Nations around the world are struggling with an economic crisis and wrestling with the increasing effects of poverty. Nowhere is this challenge more acute than in the developing world, where the grip of extreme poverty continues unabated. While domestic economic problems make headlines, global poverty seldom does. We must address an economic catastrophe that is the status quo for too many people around the world, with more than one billion people surviving on less than $1 a day. More than two billion people lack access to clean water or basic sanitation. And malaria, a deadly but preventable disease, kills a child every 30 seconds.
If we remain silent, it will be easy for our leaders to ignore these statistics and the human tragedies behind them. While the realities of global poverty and disease are neither new nor noticeable in our own backyards, they are urgent – every passing day can be a matter of life or death. These injustices should call all Jews to their posts as God’s partners in repairing the world.
In addressing these crises, the Reform movement is partnering with the advocacy group ONE to bring attention to and help assist the world’s poorest people through an initiative called ONE Sabbath (www.one.org/onesabbath). Participating in ONE Sabbath means raising awareness, educating others, and pressing government leaders to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease around the world. Between now and the critical first 100 days of president-elect Obama’s administration, we ask all of our congregations to take the time to focus on global poverty and preventable, treatable diseases.
As we call for greater U.S. leadership and action in ensuring access to basic health care, primary education, clean water, and food in the world’s poorest communities, we represent core values of our sacred Scripture’s mandate to assist those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the elderly, the child, the widowed, the stranger, and the hungry. In the Talmud, our rabbis taught that, if all the sufferings and pain in the world were gathered on one side of a scale and poverty were on the other side, poverty would outweigh them all. (Exodus Rabbah 31:14) We are taught that a society is measured by the way it treats the most vulnerable among its citizens, and we are reminded that, created in the Divine image, every living being is sacred.
To take this traditional mandate seriously today requires us to help those who are most at risk. So it is that we have joined with others in the Jewish community, including the Conservative and Reconstructionist Movements, as well as Hillel and MAZON, to designate a Shabbat between now and the end of April for ONE Sabbath. Other faith groups, including the Christian, Muslim, and Hindu communities, will participate in similar initiatives during the same period.
This work builds upon what is already under way in communities and congregations across North America. Groups like the American Jewish World Service and the Joint Distribution Committee have helped to lead the way in Jewish efforts to provide aid to alleviate suffering around the world.
The movement to end genocide in Darfur has engaged much of the organized Jewish community. And for more than a year, the Union for Reform Judaism, which has long advocated policies aimed at addressing poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, has partnered with the U.N. Foundation’s Nothing But Nets initiative.
We have raised $500,000 to send 50,000 bed nets to Africa to protect refugees from malaria (www.urj.org/nets). Already, our congregations, bar/bat mitzvah students, and youth groups have risen to the challenge and helped us to reach half of our goal. The Reform movement’s first “net drop” this winter will provide life-saving malaria protection to the entire Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda, which assists those people who have fled conflict in Sudan and the Congo. As we celebrate Chanukah, we encourage Jews across the globe to give two gifts for the price of a $10 bed net: a gift to honor a loved one and the gift of life for an impoverished refugee.
But Jewish tradition never viewed the obligation to help the poor just as an individual mitzvah. It is a societal responsibility, as well. For more than a millennium, most self-governing Jewish communities have maintained societal funds for the poor, the hungry, and the sick. So, too, we recognize today that governmental responses and individual responses must work in tandem if we are to effectively ameliorate global poverty.
As we celebrate the Festival of Lights, ONE offers the chance to light the world with justice. By joining together, our shared strength can help to lift the weight of poverty from those suffering the most.