Jewish Names Remembered as AIDS Quilt Leaves Atlanta
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Jewish Names Remembered as AIDS Quilt Leaves Atlanta

“Atlanta’s loss is surely San Francisco’s gain.” Rabbis and activists express regrets and hopes as memorial to AIDS victims returns to city of its birth.

Dave Schechter is a veteran journalist whose career includes writing and producing reports from Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The quilt has some 50,000 panels sewn into 12-by-12-foot blocks bearing the names of more than 105,000 people that when spread out would span more than 1.3 million square feet.
The quilt has some 50,000 panels sewn into 12-by-12-foot blocks bearing the names of more than 105,000 people that when spread out would span more than 1.3 million square feet.

There is an unavoidably heavy feeling when you stand quietly in the 4,500-square foot warehouse in Tucker where the AIDS Memorial Quilt is stored. All around are remembrances of lives lost, sewn into folded sections of the quilt stacked on shelves that reach a dozen or more feet high, along aisles that stretch some 75 feet toward a rear loading dock.

By the end of February, the warehouse will be empty. The quilt, a crown jewel in Atlanta’s social justice landscape – one woven into the fabric of the Jewish community – is leaving the city, the AJT has learned.

An announcement will be made tomorrow, Nov 20 in Washington, D.C., that after 18 years in Atlanta, the quilt will “go home” to San Francisco and that its archive has been transferred to the Library of Congress.

Photo by Dave Schechter // An aisle in the Tucker warehouse where the AIDS Memorial Quilt is stored.

The quilt is comprised of some 50,000 panels – 3-foot-by-6 foot – the dimensions of a grave. They are sewn into “blocks” measuring 12-foot-by-12-foot, usually of eight panels each. The panels bear the names of more than 105,000 people who have died from AIDS-related illnesses. Altogether, the quilt weighs 55 tons and if spread out completely, would span more than 1.3 million square feet.

“The AIDS Quilt is an act and a representation of love for all who have been lost, and it is our collective memory,” said Alicia Philipp, president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. “Holding that collective memory close would have been a beacon and reminder to us of all that remains to be done. Without its presence here, we will need to do more to stay the course in the fight against HIV/AIDS and compassion for those affected. What is Atlanta’s loss is surely San Francisco’s gain.”

Coming to Atlanta

The quilt was created in San Francisco in 1987, as AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), a precursor to AIDS, devastated the gay community.

By the late 1990s, financial issues and the expense of operating in San Francisco led the NAMES Project Foundation board to seek a new home for the quilt. Several cities were considered; Atlanta was chosen. Edward Gatta Jr., then the foundation board president, said in 2001, “We’d like to take the quilt and our program to be closer to the Centers for Disease Control, where we can collaborate with other groups on our prevention and education efforts.” Julie Rhoad, who lived in Atlanta, stepped down from the foundation board to assist in the move and subsequently was named president and CEO of the NAMES Project, a position she has held since 2001.

Rhoad called the National AIDS Memorial Grove, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a “natural fit” to house the quilt, and used the same term to describe the Library of Congress as curator of the archive.

Photo by NAMES Project // Julie Rhoad, president and CEO of the NAMES Project Foundation, in the Tucker warehouse where the AIDS Memorial Quilt is stored.

Speaking to the AJT, Rhoad likened the quilt and its archive to twins that have grown up together, but now will go their separate ways. “The quilt and quilt’s story have matured to the point where they can be connected in all sorts of platforms, but don’t have to be housed together,” she said.

“What Atlanta really did, Atlanta gave it a home and started programs that had not been done,” said Leslie Gordon, executive director of Atlanta’s William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum and a former member of the NAMES Project board. “We were a holding place for something very precious to a community and we allowed it to be spread to an even larger community.”

Names of Blessed Memory

The quilt’s Jewish ties date to its conception. “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,” Robbie Medwed wrote in a 2017 AJT article.

A panel that names an Atlantan, and panels made by Camps Coleman and Barney Medintz.

Rhoad, who is not Jewish, called the quilt an example of “generational storytelling,” adding the Hebrew phrase “l’dor v’dor” (from generation to generation).

“Things that we have learned, like how to honor memory, to teach the living, that is a central theme of this quilt,” Rhoad said. Though not a solely Jewish ideal, “Having spent so much time with my Jewish friends, and with Hillel, and with other organizations, you begin to learn that fundamental connection that we have across all faiths.”

