I was fortunate to be included in a conversation recently with someone I have admired for years but have never met. Ruth Messinger, CEO of the American Jewish World Service, visited Atlanta. I first learned of her when she was a member of the New York City Council, who later became Manhattan Borough President. Ruth became known to many of us in an even greater way when she ran for mayor. But she lost to a fellow named Rudy. (Since I lived on Long Island, I couldn’t vote for her.)

The thing that fascinated and inspired me about Ruth Messinger was her commitment to justice. Ruth always seemed to have had people’s best interests at heart. Her concerns for the most vulnerable in New York City came from the same source as her current commitment to serve the most vulnerable populations in the world — impoverished Burmese refugees, disabled women of Peru, the “Dalit” (untouchables) of India, the victims of genocide in Darfur, the homeless and forgotten in Haiti, and so many others.

American Jewish World Service is a Jewish organization that pursues global justice. Based in the fundamental Jewish values of communal responsibility, human dignity, every person being created in God’s image, and our unique Jewish experiences of also being a stranger in a strange land…compels Ruth, the AJWS, and its supporters to made a difference in a very real way in our world.

Perhaps the most significant lesson I learned from Ruth during our conversation is that there is a myth about natural disasters. A “disaster” to us is whatever the media determines is so horrible that it is worthy of airtime or print space. The truth is that there are over 2 billion people who live well below poverty levels (earning less than $2 per day).

A disaster is something that can happen suddenly and change the course of one’s existence. But among these millions and millions, they live in a state of disaster every day. They face inadequate healthcare, food insecurity, violence, poor or no sanitation…the list can go on.

It is hard to believe that it can be so difficult to live beyond five years old in certain parts of the world. It seems that some parts of the world are in a perpetual state of disaster.

What AJWS does is advocate to us, to the American government, and to other governments that we need to move beyond disaster relief (i.e., band-aids) and move towards development. In many parts of the world, I learned, there is unbelievable strength and resources. We need to liberate them; to help them move from disaster (and dependence) to development (and self-sufficiency).

Ruth said that on January 11, 2010, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. (This is the day before their devastating earthquake.) On January 11 and before, there was a lack of literacy, gross unemployment, and 4.5 million out of a population of 9.5 million people lived in Port-au-Prince. It is an unsustainable situation.

That is why the earthquake was so devastating on Jan 12!

The earthquake that just transpired in Christ Church, NZ, as sad and horrible as it was…don’t get me wrong. But to illustrate the point, there were about 200 killed from that quake. In Haiti, there were 300,000 dead, 300,000 injured, and over 1 million people homeless. Why such a difference between the two locations? It was the disaster in Haiti that existed before the quake struck.

One last point of illustration: Ruth told us that thirty years ago, Haiti was able to grow all of its own food. Now it relies totally on imports. The deforestation of the country, coupled by its poverty, has created a scenario where Haiti (and other countries like it) are dependent on handouts and charity.

AJWS, among others, find and fund projects that meet the needs of the people. They don’t continue a tradition of handouts but find partners to engage in self-sufficiency. It can be a food sufficient country again and move away from its culture of dependency.

Even our US AID – US Surplus food… $2 out of $3 goes just to ship our surplus food to Haiti. Let’s take the money instead and and help these people do it themselves with no more handouts.

So why am I sharing all of this with you?

We are taught:

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor, I am God. (Leviticus 19:16)

A small bit of bread may be life to the poor; one who deprives them of it sheds blood. (The Wisdom of Ben Sira)

It is a positive commandment to give tzedakah to the poor, as is appropriate to the poor person,
providing the giver can afford it, as it says, “You shall open your hand to him,” and “You shall strengthen the stranger who dwells with you,” and “Your brother shall live with you.” And any who sees a poor person begging and hid s his eyes and does not give him charity transgresses a negative commandment, as it says, “Do not harden your heart or close your hand from your poor brother.”
(Rambam, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 7:1-2)

Our Rabbis have taught: “We support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace”. (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 61a)

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily, your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Eternal shall be your rear guard. If you shall pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the eternal will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong, and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. (Isaiah 58:7-8, 10-11)

That is why I am sharing this.

Thank you, Ruth Messinger and the folks at American Jewish World Service, for reminding us to look past our own doors.