AIDS reform

Friday, September 28, 2007

Joseph Edelheit

In 1986, when most of the world was just beginning to wake up to the gravity of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, Joseph Edelheit buried the first of 31 friends whose deaths would make the global tragedy a personal cause for him.

On the St. Cloud State University campus Edelheit is an associate professor of philosophy and director of religious studies. But in the world of HIV/AIDS activism, he’s well known as a committed advocate and global reformer.

"I’m incredibly passionate about this," said Edelheit, who has spent the past two summers working to make a much-needed orphanage a reality in India. The orphanage is a project of the Living India Organization (livingindia.org) that he and his wife, Machelle Norling, founded in a country where she has family and he has had a growing interest because of his AIDS work. The organization’s orphanage/medical clinic is now home to 11 infant to adolescent children, all infected with HIV and orphans of parents who died of AIDS.

"The newest resident – a 7-year-old boy – came to us when his uncle abandoned him on a train," Edelheit said. "The boy’s parents had died of AIDS and the uncle didn’t know what to do. Think of it, India is the world’s largest democracy and fastest growing capitalist economy – where we do our outsourcing – and we overlook the fact that this same government is in public denial of having more than 14 million people living with AIDS. That’s more than South Africa."

According to current estimates, more than one million children in India under age 15 have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Edelheit’s most immediate hope is to find a way to keep more of these children alive. Living India is trying to raise the funds it needs to complete a new building for the orphanage.

The stated purpose of Living India, based in Chandrakal near Hyderabad, South India, and the United States, is to create opportunities for multi-faith and government coalitions to serve and educate the people of India about HIV/AIDS. But for Edelheit, a more crucial objective is to save more of the abandoned children who had the misfortune of being born into desperate circumstances.

Edelheit served five years on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS under President Clinton and continues to be active internationally in the cause. He has a varied and extensive background in spiritual, academic and outreach endeavors. Before coming to SCSU in 2003 to develop the Jewish Studies Program and open the Office of Jewish Communal Activities and Resources, he spent nine years as senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis and served as a visiting adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, teaching in the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Center for Healing and Spirituality.

Edelheit has a history of responding to the needs of those around him, but he said that after his retirement from Temple Israel, the largest temple congregation in Minneapolis, he decided to do more to address global issues. "The most serious challenge we face is indifference and apathy," he said of HIV/AIDS, expected to top 125 million infected by 2010 in just the four countries of India, China, Russia and Nigeria. "It’s not okay to ignore the most serious health disaster in human history, for which there is neither vaccine nor cure."

His passion for the HIV/AIDS issue is directly linked to what he believes is the most important message of the Holocaust – that perpetrators count on the masses being bystanders. "I refuse to spend any part of my life confirming that axiom. I want to be a model to my five children."

He also believes that perpetuating activism in the social and health issues that plague the world is an important model for his students.

"Talking about my work with AIDS is a way for me to relate to students the interdependence of 21st century globalism, to help them understand how to respond when some cosmic need provokes their concern," Edelheit said of the environment in which his students grow and learn.

Edelheit is proud of the way many SCSU students have responded to studying about such global tragedies. "The students of Tonya Huber-Warring (an associate professor of human relations and multicultural education) raised $232 last spring for Living India," he said. "That’s a significant statement that students on our campus are beginning to deal with the real global nature of the pandemic."

- Religious studies director makes AIDS reform up close and personal

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