Exporting education

A Jerusalem-based organization has become a world leader in the field of AIDS prevention education.

tehilla school 88 (photo credit: )
tehilla school 88
(photo credit: )
The cartoon images illustrated in vibrant colors on posters in a flip chart almost betray the seriousness of their message: AIDS prevention education to adolescents. Developed by the Jerusalem AIDS Project (JAIP), these cartoons speak the universal language of pictures and have become a model for AIDS prevention education in more than 27 countries. Their next destination: Uganda and Angola, two third-world African nations suffering terribly from the AIDS epidemic. That the international community is working together to fight the spread of AIDS is hardly remarkable today. What is noteworthy, however, is that a Jerusalem-based organization, made up almost entirely of volunteers in a country with a relatively low rate of AIDS infection, is being sought after by nations around the globe for its expertise in AIDS prevention education. One year short of its 20th anniversary, JAIP's educational models have been implemented in culturally and economically diverse countries spanning Latin America and Eastern Europe as well as being incorporated into Germany's most widely used school textbooks. Founded in 1987 by Hebrew University Prof. Inon Schenker on a purely voluntary basis, the now regional and international NGO focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention education, rather than on providing care and support for people already infected with the disease. A graduate of the Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Schenker realized early on as a health educator for sixth graders that misinformation about the disease was creating "significant anxiety and needed to be dealt with in an age appropriate approach." Noting that his students could not spell AIDS and were confusing it with the brand name of a popular athletic shoe, Schenker began to develop a unique AIDS education program for Israeli schools. What is distinctive about JAIP's approach is its focus on peer education - the philosophy that medical, public health and nursing students are in the best position to educate primary and secondary school students about AIDS. "Peer educators are young enough not to be embarrassed by having to use sexual terms in the classroom and they are also already identified by the kids as professionals with a certain amount of legitimacy," Schenker explains. Initially, the concept of "students teaching about AIDS to students" was rejected by the Education Ministry because it believed that medical students lacked the ability to convey the appropriate social messages. Gradually, both JAIP and the ministry adapted to each other's way of thinking and today JAIP trains both teachers and an assembled cadre of volunteer medical professionals on how to convey AIDS education to elementary and high school students. In addition, JAIP uses what it calls the Immune System Approach, which focuses on explaining the science behind the body's immune system and how AIDS affects it, rather than treating the disease merely as one of a number of sexually transmitted diseases. Since its inception, JAIP has trained thousands of Israeli teachers and professionals in its methods and conducted workshops in scores of schools with the approval of the Education Ministry. The ministry mandates that all high schools provide some kind of AIDS education to students, but schools are relatively free to develop their own programs or rely on the ones that the ministry offers, says Shoshana Zimmerman, head of the ministry's Sex Education Unit. JAIP also sits on the ministry's AIDS education advisory committee, which includes representatives from three other NGOS, the Health Ministry, the medical community and various health funds. "The major difference between our concept and JAIP's approach is whether to deal with the issue of AIDS on its own or handle it as part of sex education," Zimmerman says, noting that the ministry incorporates instruction about AIDS as part of its sex education programs. JAIP's approach, however, garnered international attention. In 1987 when a member of the El Salvadoran government read an article in The Jerusalem Post about JAIP's involvement in Israeli schools, he contacted the organization about bringing the program to El Salvador. "Within two weeks of the initial call, there were representatives from El Salvador in Israel," Schenker recalls. "We had to make cultural and linguistic adaptations to our program, but within a few months we had performed the first outreach of JAIP in a foreign country." El Salvador's current Ambassador to Israel, Suzana Gun de Hasenson, was the lower level contact person in the El Salvadoran Embassy at the time. She describes the program as "very useful" and still in effect today. From that point, JAIP's program spread through word of mouth. As Schenker tells it, the El Salvadorans described the success of their Israeli-adopted program at a Central American conference on AIDS. As a result, the Foreign Ministry called him the next day wanting to know why it had received 17 faxes from the Americas inquiring about JAIP. In less than two years, JAIP had covered almost all of Central America. "We needed to develop a kit that teachers could carry on a donkey. We needed posters, not power points [presentations] and slides," he says, describing some of the adjustments the Israelis had to make in the program to accommodate the Central American landscape. To this day, JAIP operates as a voluntary organization and its members, including Schenker, donate their time to travel to foreign countries and conduct training seminars, although the host country usually pays their travel expenses and other basic costs. Recognizing that the JAIP initiative creates goodwill towards Israel, the Foreign Ministry did contribute some funding to the program in various Latin American countries, most notably to El Salvador and Costa Rica, both of which still maintain their embassies in Jerusalem. Over the past decade, JAIP has expanded its reach into Russia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Starting in 1995, it launched a Middle East initiative that included Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and the Palestinian territories. The program was postponed with the onset of the second intifada, but was revived in 2004. Although JAIP keeps meticulous records of the feedback given from its host countries, there are no hard statistics to measure the actual success of its program. It is also difficult to measure its effectiveness based on the statistics of HIV/AIDS cases in Israel. According to Health Ministry statistics through 2004, the number of Israeli-born citizens contracting the virus each year is minimal, with the majority of new cases coming from the Ethiopian and Russian immigrant communities. The sectors with the lowest number of AIDS cases include the haredi and religious communities, which have for the most part avoided AIDS prevention education entirely, making it impossible to draw a direct connection between education and actual prevention. In another "first," however, JAIP conducted a seminar two weeks ago at a religious girls' high school in Beit Shemesh. Drawing on the experiences of education in conservative Catholic communities in America, JAIP put together a program with the help of rabbis that would accommodate the sensitivities of the community. The program was a success and the school plans to introduce it to its parallel boys' yeshiva. Currently, JAIP will be dealing with the particular challenges of Africa as it introduces its program in Uganda and Angola at the instigation of Brazil (which has also successfully implemented JAIP's program into its schools). Overcoming the lack of basic health education and culturally rooted conceptions about "safe sex" is particularly challenging to Schenker in Africa. Coming from Israel, however, Schenker has learned, gives JAIP educators the upper hand. "The fact that we are from Jerusalem and are called the Jerusalem AIDS Project gives us a tremendous opener as if we are bringing a message from God," he says.