Rabbinical Students Take a Stand on PEPFAR


Rabbinical Students Take a Stand on PEPFAR

February 8, 2008

Participants from the AJWS Rabbinical Students' Delegation (RSD) in Ghana have written a letter urging congressional representatives, rabbis and Jewish communities to push for change in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) as the original legislation expires. Citing the Jewish responsibility to save a life, the letter demands the removal of controversial restrictions, such as the abstinence-only earmark and the prostitution pledge, from the bill. Click here to learn more about PEPFAR, which is scheduled for a mark-up on February 27.  The reauthorization of PEPFAR is scheduled to begin formally on February 27 when the House Committee on Foreign Affairs will "mark up" new draft legislation.

The 25 RSD participants, motivated by what they witnessed in Ghana, are now distributing the letter in their home communities around the country. The letter has been signed by both RSD participants and RSD alumni. They are also working with their seminaries and fellow rabbinical students to spread the word on how Jewish leadership can make a difference at this crucial juncture and are mobilizing friends and family members to take action as well.

"During our encounters here in Ghana, we have come to understand the relationship between U.S. funding through PEPFAR and the reality on the ground," the letter states. "Jewish tradition teaches that blood is the life force of all creatures. HIV/AIDS, which has reached epidemic proportions in Africa, takes an astounding number of individual lives and literally contaminates the vital life force of African populations, their cultures and communities. A teaching from the Torah instructs us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor, and that it is incumbent upon us to save life where life is in danger."

Since faith-based organizations play such a major role in shaping the language of the current administration's policy-making, it is important that the Jewish community voices its concern for human rights and public health. The rabbinical students are adding an important voice to this conversation, one that promotes evidence-based solutions to global health problems and advocates for the rights of vulnerable people (such as women and girls, men who have sex with men, sex workers, and others).

"As a future rabbi, I believe that it is my responsibility to make my community aware of such issues and to inspire action," said Ana Bonnheim, an RSD participant from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. "We work to make the world a better place, because we choose to believe in the humanity of all people and in our ability to harness our own privilege, good fortune and the whole of Jewish tradition to touch and help others."

The RSD returnees are continuing to reach out to their fellow rabbinical students, seminary leadership and Jewish communities to encourage PEPFAR activism. Some are making congressional home office visits and calling their representatives on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Other participants are doing even more: Tal Sessler of the Jewish Theological Seminary published an article in the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv about PEPFAR; Debra Glasberg of Yeshiva University published a piece in Columbia University's student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator; Ana Bonnheim of HUC organized an information session at her seminary to teach her fellow students about PEPFAR, led advocacy training for teenagers at her congregation and reached out to her family and friends to call their Congressional representatives. And Brian Fink of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia led a PEPFAR workshop at a recent alumni retreat of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps.

"The work that the rabbinical students are doing on PEPFAR represents the very best kind of Jewish social justice," said Aaron Dorfman, director of education at AJWS and one of the leaders of RSD. "They've taken what is often an abstract principle in Jewish tradition – that saving a life is equivalent to saving an entire world – and applied it to concrete action. By supporting a greater and more effective U.S. response to the AIDS pandemic, these Jewish leaders are not only potentially saving hundreds of thousands of lives, they're modeling a way to live authentic Jewish values through serious political activism."