NEW YORK (JTA) — Last month I traveled to Ghana with 17 American rabbis. We spent 12 days constructing the walls of a school compound in partnership with a local Ghanian community ravaged by hunger, poverty and labor exploitation.
More important than our efforts to mix cement and schlep bricks, we built powerful relationships with Ghanaian human rights activists. We also engaged in rich discussions about what it means to be faith-based leaders and global citizens.
One afternoon, a rabbi was exchanging stories with a young Ghanaian girl. In the middle of their conversation, she suddenly asked the rabbi if he had eaten lunch. When he said that he was planning to eat soon, the girl responded, “I pray to God you will be able to eat tomorrow,” reflecting her own understandable insecurity about food as well as her concern for others.
As I prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the young girl’s words weigh heavily on my mind, especially as I reflect on a familiar refrain from the High Holy Days liturgy: “Who shall live and who shall die?”
Most of the blessings we celebrate on Rosh Hashanah are unearned blessings. I often remind myself that I did nothing to deserve being born in the richest country in the world — I was lucky. I did nothing to deserve a roof over my head and hot meals on my kitchen table — I was lucky.
Most American Jews who are privileged enough to read the words of the High Holy Days liturgy are among the luckiest people in the world. We have rarely in recent years known the hardship of being “the hungry” or “the naked” — the very people Jewish tradition demands that we feed and clothe. For the vast majority of American Jews, fasting on Yom Kippur is a voluntary act, not a chronic reality.
But when nearly a billion people around the world go to bed hungry every night, when drought exacerbates hunger in the United States and around the globe, and when fasting for too many people is not a choice but an endemic condition, we must adopt a food ethic that enables everyone to experience the sweetness of having enough.
The links between hunger and the Yom Kippur liturgy — Share your bread with the hungry” — require that we challenge the injustice of hunger and champion the right for everyone to access healthy food.
It is easy to forget that the potential to effect global change is intimately tied to our local lives. What we consume, which government policies we support, where we work, and how we spend our money and our time have a profound impact on the lives and human rights of people thousands of miles away — earthquake survivors in Haiti, migrant workers in Thailand, young girls in Ghana.
As I take stock of all that happened this year, I know that many American Jews already have made a difference in challenging policies that are unintentionally undermining the ability of people in the developing world to feed themselves. Last fall, American Jewish World Service and a coalition of Jewish organizations committed to ending hunger in the United States and around the world launched the Jewish Petition for a Just Farm Bill. Together we gathered more than 18,000 signatures in support of a just food and agriculture system.
As compassionate, concerned citizens, we must continue to educate our own communities about the urgent need to address hunger.
With the New Year upon us, one way to make a difference is by observing the Global Hunger Shabbat on Nov. 2 and 3. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat as an “island in time” — a portrait of how the world should be. Global Hunger Shabbat is an opportunity to use this sacred time to reaffirm our commitment to food justice for all. It is a time to ask ourselves: How do we use our power as American Jews to make a difference in the lives of people facing hunger in the developing world? How can we be more effective as advocates and catalysts for change?
Certainly, extreme poverty and hunger are colossal problems. No matter the number of Global Hunger Shabbat observances, we cannot eliminate these problems on our own. But we can — and must — expand our collective responsibility to support people who are unable to put food on their own tables.
With the Days of Awe upon us — a time when we weigh our lives against our benefit to others — we must hold ourselves and our communities accountable. Join me in assuring the young girl I met in Ghana, and so many others like her around the world, that we will live the values of our tradition: We will work for justice so that people around the world have enough to eat tomorrow and for many years to come.
(Ruth Messinger is the president of American Jewish World Service.)