“The voices of JQ members are welcome and needed. Everyone has something to contribute,” said Michael Sugar, one of the members from Kol Ami’s HIV/AIDS support group.
In 1988, Rabbi Denise Eger of Kol Ami started a revolutionary HIV/AIDS support group at a time when not many religious groups reached out to people who were struggling. Almost thirty years later, the group is still going strong.
Along with providing a place to eat, sing, and schmooze, those in the group talk about current events, build friendships, listen or share, get referrals for resources, and examine experiences in a spiritual context.
Around the same time the group was created in 1988, Michael Sugar was diagnosed as HIV positive. This was also during Reagan’s Presidency, who been notorious for standing idly by with the AIDS crisis. As Michael’s friends were dying around him, the blatant indifference drove him to go out into the streets as an activist and make some noise, drawing attention to an issue that was so ignored by the government. Actively engaging in social justice is incredibly important for Michael, which is a value that is so deeply intrinsic to the Kol Ami community.
Although he was raised in a Jewish home, Michael disconnected from Judaism after leaving the house at 18 years old. When his father passed away in the 90s, he began searching for a place to say Kaddish. Michael recalls, “My father had been very very supportive after I disclosed my HIV status to him, and wrote me a letter that I still have to this day. He shared how he prayed everyday that I would live to be an old man, and that when I did, that I’d tell my friends he told me so.” Congregation Kol Ami
was the place where it jus
t felt right for Michael to say Kaddish, reconnect with his Jewish roots, and find belonging.
When Michael joined the support group 18 years ago, he had just lost over 100 friends to AIDS, and was struggling with deep depression and irreconcilable grief. “Just attending the group was stepping outside a safety zone. I was taking the risk to reconnect with people after so much loss. Just going out of the house after having been very very depressed was another a big step. But Kol Ami was so welcoming, and right away, I could feel it in my gut and heart that Kol Ami would become my home.”
The group has helped to make the Jewish holidays relevant for many of its members. Michael explained, “For me, Passover is a lot about freedom from dise
ase and depression. But it’s not only about escaping from one place and finding freedom, but an opportunity to reinvent oneself and move forward.
Michael mentioned, “We have a core bunch that have been in the group for a great deal of time. We have a couple hundred years of collective experience, and that’s really powerful for someone who comes in with fear.”
While Rabbi Eger hosts the gathering, the group really belongs to its members. There is no agenda or set format for the group, rather it is a place to be with those who have a shared experience.
The group meets on the 2nd Saturday
of every month at 12:15pm
. Lunch is provided. If you would like to attend, leave a confidential message for Rabbi Eger at ext. 101 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Can’t make a meeting?
The JQ Helpline is here for you. The JQ Helpline is the only resource and social service referral line specifically designed to serve LGBTQ Jews, their families, and allies in the United States.
Call us at 855-JQI-HLPS (855-574-4577) or Email us at Helpline@JQinternational.org
JQ International Contributing Writer