with HIV are often stepped over from potential sources of assistance because of persistent stigma and lingering misconceptions about virus transmission.”

“[It is] so unfortunate because we know that people who have outside contact with the community — not just the health arena of their doctors and nurses but with friends and family members — these are the ones who do the best,” she added.

Burkhardt-Murray said she has spent time over the years trying to engage local leaders of religious communities into supporting people with AIDS.

The dilemma, said Burkhardt-Murray, who lives and works in the largely African American community of Harlem, is that this is a population largely estranged from their family and friends who would turn to their church but find themselves unwelcome.

“For many years our clergy would not acknowledge this disease,” she said. But after more then a decade of advocacy, she sees things changing and the church is now more willing to talk openly about HIV with its constituency.

This is good news since one of the ROAH findings, she said, is that many older HIV-positive people “expressed a positive benefit from a religious or spiritual affiliation.”

An Intergenerational Approach to Breaking Barriers

For Ed Shaw, a tireless, 60-something HIV educator and chair of the New York Association of HIV Over 50, just “getting people to talk about this disease is an important step and can make a difference, one person at a time, to overcoming barriers.”

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.

Albert Winn’s photography captures the intertwining influences of Judaism and illness

When the cold-and-flu season rolls around, Albert Winn’s longtime boyfriend usually gets sidelined by a bug for a week or two, but Winn says he seldom gets a sniffle.

“Virus?” Winn said with a chuckle as he mused on his robustness. “You don’t know from virus.”

Sixty-year-old Winn has been living with HIV since at least the late 1980s.

“I was diagnosed in 1989, but a previous boyfriend had died, and I knew plenty of guys who had become sick,” he said.

In 1989, many gay men were burying lovers and tending to sick friends.

That grim landscape inspired many gay artists and activists to turn morosely inward or angrily outward — to create art heavy with loss or to shake a fist at the larger social and political order that stood by idly as thousands died.

But as a gay Jew with AIDS who was about to launch his career as a photographer, Winn saw that fateful turn in his life not as a predicament but as an opportunity to document and explore the interplay between the distinct yet overlapping elements that defined him as a person.

Which is not to say that Winn’s 20-year AIDS odyssey has been anything less than arduous.

Like many people who received a diagnosis in the early years of the epidemic, Winn suspects he had been living with HIV for some time before telltale illnesses prompted him to get tested.

“It hit me pretty strongly,” he said. “I was perfectly OK in the doctor’s office, then I got into my car and started crying.”

At the time, Winn was living in West Hollywood with Scott Portnoff, his flu-prone boyfriend, and working toward his master of fine arts in photography at California Institute of the Arts.

“I told Scott, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down,'” Winn recalled.

Winn’s resolve was soon tested. He began to develop wasting syndrome — a condition in which the body can’t produce enough energy to replace the muscle and fat it loses as it fights disease — and his doctors told him there was nothing they could do to stop his decline.

Coming out to his family as gay had been a long, difficult process for Winn. The sudden onset of AIDS served to clarify the preciousness of time for him, and he decided he was going to explain his new situation to everyone who was dear to him as soon as possible.

He got on a plane and flew to Florida so that he could tell his parents about his illness face-to-face.

“At the time, AIDS was a death sentence, and they needed to see that I was alive,” Winn said. “A funny thing happens when you become ill. Even though you’re the person who’s sick, you have to be a caregiver in a way. You can’t just dump information on people.”

Such insight — that people who are gravely ill are not “the dying” but are still to be counted among “the living” — was pivotal for Winn. It informed not only his approach to his illness but also his angle on the work he was producing as a photographer.

“I had already been doing a lot of self-portraits,” he said. “Then it clicked — this is now my topic. Not just self-portraits, but autobiography.”

His thesis project at CalArts began to take shape as “My Life Until Now,” a collage of images and text anchored by autobiographical photography that reveals Winn and his life in thick detail.

If his HIV diagnosis spurred the development of his artist’s eye, Winn’s sparring with Nicholas Nixon, a mentor to Winn who had been one of the first photographers to document the AIDS crisis, helped to clarify his vision.

Nixon’s photographs depicted the ravages of AIDS in clinical and often gruesome imagery. When Nixon’s work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the show was picketed by gay activists who saw the pictures as dehumanizing.

“I had a similar reaction to the project,” Winn said. “I was concerned about how gay people and people with AIDS were represented. You’ve got to remember that you’re looking at a person.”

Portraying his personhood meant, for Winn, including signifiers of his Jewish and gay identities as well as emblems of his struggle with AIDS. Thus, images in “My Life Until Now” often feature moments in his relationship with Scott and the everyday, intertwining influences of Judaism and illness.

One of the most affecting pictures in the project is “Akedah,” in which the viewer sees Winn’s bare torso, his arm wrapped with tefillin, and an adhesive bandage in the crook of his left elbow.

