The spirit of Suc­cot can save lives

I want young Jews to work with other faiths to help my foun­da­tion fight suf­fer­ing in Africa

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment & Analysis - TONY BLAIR

AS JEWS AROUND the world cel­e­brate Suc­cot, they cel­e­brate hu­man be­ings main­tain­ing a loving, car­ing covenant with God and with each other. It is this that gives rise to the virtues of char­ity and sol­i­dar­ity, core covenan­tal val­ues ex­pressed in the work of the com­mu­nity’s NGOs — World Jewish Re­lief and Tzedek among oth­ers. But they are also shared be­tween dif­fer­ent faith com­mu­ni­ties. One of the prac­tices on the fes­ti­val, of course, is to build suc­c­ahs. This serves as a re­minder of our vul­ner­a­bil­ity to the el­e­ments. Come rain or shine, Jews eat and some­times even sleep in their suc­c­ahs. While in the West­ern world we may be for­tu­nate enough to be able to re­turn to the com­fort of our homes, for many peo­ple around the world home is more like a hut or tem­po­rary dwelling, of­fer­ing lit­tle pro­tec­tion from the cold and rain.

I be­lieve that faith groups have a cru­cial role to play in com­bat­ing de­pri­va­tion, hunger and poverty. That is one of the ma­jor ob­jec­tives of my Faith Foun­da­tion, which I launched in May this year. It is why our Faiths Act pro­gramme tries to pro­mote in­ter­faith action to achieve the Mil­len­nium Goals (MDGs).

Agreed by 189 world leaders in 2000, the MDGs are ar­guably the clear­est ex­pres­sion of glob­ally shared moral val­ues at work since the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights. Set in a 15-year time-frame, their mid-term fell in 2008. Their eight ob­jec­tives re­flect two great forces in Ju­daism: its prophetic tra­di­tion, the cry to bring peo­ple out of poverty and suf­fer­ing; and a set of steps that in­di­cate the right path in which to go, a shared way based on char­ity and sol­i­dar­ity, tikkun olam for a global part­ner­ship against poverty. The Chief Rabbi spoke out elo­quently about their im­por­tance in the BBC’s Thought for the Day broad­cast on Septem­ber 26, the day af­ter the UN world leaders’ Sum­mit on Poverty.

I was priv­i­leged while in gov­ern­ment to par­tic­i­pate in their for­mu­la­tion and im­ple­men­ta­tion, but had no il­lu­sions about the chal­lenge they posed. Their achiev­ing has al­ways de­manded more than the fo­cused at­ten­tion and com­mit­ment of gov­ern­ments. In­ter­na­tion­aldevel­op­ment in­sti­tu­tions, char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions and other donors have stepped up to the plate. Civil-so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, not least faith-based groups, have held gov­ern­ments to ac­count on their pledges. UN Sec­re­taryGen­eral Ban Ki-moon has en­cour­aged re­li­gious groups to con­tinue be­ing “pow­er­ful ad­vo­cates in mo­bil­is­ing po­lit­i­cal leaders and the pub­lic at large”.

In many parts of the world, faith com­mu­ni­ties are at the cut­ting edge of im­ple­men­ta­tion and de­liv­ery. In sev­eral sub-Sa­ha­ran African coun­tries they pro­vide over half the avail­able health care. Jewish stu­dents in Project Muso work­ing in an in­te­grated pri­mary health-care pro­gramme in Mali, in a pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim com­mu­nity, are a fine ex­am­ple of what is be­ing done — out of re­li­gious con­vic­tion. I was im­pressed by the way fund­ing for this work was raised an­nu­ally in a “suc­cathon” held in the USA. Par­tic­i­pants col­lected pledges for bed nets to help pre­vent deaths from malaria for each night they slept in the suc­cah.

Ear­lier this year, the Lon­don in­ter­faith march led by the Angli­can Bish­ops at the Lam­beth Con­fer­ence, bring­ing to­gether Hin­dus, Sikhs, Bud­dhists, Jews and Mus­lims, was a colour­ful in­di­ca­tion of how all the faith-com­mu­ni­ties found a shared moral vi­sion in the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals. To­day, multi-re­li­gious co-op­er­a­tion is grow­ing, par­tic­u­larly in re­sponse to the HIV/AIDS pan­demic, but it has a long way to go if it is to re­alise its full po­ten­tial.

The en­ergy and dy­namism of young peo­ple of faith, work­ing to­gether, has still to be brought fully into play. They are the change-mak­ers for this and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. They can make a dif­fer­ence.

That is why our Faiths Act Fel­lows Pro­gramme (one of sev­eral pro­grammes in the Tony Blair Faith Foun­da­tion and co-or­di­nated by In­ter­faith Youth Core) is es­tab­lish­ing 30 fel­low­ships in 2009 for young peo­ple of faith aged 18-25, ini­tially drawn from the USA, UK and Canada. They will be­come “am­bas­sadors” for the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals, work­ing to­gether in in­ter­faith pairs in their dif­fer­ent faith com­mu­ni­ties in host or­gan­i­sa­tions in their own coun­tries. In par­tic­u­lar, they will fo­cus on tackling deaths from malaria. Be­fore start­ing work, they will re­ceive in­ten­sive train­ing both in Lon­don and Chicago with the In­ter­faith Youth Core, and they will learn from African ex­pe­ri­ence in Malawi, Tan­za­nia, and Mali.

The task of Faiths Act Fel­lows will be to gen­er­ate an in­ter­faith youth move­ment that will give the promo- tion of the Mil­len­nium De­vel­op­ment Goals a new mo­men­tum and, hand in hand with their re­li­gious leaders, take the Mil­len­nium Cam­paign for­ward. They will need — Jewish — val­ues of ser­vice and char­ity, com­pas­sion in the face of need­less suf­fer­ing and death, an ap­ti­tude for pow­er­ful ad­vo­cacy, and to be ready to com­mit al­most a year of their life.

“Need­less” is a word I want to em­pha­sise. There are es­ti­mated to be nearly one mil­lion deaths from malaria an­nu­ally, most of them in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa, most of them chil­dren un­der five. All of them are com­pletely pre­ventable with bed nets and anti-malar­ial drugs. The chal­lenge is cre­at­ing the will to pro­vide them for those in need. “Moral re­spon­si­bil­ity for a prob­lem — it can be ar­gued — grows in par­al­lel with the hu­man ca­pac­ity to solve it,” Rev William Vend­ley, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of Re­li­gions for Peace, wrote re­cently. That is what I would ar­gue too, and that is why it is my hope that we will see a gen­er­a­tion of young Jews come for­ward and re­spond to the chal­lenge.

At this time of Suc­cot, at the start of this new Jewish year, 5769, let us all think about those who go without, and for whom a tem­po­rary shel­ter is an en­dur­ing re­al­ity.

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