On first night of Chanukah, rekindling fight against AIDS

For Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser, the coincidence of the first night of Chanukah and World AIDS Day falling on the same date was too important to overlook.

“There is so much overlap between the two,” said Rosenwasser, of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. “At its core, Chanukah is about having hope and faith. You have this small group of people living in a dark time, fighting for what they believed in. Today we live in a time of darkness, with HIV and AIDS having a destructive impact on society.”  

To mark the two occasions, four South Bay congregations and the Jewish community at large will join together for Don’t Let the Light Go Out: A World AIDS Day Commemoration, on Wednesday, Dec. 1. The event is scheduled to run from 7 to 10 p.m. in the sanctuary at Beth Am.

Through words and music in an interfaith setting, community members will address the local and global devastation caused by AIDS, while honoring loved ones who have died from the disease.

Along with Beth Am, Congregations Kol Emeth and Etz Chayim of Palo Alto and Temple Beth Jacob of Redwood City are taking part in the event, which is free and open to the public. Sponsoring groups include the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

Featured speakers will include Peter Laugharn, director of the Santa Cruz–based Firelight Foundation, whose mission is to support and advocate for children who are orphaned or affected by HIV and AIDS; Ruthann Richter and Karen Ande, co-authors of “Face to Face: Children of the AIDS Crisis in Africa”; and a Beth Am congregant who has personally dealt with the disease.

Rabbi Janet Marder, Beth Am’s senior rabbi, will also share her experience working at Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, the first synagogue founded by, and with an outreach to, the LGBT Jewish community. Rosenwasser will also speak, and Beth Am Cantor Lauren Bandman will perform songs that help create a space for reflection.

The evening will conclude with the lighting of the menorah, “our symbol of collective hope and light in a time of darkness,” Rosenwasser said.

Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, more than 28,000 San Francisco residents have been diagnosed with the disease; that’s approximately 18 percent of California AIDS cases and 3 percent of cases reported nationally, according to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation website.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 56,000 Americans are newly infected with HIV each year. The disease continues to decimate communities around the globe, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The rates of infection and death from the disease are still staggeringly high,” Rosenwasser said. “With advances in technology and medicine, people, at least in this area, are living longer, healthier lives with HIV and AIDS. But the basic problems still remain.”

That said, Rosenwasser added that among his goals for the program is bringing people together to strengthen each other in the fight against AIDS — especially at Chanukah time, when people are reminded about winning battles despite the great odds against them.

“The enemy seems difficult and overwhelming,” Rosenwasser said. “It’s been  a little over 25 years, and we’ve made great strides [in the fight against AIDS]. But people are still dying.

“We have to keep hope alive, try to find a cure and use our Jewish values that have sustained us to rededicate ourselves anew to continue the fight. Just because we haven’t won yet doesn’t mean we won’t.”

Don’t Let the Light Go Out: A World AIDS Day Commemoration begins 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1 at Congregation Beth Am, 26790 Arastradero Road, Los Altos Hills. For more information, call (650) 493-4661 or visit www.betham.org.