LGBT Acceptance Swells, But Queer Jews Remember Pain of AIDS Crisis

Standing in front of a window with "Congregation Beth Ahavah" painted on it, three white people stand dressed in sweatshirts.
Beth Ahavah founder Jerry Silverman (left) and other Beth Ahavah members in front of their Letitia Street location in 2007 | From The Jewish Exponent archives

When Heshie Zinman visited his buddies — HIV/AIDS patients in Pennsylvania Hospital — in the mid-1980s, delivering their food trays or just saying hi, he would hold his breath, sneaking out of the room into the hall or bathroom to suck in a gulp of air.

Zinman, now 71, is on the Governor’s Pennsylvania Commission for LGBT Affairs, advocating for the greater inclusion and cultural competency to support older LGBT people, and the co-chair of pRiSm, Congregation Rodeph Shalom’s LGBT affinity group. He’s the co-founder of the AIDS Library of Philadelphia, now the Critical Path Learning Center at Philadelphia FIGHT.

An activist during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Zinman witnessed the deaths of loved ones and the complacency of the government to address the epidemic. After more than 1 million reported COVID deaths in the United States in 2022, the toll of one public health crisis in the wake of another one still impacts Zinman.

“The ’80s and the ’90s were filled with trauma and fear. For me, the COVID pandemic brought back a lot of issues around death and dying,” Zinman said. “And although completely different, people losing people every day, the losses of what it meant to the family, what it meant to society, what it meant to the arts, what it meant to culture, I had lots of rushes of the AIDS epidemic.”

From 1981 to 1990, there were 100,777 deaths of those diagnosed with AIDS reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease first made headlines in the U.S. in 1981, when five healthy, young gay men in Los Angeles suddenly died of pneumonia. 

Though HIV can be transmitted through any unprotected sexual encounter or through intravenous drug use, the disease’s initial proximity to gay men gave it its early monikers of the “gay cancer” and “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” stigmatizing gay men and the queer community who supported them.

Though the American Jewish community now prides itself on its support of the LGBT community, with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Philadelphia-based J. Proud Consortium holding events for June’s Pride Month, that allyship was not always guaranteed. As the larger Jewish community — as well as most religious institutions — turned their backs on gay people in the 1980s, the Jewish LGBT community took the responsibility of supporting each other into their own hands. The road to wide acceptance in larger Jewish institutions took decades.

Zinman came out in 1979, and following a divorce and a layoff from his job at an architectural design firm in 1984, he found himself, like many other gay men, finding community at a gay bar in Philadelphia.

“It was at that point that I’m now bartending, that people started getting sick and started having these horrible experiences of death and dying and being tossed out of their apartments,” Zinman said.

The bar, per Zinman’s insistence, transformed from a place for some gay men to escape news of the epidemic to a place of community support. It was the hub of fundraisers and workshops on safer sex. Zinman became a member of the Philadelphia AIDS Task Force and was diagnosed with HIV in 1989, years after he began his efforts to support friends and community members living with the disease.

“My whole thinking was looking at the environment — the fear, the discrimination, deaths and the dying — I figured this could be me, and so I just was petrified,” he said. “My fear and my anguish and my grief just kind of catapulted me into my AIDS activism. Every time I got anxious, I went to another meeting. I started another program.”

Outside of LGBT nightlife, support for queer people was sparse.

In the late 1970s, hepatitis B, another sexually transmitted disease, was of greater concern to the gay community, said David Fair, a Philadelphia-based LGBT and AIDS activist. Though anxiety of the disease prompted the beginning of LGBT-oriented health care such as the Lavender Health collective, it also fueled the flames of gay stigma and homophobia.

“There were a lot of scare tactics used in those years. People were afraid you could catch it from a toilet seat, or you could catch it by being in the vicinity of an affected person,” he said. “And that led to all sorts of legal efforts to punish people who had AIDS.”

Mandatory HIV testing strained patient-physician relationships and further stigmatized those living with HIV. 

Two bald white men wearing collared shirts stand next to each other and laugh.
From left: AIDS Library of Philadelphia co-founder John Cunningham and Heshie Zinman in 2015 | Courtesy of Heshie Zinman

Stigma permeated into many religious spaces as well. The greater Jewish community in Philadelphia and the U.S. was not widely welcoming to LGBT people, said queer Rabbi Linda Holtzman. Interpretations of Jewish texts were more conservative in the 1970s and ’80s.

Close memories of the Holocaust instilled an anxiety around Jewish futurity, prompting prejudice toward many queer couples who chose not to have children or have “traditional” family structures. When Holtzman came out, her parents were concerned that she would be unable to live a happy, fulfilled life because of widespread homophobia.

“AIDS just frightened people even more, so it stopped any kind of forward movement for the Jewish world for a while,” Holtzman said.

Zinman and Holtzman both assert that in the 1980s, The Jewish Exponent, then overseen by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Publishing Group, did not mention AIDS in obituaries of those who died of complications from the disease. This was the status quo for Jewish publications of the time, Holtzman said.

