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Church Leaders Study AIDS Education

Times Staff Writer

Area leaders of religions ranging from Buddhism to Judaism gathered as an informal congregation in Burbank Saturday to learn how to approach AIDS education in their respective churches and temples.

The 30 or so leaders were counseled by health experts, legal professionals and church counselors on how to dilute fears and myths about AIDS with “compassion and facts.” They also were assured that giving out accurate information about AIDS was not condoning a homosexual life style.

“Don’t get into that discussion with your members,” said Jerry Small, one of the heads of Nechama, a program that educates Jewish people about AIDS. “That defeats our purpose, which is disseminating information. Just refuse to get into a discussion involving sexuality.”

The conference, held at Providence High School, was held by the AIDS Interfaith Council of Southern California, a coalition of religious leaders responding to the AIDS crisis, said its executive director, Elizabeth Yaruss. The meeting also featured appearances by the organization’s chairman, Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Deane Dana.

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Small said members of churches may be uncomfortable with talking about AIDS, and that they should stress knowledge and compassion about the disease. Young people should also be instructed that they are not immune from AIDS, and how to avoid it.

Sherry Netherland, an adviser with Nechama, told the leaders that their clergy should see the AIDS crisis in a spiritual light. “Get them to feel that as spiritual beings, they have to be responsible for this,” she said. “It’s not just the people who suffer from it. This affects everybody.”

The leaders were told to use tips from the meeting in their own establishments. They were advised to set up programs where congregation members can volunteer to help AIDS victims and their families through food banks, financial contributions and hospital visits.

“But probably the most important thing you can do is have an AIDS victim speak at your church or temple,” Small said. “Nothing brings it home more vividly than that.”

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