All Who Are Hungry, Come Eat

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
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It’s customary at holiday-time for the press to bombard the public with heartwarming stories about unfortunate souls unable to share in the joy. The message is invariably about the difference one charitable individual can make in the life of one poor kid.

It’s a necessary ritual, helping to fund those charities that step in when society fails. It shouldn’t blind us, however, to the larger truth that the big problems of society can only be solved by society as a whole, acting collectively through big institutions.

Late last month, disaster nearly struck a community in Ethiopia that depends on an American charity for much of its sustenance. The Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, are descendants of Jews who adopted Christianity under duress decades ago, but now seek to rejoin the Jewish community and emigrate to Israel. Some 20,000 live in wretched camps in the cities of Addis Ababa and Gondar, waiting for Israel to implement a long-stalled decision to let these people go home. While they wait, some 3,000 infants and toddlers and 550 pregnant and nursing mothers receive twice-daily meals — scrambled eggs, vegetables, half an orange, some cheese — from a group called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry. The feeding program, which also includes a two-pound bag of beans to take home daily, is funded by a $750,000 annual gift from a wealthy American philanthropist.

Disaster came when the donor died earlier this year. His private foundation decided to redirect its priorities, though it agreed to keep the funds coming for now at a reduced rate, just enough for breakfast. The conference, a tiny operation based in New York, began searching desperately for a replacement.

The money came, in the end, not from a generous individual but from a consortium of bureaucracies — the Jewish community federations of New York, Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington and suburban MetroWest, New Jersey — which cobbled together a combined half-million dollars on two weeks’ notice to ensure that meals continue uninterrupted.

It isn’t easy to tell the stories of these bureaucracies and the people who run them. They aren’t cuddly. They aren’t filled with cute kids with round eyes. But they are the true heroes, keeping hope alive after the rest of us have gotten bored and gone home.

It’s no secret that big federated charities are in trouble these days. Like big government, they seem irrelevant to real people’s lives. They’re caught up in endless squabbling and power struggles, and their constituents increasingly threaten to walk away in disgust. Surely, we’re tempted to think, enlightened individuals can do a better job spending their own money rather than handing it over to these behemoths. But that’s an illusion, and a dangerous one. The scale of hunger and need in today’s world is beyond the reach of individuals, however generous.

On Passover, tradition mandates that we throw open our doors and declare, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” This Passover, 3,000 children in Ethiopia won’t go hungry because the big bureaucracies were in place and ready to do their jobs.

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