She referenced the poem “Each of Us Has a Name,” by Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky, the Israeli poet commonly known as Zelda. “We are the NAMES Project. We were founded to remember their names, to make sure that the world did not forget these people, that they did not die in vain,” Rhoad said.

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal of Ahavath Achim Synagogue speaks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt as “a tikkun, a repair of a terrible social and spiritual injustice.”

“Names are really important in Judaism,” said Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal of Ahavath Achim Synagogue. “Names connect us to heritage. Names contain personality traits and part of our loved-one’s soul, which is why we name people after people we love and care(d) for. When you stand in front of a quilt block, it is striking how personality and those beautiful qualities of a soul come out through the fabric.”

“Maybe most importantly, the quilts are a tikkun, a repair of a terrible social and spiritual injustice. HIV and AIDS weren’t and aren’t simply a medical issue. It is a social disease. While individuals and families are struggling to navigate the life-threatening challenges brought on by the virus, our society became infected with the disease of hate, prejudice, and today, the worst disease of all – indifference,”

Rosenthal said. “The NAMES Project and the quilt is a bold and holy act of resistance to this injustice. Like many great social justice movements, the quilt stands quietly, boldly and stoically in the face of these social diseases, reminding us that each and every soul makes a difference in our life and when we forget that, we lose a little bit of ourselves each time.”

This panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt remembers Gary Piccola and Robert Needle, two of the founders of Congregation Bet Haverim.

There is no way to know how many of those memorialized were Jewish. Among the Atlantans is Gary Piccola, who hosted a 1985 Passover seder at which four gay men discussed their struggle to find acceptance in Atlanta’s Jewish community. Piccola, a 35-years-old Emory University graduate and one of Atlanta’s first openly gay psychologists, was considering a move to a city with a gay synagogue.

At the seder, the men added a fifth question to the traditional four: Why not a gay and lesbian synagogue here? Piccola stayed, becoming a co-founder and the first president of Congregation Bet Haverim.

Piccola died from an AIDS-related illness on April 18, 1989, the night before the beginning of Passover that year. Also attending that 1985 seder and memorialized in the quilt is Robert Needle, like Piccola a co-founder of Bet Haverim. Needle died six days before Piccola.

Rabbi Joshua Lesser of Congregation Bet Haverim said that viewing the AIDS Memorial Quilt, either whole or in sections, “still breaks my heart in the most meaningful and powerful way.”

Rabbi Joshua Lesser, now in his 20th year at Bet Haverim, first encountered the quilt in 1991 in New Orleans. “I was 21, newly out and had signed up to be a part of the New Orleans AIDS Task Force ‘Buddy Program.’ I picked up my new buddy, who wanted to see the quilt. He was a frail man that was barely older than me. As we walked around, I was awestruck by the sheer volume, the power of the stories that a single quilt square could tell, and the devastation. I sobbed so much through the experience that my buddy had to console me. While I knew I was there to support him, I was overwhelmed and over my head. I was walking through a beautiful graveyard of my people,” Lesser said. “Since then I have seen the quilt en masse on the [National Mall in Washington, D.C.], in smaller displays, and in single panels dozens of times, and while I am more composed, it still breaks my heart in the most meaningful and powerful way.”

When Ahavath Achim Synagogue held its annual HIV/AIDS Havdalah service in December 2016, sections of the quilt hung from the balcony. Alan Landis, a certified public accountant who was the driving force behind the observance, had died in January that year of pancreatic cancer. Landis’ obituary in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said, “Alan was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s but was not afraid to tell people about it, especially if telling his story might influence teens to get the necessary facts to keep themselves healthy and safe. Alan’s presentations were more like a conversation with a friend – open, honest, nonjudgmental and passionate. Because of his unique style of teaching, teens were in awe of him and often referred to him as ‘Uncle Alan.’”

“As we started to explore the quilts, we began hearing that congregants either had panels or had friends and family that had a quilt panel,” Rosenthal said. “One of our families had a son who died of related illnesses brought on by the AIDS virus and he had a panel that we were able to bring to the synagogue. Being able to display specific quilts really felt like those individual souls were there with us, in the room with us.”

Photo by NAMES Project // Two panels from the quilt.

A panel remembers Ahavath Achim member Michael Shure, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993 at age 35.