“I began to practice putting on tefillin,” said Winn, who was raised in a Conservative family but had never considered himself religious. “There was something primal about binding prayers to your arm, next to your heart — to get them as close to your skin as you can.”

The act of binding prayers to his body also helped Winn contain the difficult feelings triggered by the daily ritual of having his blood drawn while he was in a clinical study of experimental AIDS therapies at UCLA.

“Over time, instead of getting used to it, it got worse,” Winn said. “So I wondered, ‘How do I make sense out of something that’s driving me insane?'”

The physical similarity between the act of putting on teffilin and “a Jewish guy having a rubber thing wrapped around his arm” was obvious to Winn. But the deeper resonance was between the life-and-death urgency of his situation and the ancient story of the binding of Isaac.

“I realized I was making a sacrifice for science, but it was also saving my life,” Winn said.

The picture, which Winn took shortly after having his blood drawn during the UCLA study, became one of the most iconic images in “My Life Until Now.” It has since become part of the permanent collections in the Library of Congress and the Jewish Museum in New York.

Shoah lessons drive curriculum

The Holocaust will play a major role in educating teens at a new Green Dot charter school in Exposition Park. The entire staff of the Animo Jackie Robinson High School — seven teachers and two principals — has been trained to teach a curriculum by Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that uses the Holocaust to help kids understand the impact of moral choices they make daily.

“In making our school a Facing History high school, we are saying ‘what if we could really shape all the curricular components with this vision? What would happen with kids from the inner city who are really struggling with moral choices, and who often have no idea what it means to have remorse for your actions?'” said assistant principal Kristen Botello.

The school has written a four-year curriculum that integrates the Facing History approach through several disciplines, including English, history, science, art and community service. Animo Jackie Robinson is the first school in Los Angeles to adopt Facing History as an underlying educational philosophy.

The school opened this year with 147 kids in ninth grade; 18 of them are African American and the rest are Latino. Grades will be added over the next three years until there are 600 ninth- to 12th-graders, and all teachers hired will be trained by Facing History.

“I believe the thought processes that result from Facing History affect the kids not only in terms of learning the content of the Holocaust, but in looking at human behavior and the specific, personal events where individuals had to make choices, and how individual choices impact history,” Botello said.

Botello taught English at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for 14 years, 11 of them using the Facing History curriculum. She says she can always spot kids who had Facing History teachers.

“You can just see it in the way they behave, the way they treat each other and the tolerance levels they have for people who are different, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of disabilities or challenges,” she said.
The Jackie Robinson educators were among 30 LAUSD teachers who participated in Facing History’s five-day September institute called “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” held at Mount St. Mary’s College Doheny Campus.

Around 1,500 teachers in Los Angeles have been trained by Facing History.
For information, visit www.facinghistory.org or www.greendot.org.

A helping foot
As they have been for the past 14 years, about 250 kids and families will lend their feet to AIDS Walk Los Angeles Oct. 15 as part of Kids Who Care, a team made up of kids from more than a dozen schools, including Stephen S. Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
Last year, Kids Who Care raised $65,000, placing it fifth among the top AIDS Walk fundraisers, most of them corporations.

The team was founded with 25 walkers in 1992 by then-8-year-old Leo Beckerman, a Stephen S. Wise member. Since then, Stephen S. Wise families have raised more than $500,000 for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, now in its 22nd year.
The money funds direct services, prevention education and advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County.
There are approximately 55,000 people living with HIV in Los Angeles County, and there are 1,500-2,000 new infections each year.

For information visit www.WiseLA.org or www.aidswalk.net/losangeles.

Family dinners = better grades + better behavior
First ladies Maria Shriver and Corina Villaraigosa helped kick off Family Day at Thomas Starr King Middle School near Griffith Park Sept. 25. The Safeway Foundation launched a $2 million public service campaign to encourage families to eat dinner together.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University founded Family Day in 2001 — and this year 600 cities participated. A CASA study found that compared to kids who have fewer than three family dinners per week, children and teens who have frequent family dinners are at 70 percent lower risk for substance abuse; half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana; one-third less likely to try alcohol; and almost 40 percent likelier to say future drug use will never happen. The report also found that teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to get better grades in school.

For information visit www.safeway.com or www.casafamilyday.org.

The next step for girls: Israel
The Orthodox Union’s (OU) Machon Maayan one-year program in Israel opened with its first class of 39 women, many of whom have scant Judaic studies background.
The post high-school seminary in Beit Shemesh — a half hour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — attracts girls who graduate from the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the OU’s outreach youth movement, and want to continue in their Jewish studies.
“Where we stop, programs like Machon Maayan continue,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, who was formerly the movement’s West Coast director.
For more information go to www.machonmaayan.org.


