Helping The World’s Poorest Billion People
Daniel S. Brenner
The Talmud teaches that if you see someone drowning in a river, and if you can swim, then you are obligated to jump in and save the person in danger. So considering the fact that a billion people are drowning in a river and you have the opportunity to save them — without even getting wet — why aren’t you throwing a life preserver? This is not a hypothetical question. Last week, sitting with a wonderfully diverse group of religious leaders at the United Nations Church Center, I was faced with its real-life implications. The Church Center has little of the marble glitz of the UN Plaza across the street, but it is the perfect place to ask the most direct questions about the world’s needs: Can we in the world’s wealthiest nations do anything to address the systemic problems of the poorest billion people on the planet. Our work together involved the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. What are they? To be completely honest, I didn’t know about the Millennium Development Goals until I began working at Auburn, a historic Presbyterian seminary on the Upper West Side two years ago. Through my participation in a group called the Consultation for Interfaith Education, the topic crossed my radar screen during a discussion with Sister Joan Kirby, a Catholic activist who works with a nonprofit called the Temple of Understanding. Sister Kirby has helped to transform global missions that once were strictly evangelical operations into social justice ventures that meet the basic food and health needs of people in the developing world. Such Christians feel that faith without works is dead. But can the United Nations actually do anything about extreme poverty? I must confess that like many American Jews, I have held little faith in the United Nations as a political body and find it a startling hypocrisy that human rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe sit on UN human rights commissions. But the Millennium Goals are a different story. Ambassador Eveline Herfkens, the Dutch director of the project and the keynote speaker who addressed us at the Church Center, clarified that the goals are not about making “the impossible possible, but making the possible possible.” And the goals for 2015 are relatively straightforward: Cut in half the number of people living in extreme poverty; insure primary education for all children; promote secondary education for girls; reduce child mortality by two-thirds; improve maternal health; halt the spread of malaria and AIDS; promote environmental sustainability; and create a global development fund. All 189 member states of the United Nations have agreed on the goals, and the European Union states have actually put their share of money behind them. So what does this have to do with the Jewish community? For Christians, Hindus and Muslims, the billion poorest on the planet are co-religionists. Since over 99.99 percent of the poorest are not even remotely part of the Jewish tribe, we might ask ourselves if this is really a Jewish issue. But by the show of Jewish leaders at the Church Center — Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox — as well as representatives from American Jewish World Service, Mazon and CLAL (whose Michael Gottsegen worked tirelessly to make the conference a success), American Jews apparently do see the needs of the globe’s poorest citizens as being a Jewish concern. Standing side by side with the Evangelical leader Rev. Richard Cizik, Rabbi Irving Greenberg passionately argued, “If the image of God is reflected in humanity, then what does it mean theologically when a woman from Uganda is forced to sell her body for 55 cents to feed her family?” Rabbi Greenberg’s passionate ethical plea was reinforced by the practicality of Professor Don Melnick, a biologist at Columbia University who has been the environmental mastermind behind the UN goals. Melnick’s argument is brilliantly simple — conditions of extreme poverty lead to environmental devastation — especially to the rampant deforestation that is throwing off our planet’s climate and causing ecological disasters worldwide. This poverty also leads to people living in cramped quarters with animals and their filth, which leads to a steady rise in Zoonotic diseases — ones that jump species like SARS and the West Nile virus and AIDS. The dangers of such a virus spreading is increasing as we ignore the plight of the poorest billion. In short, Jewish survival is dependent on planetary survival. And the health of the planet is actually dependent on the health of those billion who are the most in need of our assistance. So the Millennium Goals are a Jewish issue. The bad news, unfortunately, is that the United States, which can take the lead in meeting these goals, is dragging its feet. While our president has been given credit for extending $674 million in emergency aid (mostly to Ethiopia and Eritrea), the reality is that we rank a dismal 21st of the 22 wealthiest nations in generosity. To insure that we reach the goals by 2015, the United States must raise our aid from .016 to .07 percent of our gross national income — a small price to pay for the survival and health of the planet. The G8 summit, which will gather the world leaders in Scotland on July 6, is the window of opportunity for success for the goals program. If it is a mitzvah to save the life of one drowning man, woman or child, I would hope that the Jewish community can join the multifaith efforts now under way across the United States to promote the goals, to encourage our elected representatives to fund them, and to throw a life preserver to the billion and beyond.
Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner directs the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan.
Special To The Jewish Week