The spirit of Succot can save lives
I want young Jews to work with other faiths to help my foundation fight suffering in Africa.
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. International-development 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 Secretary-General 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 promotion 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.
For more information on the Faiths Act Fellowship, go to faithsactfellows.org. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation's website is tonyblairfaithfoundation.org