AJWS President Answers 10Q Question 4

American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an “international development and human rights organization driven by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice,” has partnered with 10Q this year. As part of the partnership, Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS answered the fourth question of 10Q:

Question 4:Describe an event in the world that has impacted you this year. How? Why?

Over the past weeks and months, I’ve been shaken to the core by images documenting the horrific effects of the famine in East Africa—a crisis that intensified in July and has since taken tens of thousands of lives. At least 12 million people in Somalia and neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are suffering from acute food shortages and malnutrition.

Food plays a central and sensory role in the lives of most American Jews, particularly during the Jewish holidays. In many ways, food is a map of our history. Meals, recipes and the acts of eating and drinking teach us about who we are, where we live and where we come from. It’s virtually impossible for us to imagine the horror of not having access to the food we desire or to any food at all. So when we turn on the news and see photos of skeletal, starving children, our instinct is to look away. We direct our attention to more manageable problems in our day-to-day lives: a faulty internet connection or a broken washing machine.

I frequently remind people that there are no easy solutions to global hunger; no quick fixes for decades of political conflict and natural disasters. But, as I often say, we must not retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. Change is possible. Work is being done. Take, for example, AJWS’s long-time partner Northern Aid (NAID)—an organization that has been implementing relief, rehabilitation and development initiatives in northeastern Kenya since 1995. Through an innovative, locally-sourced food distribution program, (NAID) is providing direct assistance to marginalized pastoralist communities and vulnerable female-headed households in northern Kenya. NAID is buying goats and cows that will not survive the drought and slaughtering the animals to distribute meat to over 10,000 vulnerable households. This is providing a livelihood to pastoralists whose entire herds will likely be wiped out. It’s also preventing livestock prices from completely bottoming out and supplying much-needed income to pastoralists so they can support their families.

There is much we can do in the United States to ensure that the world’s most marginalized people have control over their own land and can grow their own food sustainably. We must invest more wisely in agriculture so that the hungriest people in the world are no longer victims of land grabs, deforestation, drought and disease. And we must reform our international food aid system so that small-scale farmers in developing countries can replant decimated crops to benefit local communities.

As I begin the New Year, I remind myself that fighting global injustices such as food insecurity takes time, patience and creative thinking. It is a process that requires leaps of faith, strategic risks and clarity of vision. But this work gets to the core of being Jewish—whether our Jewish identity is animated by food, social values, or ritual. It is work that we must prioritize and for which our energies are desperately needed.

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