Friday, May 31, 2024

My Cousin Jeff Avick's Landmark 1993 Speech: "What HIV Means To Me" (Substack)


My Cousin Jeff Avick's Landmark 1993 Speech: "What HIV Means To Me"

"Faith isn't challenged in calm seas. it is challenged when the course becomes hard to steer, which is when it most needed."

This evening will be my final Pride Shabbat as senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Stamford. During the service I'll be reading excerpts from one of the most inspiring and courageous addresses ever given from my pulpit - a talk by my cousin Jeff Avick in November, 1993, which he entitled, "What HIV Means to Me." It is reprinted in its entirety below and also con be found in this booklet, which includes some of his magnificent poetry as well.

This speech remains timely, well worth reading and sharing. Jeff lived in a very different world and the speech demonstrates the astounding strides that we’ve made since 1993, both in medical care and LGBTQ rights. Gay marriage and associated changes - including rabbinic and cantorial ordination - are among he most remarkable changes that have occurred during my time in rabbinic service. And Jeff has played no small role in getting us from there to here. Since his passing, I for one have used my platform to amplify his message in a number of ways.

On the issue of those rights, at least, the arc of history has bent dramatically toward justice, though we must be ever wary that several Justic-es cravenously wish to bend that arc right back to the middle ages.

“We can face this test and grow from it,” Jeff stated. “We can see that we are one fabric deeply interwoven, although we come in many varieties.

Jeff, who lived in Stamford for the latter part of his life, died of AIDS in 1999. When he gave this speech, he had hardly set foot in a synagogue since his bar mitzvah, so he was nervous about it. His cousin the rabbi was able to convince him to set aside some of the negative experiences of his Hebrew School years and I assured him that shuls had changed for the better (or at least mine had) and that it would be important - and good for him, to speak. And it was.

At the time it might have seemed courageous to do this. For him to open up his heart so utterly, surely it was. For me to invite him (it was just my second year as senior rabbi) was not courageous at all. I don't recall any negative reactions from my congregants, but if there had been, I'd have left Stamford long ago. I would have wanted nothing to do with such a congregation (and indeed, several years later, when our cantor came out and a neighboring synagogue refused to allow her to lead services from their pulpit, we said sayonara to our partnership with them).

It doesn’t take courage to stand by principles. It just takes having principles that you stand by.

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Jeff said in that sermon, “I believe more than ever that there is a basic goodness to life and a reason that things happen,” asserting that HIV had bestowed on him a “deep sense of gratitude.” “We can face this test and grow from it,” he stated. “We can see that we are one fabric deeply interwoven, although we come in many varieties. We can move forward into the future. Or we can move backwards, away from enlightenment, back to superstition and denial, back to a world ruled by fear.”

His is a message even more valid for our times than for his own. And as we enter this Pride Month with fateful days ahead, Jeffrey Avick’s prophetic, impassioned words serve both as a clarion call and a balm.

So here is my cousin Jeffrey’s landmark 1993 speech, “What HIV Means to Me.” May his memory live forever through his words and his love. May they usher in Pride Month, 2024 with compassion and resolve.

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