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.

Lift The Ban on Gay Blood Donors

When students arrived at Milken Community High School on the morning of Jan. 10, they were confronted by a large banner reading: “Did you know homosexual males cannot give blood?”

That was the start of a student-led Equal Blood Campaign to press the FDA to lift its blanket ban on all gay blood donors.

Day One of the campaign sparked some initial shock. The ban came as news to many, and the campaign rapidly gathered more and more supporters. In addition to posters around campus, the school’s bulletin, which is read daily in small advisory groups, featured campaign related statistics and facts.

The FDA developed its initial policy regarding gay men in 1983 because at that time there was no technology to screen blood for the HIV virus, which was then known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). Since the ’80s, the disease GRID has been renamed AIDS and is seen as an epidemic affecting millions of people of all ethnicities and sexual orientations.

Yet today, in 2006, when all donated blood is tested for the HIV virus, the policy remains the same — excluding homosexual males from donating blood.

The campaign ended with a bang when on the day of the blood drive, Jan. 12, more than 250 students and faculty sported stickers reading: “I don’t discriminate against blood.”

The petition to the FDA was signed by 270 people — almost half of the high school student body. It is important to understand that the nature of the Equal Blood Campaign was in no way against the blood drive. The campaign in fact was in association with the blood drive.

Students decided to support the Equal Blood Campaign because they agreed that the FDA policy is outdated and reveals the stigma that AIDS is a “gay disease,” and until this policy changes, the dangerous assumption that all homosexuals have the HIV virus will remain. In addition, we feel that the FDA is ruling out a source of potentially life-saving donated blood.

Blood products in short supply, and many favor lifting the ban. According to the FDA, an estimated 62,300 homosexuals would donate blood if the ban was lifted.

The FDA policy arises out of a fear of passing on infected blood. Of the 12 million units of donated blood each year, 10 HIV infected units slip through, accounting for two to three cases of donor transmitted HIV infections per year.

The main reason that HIV positive blood slips through is because there is a window of up to three months after a person contracts HIV where the virus is not always detected.

But while banning gay men, even those in long-term monogamous relationships, the policy says nothing about heterosexual men and women who have unprotected sex with multiple sex partners and who have unknown HIV status (rigorous questionnaires at blood donor sites do take these factors into account).

We feel even if not completely abolishing the gay ban, the FDA should change the policy from banning all men who have had sex with men, to banning any person who has had unprotected sex with any person within the past three months. Not only would this weed out promiscuous and more likely infected individuals from giving blood, but it gives the opportunity for gay men having safe sex to give blood.

In its most recent evaluation of the issue, the FDA narrowly voted to maintain the ban on blood donations from homosexual men. The vote was 7-6 to maintain the ban, which states that any man who has had sex with another man since 1977 may not donate blood.

I, along with my campaign co-leader, Amanda Meimin, truly feel the Milken Equal Blood Campaign — one of the first of its kind in a high school — was a success. We turned heads and not only changed views but also helped people to find a view. Ultimately we would like to see other schools adopt the Equal Blood Campaign and we’d like to see the FDA change its policy.

The past has taught us that we can generate tolerance through destroying generalizations. Our battle begins with the stereotype that AIDS is a “gay disease.” We want to make people understand that just because they may not be gay, the issue still pertains to them. Discrimination exists everywhere and has touched everyone at one point or another. The Milken Equal Blood Campaign is about raising awareness, making change, and empowering youth to make their peers aware of homophobia in our society.

Lisa Hurwitz is a sophomore at Milken Community High School. To get involved in the Equal Blood Campaign, contact her at lhurwitz@mchs.mchschool.org.

It’s a Full Plate in Nourishing the Sick

Bob S. insists that his mother back in Virginia made the best chicken soup ever, but he’s willing to admit the homemade version delivered to his Van Nuys apartment is a close second.

The delivery is part of the mission of Project Chicken Soup, an all-volunteer group that cooks, packages and personally delivers kosher meals twice a month to patients living with HIV and AIDS. It might be a chicken breast or a casserole, along with the soup, salad, fruit, dessert or even a protein drink.

Bob, who’s 61 and lives alone, said the food is crucial for him, but it goes deeper than that. “If it wasn’t for Project Chicken Soup, there wouldn’t be a connection to the Jewish community for some of us, and I wouldn’t be cooking for myself,” he said. “I don’t have the energy or the interest or the desire to eat.”

For Project Chicken Soup President Rod Barn, whose client list has grown steadily from 20 in the early ’90s to more than 100, the task of meeting a growing demand when charitable donations and grants are harder to secure is a never ending challenge.

“So far, we haven’t had to turn anyone away, and we don’t want to,” Barn said. “A lot of our clients say when they get our food, it reminds them of better times. They smell the chicken soup, and it brings them love and warmth, and that’s what we’re about.”

