NEW YORK (JTA) – Each year at Chanukah we spin the dreidel, reminding ourselves that "a great miracle happened there." With faith and activism the Maccabees led our people to a great victory and assured the survival of the Jewish people in ancient days. With faith and activism, we, too, can make miracles happen in our own time. We can assure the survival of millions of children in Africa who unnecessarily fall prey to the deadly bite of malaria-infested mosquitoes. We can make a great miracle happen there for the cost of a $10 bed net.
The global challenges we face are staggering. Around the world, more than 800 million people go hungry every day — 300 million of them children. More than 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and 2.6 billion live without decent sanitation. And every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies of malaria.
In an age of unprecedented prosperity, science and technology, there is no excuse for the ongoing plagues of starvation and famine, illiteracy and diseases borne of ignorance. And yet, the amount of aid flowing to Africa from all the nations of the world totaled less than the amount of annual bonuses Wall Street gave to itself this year.
Determined to do better, the Reform movement is working to bring relief to the millions of African refugees who face not only the threats of continuing violence and hunger, but also the threat of malaria that rages in refugee camps.
Around the world, malaria infects nearly 500 million people each year, kills more than 1 million of those and is the leading killer of children in Africa. The economic impact of this illness — $12 billion annually — undermines the capacity of impoverished nations to climb out of debt and overwhelms their medical infrastructure. Yet malaria is entirely preventable. The use of insecticide-treated bed nets alone can reduce malaria rates by 90 percent in areas with high coverage. One bed net can keep an entire family safe from malaria for up to four years.
So in partnership with the U.N. Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign, the Reform movement has made a commitment to provide 50,000 nets to save 50,000 families from the anguish of malaria.
Soon we will make our first delivery of nets to a refugee camp in Uganda, completely “covering” the camp of 18,000 victims from Sudan, Rwanda and, most recently, victims of the current crisis in Congo. This is a critical time, as the rainy season makes malaria-infested mosquitoes insidious. The sad truth is that there would be no nets delivered to this camp if it were not for the Reform movement’s Nothing But Nets fund-raising efforts.
Much attention has been devoted to malaria in recent years, with billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates and the World Bank pouring funds into the cause. They are focusing on combating this particular disease because it is an achievable goal. We actually CAN eliminate malaria deaths around the world — we’ve already done so in this country and in most other western nations. In Zambia, Ethiopia and Rwanda, when they instituted a comprehensive plan that included the use of insecticide-treated bed nets and both indoor and outdoor spraying, they reduced malaria rates by 50 percent in just two years. In Sri Lanka, malaria rates were reduced from 400,000 cases per year to fewer than 200 cases that resulted in no deaths last year. A great miracle really can happen there.
Cynics may claim that one individual cannot save the world, yet Judaism obligates us to try, reminding us that saving a single life is the equivalent of saving the entire world. At the bargain price of just $10, every one of us has the capacity to save a life. There is no better gift to give this Chanukah season than the gift of a miracle. Send a net; save a life.
(Rabbi Marla Feldman is the director of the Joint Commission on Social Action of the Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis.)