The erasure of those who died of AIDS complications was widespread across many large American publications. The New York Times didn’t put news of AIDS on the front page of the paper until 1983, reported journalist Leah Rosenzweig in a 2018 investigation for Slate. Reports of AIDS-related deaths were relegated to the back of the paper or sandwiched between unrelated news sections. Reports obscured AIDS-related deaths as something random and unrelated.

Former Jewish Exponent editor and current Hadassah Magazine Executive Editor Lisa Hostein doesn’t remember the Exponent’s policy on writing about AIDS-related deaths during her time at the paper as an intern in 1983 and as a reporter and news editor from 1985-1994. However, the Exponent did not publish announcements of weddings or civil unions between LGBT couples until their policy change in 2009, which Hostein, who became executive editor in 2008, championed alongside Jewish Publishing Group board Chairman Bennett L. Aaron.

The absence of any significant LGBT reporting in the Exponent was not driven by prejudice, Hostein believes; the Jewish community didn’t prioritize LGBT issues during that time.

“While clearly there was bias against gays in the Jewish and general — community, I don’t remember much discussion about LGBTQ issues at the Exponent … I just don’t think it was on people’s radars the way it is today,” Hostein said.

The lack of LGBT-inclusive Jewish spaces prompted Jerry Silverman to start a congregation of LGBT members.

Inspired by Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York and Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, Silverman founded Beth Ahavah in 1975, convening a small group of like-minded gay Jews in his living room.

“Back then, people were in the closet, and you were looking to meet with other people, looking for a partner or just to hang out with people that shared your Jewish values,” Silverman said. “You won’t necessarily find them in another synagogue because most people were so closeted at the time.”

Silverman put advertisements for Beth Ahavah in the Philadelphia Gayzette. The 10 people who showed up to Silverman’s house declared themselves the founders of the group.

Less than a decade after its founding, Beth Ahavah was deeply touched by the AIDS crisis. Several members of the small congregation died, including synagogue President Ed Traitman, one of Silverman’s dear friends.

Silverman remembers little of those years: “It’s almost as if I wasn’t even around at the time.”

Holtzman, who was Beth Ahavah’s rabbi during the AIDS epidemic, remembers the ample trauma of the time more vividly. She remembers closeted Beth Ahavah members diagnosed with AIDS who were forced to come out with their parents by telling them of their death sentence, she said.

Some families of people with AIDS-related deaths wouldn’t let Holtzman perform funerals for their relatives because of her association with Beth Ahavah. In other cases, families would want her to perform a funeral, but not disclose their loved one’s cause of death.

“We would do a funeral where we would talk about this — who had been — a healthy 20-something-year-old who died of pneumonia,” she said.

The numerous AIDS-related deaths prompted Holtzman to help create the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha, or burial ritual society, of Philadelphia for those who felt other Jewish institutions would not honor their deaths.

“I started preparing bodies for burial because one man who had AIDS, who was a member of Beth Ahavah, came to me and said, ‘I want my body prepared in the traditional Jewish way. I want it prepared by people who treated me with absolute respect and acceptance in life,’” Holtzman said.

In the mid-1990s, however, the landscape began to change for LGBT Jews. As medical professionals developed more effective treatment options for those living with HIV, the diagnosis was no longer a death sentence for those who had the resources. Stigma around the disease decreased.

In 1990, Beth Ahavah became affiliated with the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, part of the Reform movement, to gain more resources. In 2007, it became affiliated with Rodeph Shalom.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia approached Zinman and several queer community members in 2010 or 2011, hoping to make chances to become more inclusive.

“The Federation wanted to be supportive of LGBT people … It’s a little late, but better late than never,” Zinman said.

In 2015, Beth Ahavah merged with Rodeph Shalom, whose visible rainbow mezuzah in their sanctuary pays homage to the LGBT congregation. 

Several individuals sit around a conference room conversing and eating. A white board decorated with sparse balloons reads "DON'T GO"
Heshie Zinman (standing, left) at the AIDS Information Network Philadelphia (previously the AIDS Library of Philadelphia) in 1998 | Courtesy of Heshie Zinman

“It was kind of a shock,” Silverman said. “We knew it was the right thing, but it still hurt a lot.”

By then, the Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage. Beth Ahavah members left to join synagogues they felt more spiritually connected to, as many voiced support for LGBT Jews. pRiSm and Zinman remain active at the synagogue.

The merger represented increased acceptance of queer Jews in the largest Jewish institutions, but the loss of a community that nurtured LGBT Jews when few others would.

For Zinman, who still mourns the loss of friends and community members who died in the 1980s, congregations like Rodeph Shalom are still an overwhelming victory for LGBT Jews.

“The language of LGBT and queer community, diversity, inclusion — that’s so crystal clear when you come into RS, not only reading it, but hearing it from people who greet you,” Zinman said. “And it’s just a beautiful thing.


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