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AIDS victims commemorated at temple ceremony

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Rabbi Julia Appel welcomes Ga’ava leaders, from left, Carlos Godoy, Earl Pinchuk and Justin Margolis at a World AIDS Day commemoration.

MONTREAL — World AIDS Day was commemorated at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, organized with Ga’ava, a Montreal Jewish LGBTQ organization, in what is believed to be the first such service at a Montreal Jewish religious institution.

Ga’ava (pride in Hebrew) hailed the temple for its openness, regarding the event as a breakthrough.

Rabbi Julia Appel, the temple’s outreach rabbi, conducted the solemn ceremony in the daily chapel for the approximately 30 people assembled.

They remembered those who died of AIDS and prayed for those suffering from HIV/AIDS today. They prayed for the eradication of the disease and that medical science will soon find a cure. Although no longer fatal in most cases, HIV/AIDS is still a scourge with 2.5 million new cases diagnosed worldwide this year.

Ga’ava vice-president Justin Margolis said that 30 years after AIDS was first identified and 15 years after an effective treatment was discovered, there is still stigma attached to the disease and gay men, in particular, face discrimination.

He deplored as “state-sanctioned prejudice” that HIV/AIDS carriers can be charged with murder in Canada for having sexual relations with an unaffected person, and that Héma-Québec prohibits gay men, whatever their medical history, from donating blood.

McGill University medical student Aaron Bilek said he looks forward to the day when those with HIV/AIDS will not be regarded “a recipients of some sort of retribution, but as worthy objects of our love.”

Margolis, who conceived of the ceremony with Rabbi Appel, is from Cleveland, Ohio, and came to Montreal to attend McGill University five years ago. He is now studying international law at the Université de Montréal and has applied for permanent residency.

Although the Montreal Jewish community is generally regarded as traditional, Margolis said he could not conceive of his home synagogue, which is Conservative, holding an event like this. He davens at the Centre Hillel chapel.

World AIDS Day has been observed on Dec. 1 since 1988 when it was conceived by the World Health Organization as a means of raising awareness of the pandemic.

“Our organization is proud to be associated with Rabbi Appel and the temple to celebrate this important day,” said Ga’ava president Earl Pinchuk. “The Jewish community is not immune to the challenges of this HIV/AIDS pandemic; many of us have lost loved ones to this illness.”

Pinchuk, a Shaare Zion Congregation member, said he believes in “peaceful social revolution.”

The ceremony consisted of lighting a memorial candle, reading Psalm 23, and reciting El Male Rachamim, and the mourner’s kaddish, as well as a special Mi Sheberach for the healing of those dealing with the infection.

David Brody, a longtime gay rights activist and Orthodox Jew, gave a eulogy for his partner of 23 years, Yves Larouche, who succumbed to AIDS in 1994.

Carlos Godoy, chair of Ga’ava read the poem Briller avec le VIH by Bolivian activist J. W. Montano Ferrel, which speaks of the determination of an HIV-positive person to live life fully and with dignity.

The service was held on the same day the temple announced the appointment of its next senior rabbi, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, who is openly lesbian and will be coming next summer with her partner and their children.

Same-sex marriages are performed at the temple, and Rabbi Appel, a Boston native who assumed her post here in the summer, has reached out to the Jewish LGBTQ community. She was present at this August’s gay pride parade in downtown Montreal, in which Ga’ava had a float.

Two representatives of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs staff were at the service, David Ouellette and Myriam Azogui-Halbwax.

Brody, a longtime gay rights activist and a founder of the early Montreal Jewish gay/lesbian group Naches, is pleased with the community’s more accepting attitude today.

But he has found doors still remain closed. His attempts over the past year to speak to students at four mainstream Jewish high schools were unsuccessful.

Brody, a Congregation Shaar Hashomayim member, speaks at synagogue and other community groups about his painful experience growing up Orthodox and gay in the 1950s, and believes there is an urgent need for the issue of homosexuality to be addressed among Jewish youth, whatever their sexual orientation.

While the principals were amenable, the schools’ religious advisers ignored his request, he said.

He wrote to the principals in response: “Clearly, the letter of the law, the Torah, is more important to those religious advisers than the welfare of students. Yet, I have been taught that, once the Torah was given to Moses it was up to humankind to interpret that law, as has been done in so many cases.

“Furthermore, I, in common with 170 modern Orthodox rabbis and community leaders, believe that gay men and lesbians are created in the image of God and should be welcomed into our communities,” he said referring to a Statement of Principles endorsed last year.

“After all, sexual orientation is not something any of us can choose, nor does sexual orientation have any influence whatsoever on morality.”

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