Members of Ahavath Achim created a panel with 18 drawings on aspects of Judaism and the AIDS crisis. “When we added a panel to the quilt, it felt like our community became larger, part of something much bigger and holier than we could have created on our own. I feel like we are part of hundreds of thousands of souls now which are remembered and exalted by the quilts and the NAMES Project,” Rosenthal said.

The quilt also includes panels created at Camp Coleman and Camp Barney Medintz.

On Display and on the Road

Billy Planer estimates that during the past 15 years, as part of his Etgar 36 civil rights tours of the South, he has brought 23,000 people to the NAMES Project, with 90 percent of the groups coming from Jewish communities from throughout the country.

“They find the gentleness and humanity of the quilt so powerful. The ability to find a connection, even if you don’t know anyone affected by the disease, because you will see a panel made for someone from your town or who shares an interest with you, is powerful, so that they now have a connection to this disease,” said Planer, a member of the NAMES Project board.

“I thought it was amazing for the cradle of the civil rights movement, Atlanta, to have yet another piece of a civil rights struggle and story in its midst. While San Francisco has every right to the quilt since it was born there, it did make sense to have it in Atlanta as a way to tell the civil rights story in a broader context,” Planer said.

At any given time, about 10 percent of the quilt is away from the warehouse, on display somewhere in the country, a figure that increases to 30 percent around World AIDS Day Dec. 1. A section of the quilt can be seen through Dec. 31 at the Atlanta History Center. Other displays are scheduled Dec. 1-8 at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, and Nov. 18-Dec. 6 at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in Suwanee, Ga.

“Some of the majesty of and the gratification and power of the quilt is found when you have it all together in one place when it’s on display,” Rhoad said. “The reality is that what makes this such an extraordinary moment and teaching tool, one 12-foot section can tell a story and teach lessons and open eyes.”

The NAMES Project closed its downtown Atlanta office, where it displayed sections of the quilt and held programs, on Sept. 1. The logistics of shipping the quilt from the warehouse in Tucker to San Francisco are being worked out. The archive, already transferred to the Library of Congress, contains more than 200,000 items, including correspondence, photographs, artifacts and memorabilia from the lives of those memorialized. While the individual panels have been photographed and can be viewed on the NAMES Project website, a digital display of the archive does not yet exist.

Cleve Jones conceived of the quilt as he planned a 1985 candlelight march to honor the memory of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, who were assassinated in 1978. By then, more than 1,000 San Franciscans had died of AIDS-related illnesses. Signs bearing the names of loved ones lost to AIDS, taped to the San Francisco federal building, reminded Jones of a quilt. The first 40 panels were displayed in June 1987 at San Francisco City Hall.

The quilt could be seen in its entirety several times in the 1980s and 1990s in Washington, D.C.

On Oct. 11, 1987, the quilt – then the size of a football field, with 1,920 panels – was laid out for the first time on the National Mall during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. When it was displayed in October 1988 on the Ellipse in front of the White House, the panels numbered 8,288. The last full display was in October 1996 on the National Mall, with 37,440 panels. The quilt has grown too large to display in one place.

The NAMES Project’s “Call My Name” program, which focuses on communities at the highest risk for new cases of AIDS and HIV, may remain in Atlanta. The South and the African American community fit that profile. As of 2017, Georgia had the second highest proportion of new HIV diagnoses per 100,000 residents, behind only the District of Columbia.

Since the virus was identified in 1981, 636,000 people in the United States have died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to the NAMES Project. At present, some 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, many benefiting from antiretroviral drugs. However, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14 percent of those with HIV are unaware that they are infected.

The quilt has some 50,000 panels sewn into 12-by-12-foot blocks bearing the names of more than 105,000 people that when spread out would span more than 1.3 million square feet.

According to UNAIDS, a United Nations program, some 32 million people globally have died from AIDS-related illnesses. As of 2018, nearly 38 million people globally were living with HIV.

Stewardship has been Rhoad’s priority throughout, and she feels that task has been completed with a secure financial structure and arrangements for the future of the quilt and its archive.

Lesser said, “The ultimate goal is for the quilt to have its maximal impact, and if that means leaving Atlanta, then I hope we are able to let go with honor and appreciation for all that Julie Rhoad and the NAMES Project staff and board have done to be such good stewards. It will be sad on a local level, but I believe that things change and take different form, and if it is for a greater good, then we say farewell and look forward to the next part of the quilt’s historic journey.”

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