Gregg Drinkwater, PhD student in history, presented a paper titled “AIDS Was Our Earthquake: An American Jewish Community in the Age of AIDS” at a conference for graduate students and junior scholars hosted in March by the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. The conference, “Thinking Beyond the Canon: New Themes and Approaches in Jewish Studies,” featured graduate students and recent PhDs from universities across the country, in conversation with some of the leading Jewish studies faculty in the United States.
Drinkwater’s paper centered on the moment when the American Jewish community began a national conversation on AIDS. In 1985, liberal Jewish leaders began addressing AIDS in public statements and in resolutions at national conferences. These leaders had to decide if they would see AIDS as a disease only striking individuals, or as a spiritual, political, and health crisis affecting the entire Jewish community. Would a Jewish response to AIDS focus narrowly on compassion and care for those with AIDS, or frame AIDS – and by extension, homophobia - broadly as a Jewish problem? The paper involved a close reading of two influential sermons, both delivered simultaneously by Reform rabbis at two different synagogues in San Francisco on Yom Kippur in 1985. One was delivered by Rabbi Yoel Kahn at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, the city’s gay and lesbian synagogue, and the other by Rabbi Robert Kirschner at Congregation Emanu-el, the city’s largest Reform synagogue. Examining these sermons in detail allowed Drinkwater to return to these early moments in the Jewish conversation on AIDS. The sermons - both widely circulated and discussed nationally at the time - reflected both the narrow and broad possibilities for a Jewish response, illustrating a turning point when two competing visions of how liberal American Jews could respond to AIDS were on offer.