It’s a similar story elsewhere, from small programs to large, as medical advances mean more people are living better and longer with AIDS and HIV. Whether it’s Project Chicken Soup; Aids Service Foundation (ASF) Orange County, with its 1,500 clients; St. Vincent’s Meals on Wheels, which serves 50 to 75 HIV and AIDS patients a day out of 1,650 clients; or Project Angel Food, which cooks and delivers 1,200 meals daily, they have to do more with less.

Larry Kuzela of ASF Orange County said this “has always been a struggle and continues to be. We’ve never had a waiting list, and we’ve never turned anyone away, but we have a reserve fund, and we’ve had to dig into our reserves.” Sister Alice Marie of St. Vincent’s was only half joking when she said, “I pray a lot” to make sure there is enough money.

At Project Angel Food, considered a model for this type of service nationally, Executive Director John Gile said, “We’ve added 800 new clients in 2002 alone, yet we have over 20,000 donors, with the average gift being $38. We always seem to get the gift when we need it most.”

“Since we’re based in Hollywood, we have strong support and generosity from the entertainment industry, which this year alone will help us raise a half-million dollars,” he continued. “We’re proud to say that if you call Project Angel Food today, you get a meal tomorrow”

On the other side of the table, groups that give grants and funding to AIDS service providers would like to do more, but they also must compete for donations. For example, MAZON, A Jewish Response to Hunger, which receives the majority of its donations from individuals, plans to give away approximately $3.4 million to 250 organizations nationwide in this fiscal year. Project Angel Food and Project Chicken Soup, which is under the umbrella of Jewish Family Service, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, are among the grant recipients.

Grants Director Mia Johnson said, “The sense or urgency is not as strong as it was in the ’80s and ’90s, so it’s a challenge for these organizations to make sure people understand their ongoing needs and the evolution of those needs”

The nutritionally balanced meals that are provided can literally make the difference between life and death for those struggling to stay healthy, and that’s why Steven F. of Santa Monica, said of Project Angel Food’s work: “It’s very crucial. Every day, I think of it as a gift. It is something I look forward to, and it provides me with good, cooked food that I wouldn’t and couldn’t do for


For more information about Project Chicken Soup, call
(323) 655-5330 or visit “>www.angelfood.org; for MAZON, call (310)
442-0020 or visit

Groundbreaking Cinema

In “Hit and Runway,” a straight Italian-American naif teams up with a gay Jew to write a screenplay. In “Aimee & Jaguar,” a Jewish woman and a Nazi’s wife begin a torrid affair. In “Man is a Woman,” a gay man marries a woman, a Yiddish singer, who has never known a man.

“There is definitely something in the air,” says Alisa Lebow, a lesbian Jew and a filmmaker, of the three gay-themed films in the International Jewish Film Festival. Since the early ’90s, she has noticed gay and lesbian directors have been making movies about their Jewish experiences. The trend began later than other ethnic-gay films because of the Jewish tendency to assimilate, and because, for some, it’s difficult to reconcile the gay politics of oppression with Jewish privilege.

AIDS forced the issue in 1993, when movies like Gregg Bordowitz’s “Fast Trip, Long Drop,” focused on Jews and HIV. Around the same time, lesbians were making their own identity films, such as the Oscar-nominated short documentary “Chicks in White Satin,” about a lesbian wedding. By 1998, Lebow and her partner, Cynthia Madansky made “Treyf,” which bypasses “coming out” issues to focus on the filmmakers’ progressive Judaism.

“For some gay filmmakers, there has been a disconnection with Israel over politics and a weariness of identity based on the victimization of the Holocaust,” says Janis Plotkin, director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The result has been a number of bubbe films, in which directors seek a Jewish connection by returning to the love and nostalgia embodied in their grandparents.

Sometimes the filmmakers turn to grandma to find themselves. Andy Abrahams Wilson, director of the Emmy-nominated “Bubbeh Lee & Me,” says his solid Jewish grandmother “helped me straddle the worlds of being gay and Jewish, and find where I belonged.”

Today, almost a decade after the earliest gay-Jewish films, the trend is a “normalization” of gay characters in feature films. Filmmakers are creating protagonists who are not angst-ridden about their identity, but who happen to be gay and Jewish. The comedy “Hit and Runway,” for example, was based on the real-life writing partnership (and conflicts) between Christopher Livingston, a straight writer-director, and his gay-Jewish writing partner, Jaffe Cohen. “We decided to make a movie about our relationship,” Cohen says, “because the arguments we were having over our scripts were funnier than anything else.”

“Hit and Runway” screens Nov. 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Nov. 10 at Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino. “Amy & Jaguar” runs Nov. 11 at the Music Hall. “Man is a Woman” screens Nov. 14 at the Music Hall and Nov. 17