Judaism has long emphasized the value of tangible memory. Many in the non-Jewish world have borrowed the custom of creating tangible memorials, and one of the largest in the world, the NAMES Project Foundation‘s AIDS Memorial Quilt, has been based in Atlanta since 2001.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is the world’s largest AIDS memorial, with nearly 58 tons of fabric panels created to remember those who have died since 1985.
A new visitors center and central offices for the quilt are opening this month at 117 Luckie St. in downtown Atlanta, complete with open visiting hours and an interactive app designed to bring alive the stories of those memorialized on the panels.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a yahrzeit memorial itself: It is dedicated to the memory of Marvin Feldman, who was the best friend of quilt founder Cleve Jones.
That’s not the only Jewish connection to the quilt. The NAMES Project Foundation might be one of Atlanta’s most Jewish nonprofit agencies.
“Anyone who understands what it means to be the other — some of these things we learn as we talk about the quilt and the human connection — so much of it, I’ve learned over the years, is centrally thematic to the Jewish faith,” Executive Director Julie Rhoad said.
Though she is not Jewish, she finds parallels between many of the struggles gay men and others who have been affected by AIDS face and those of the Jewish people. But it’s not the struggles she focuses on.
“We talk about Jewish people on this quilt and Jewish people who have been lost to this disease, but what stays with me is the lessons we’ve learned through the Jewish community,” Rhoad said. “We’ve learned how to honor memory and honor life and, in doing so, learning how to teach the living.”
Teaching the living is the central focus of the NAMES Project. It regularly hosts school groups, camps and many others. Both Camp Barney Medintz and Camp Coleman have created panels and participated in programs, as have many rabbinical groups.
Ahavath Achim Synagogue has a longstanding connection to the quilt that was made strongest by AA member Alan Landis, who died in early 2016 from pancreatic cancer. Landis was a volunteer educator at the foundation, and his memory is still guiding educational programs.
“When Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal eulogized Alan, he discussed seven characteristics of perfection, and those seven words ended up on the AA quilt panel,” Rhoad said. “We’ve been talking about him with young people and about the words that we remember him with, and we ask students: What seven words do you want to be remembered with?”
Rabbi Rosenthal said his congregation’s contribution to the AIDS Memorial Quilt is one of the most meaningful and spiritual efforts he has experienced. “Every ritual, action or teaching is supposed to have many layers of meaning, significance and emanations of the divine. The AIDS Quilt is a similar endeavor.”
For AA, he said, “making a panel was a space for remembering those we had lost, honoring those in our congregation and families that are still living with the disease, all the while providing our collective voice to activism of the quilt that shouts truth to ignorance, love against hate, honor in front of disregard. By making a panel of the quilt, we helped to elevate the souls of so many who were disregarded and thrown away by our society and elevated them to exist in a place of holiness and sacredness.”
Providing a collective voice to activism is the central motivation for Billy Planer, the founder and director of Etgar 36, a civil rights program for teens and touring groups.
“Our visit to the quilt helps get across one of the points of our Civil Rights Journey, and that is that we are all connected. What would have happened if we understood that what first impacted a community that didn’t have a voice or power in America impacts us all?” Planer said.
“Instead, America was able to say, ‘The gay community isn’t us; they are the other,’ so we were able to ignore the disease. (President Ronald Reagan) was able to avoid mentioning HIV/AIDS for eight years. If we could understand that there is no ‘other’ but just ‘another,’ and what impacts you impacts me, perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with the fact that 30 years later the fastest-growing segment being infected with HIV is teens.”
Rhoad values her time with the Etgar 36 participants and other visiting groups. “We get to talk about social justice, human rights, civil liberties and what the modern civil rights movement all have in common. They are craving opportunities to dig a little deeper in the story and learn what happened so it can never happen again. They want to be a part of change, and they want to be change makers. They may not choose HIV/AIDS, but they come away with the power of the movement, how to change the world and how to create allegiances with communities that perhaps aren’t your own.”
Emory University Hillel has held a program in partnership with the NAMES Project for many years, and it has grown to incorporate departments and groups from across campus. The Emory display of the quilt and the events associated with it have sparked numerous conversations and provided multiple opportunities for education.
“One of the things that stuck with me about Hillel taking this on was the notion that saving a life was akin to saving the whole world,” Rhoad said. “Once you connect to the quilt, either by making a panel or seeing a display, you’re forever linked.”
Emory Hillel now holds one of the largest displays of the quilt in the world.
“For whatever story you want to tell, there is fodder on the quilt,” Atlanta playwright and PR consultant Janece Shaffer said. “There is no collection of more fascinating stories than what is here. Every panel has so much background.
“When we talk about the lessons learned, it’s not done in a broad way. We’d have students come in, and they’d listen to Alan, and he’d show them the 33 pills he took each day, and suddenly they clicked in. I brought my teenage kids to see the quilt, and I asked them, ‘Do you think any of these people thought they were going to get AIDS? If someone had to create a panel for you, what would they include?’ It’s a powerful educational tool.”