Tonight at sundown marks the start of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Known in English as the Day of Atonement, the holiday ushers in a period of serious self-reflection for millions of Jews across the United States and around the globe. For approximately 24 hours, we leave aside joy and contemplate our own mortality, praying that God will grant us another year of life despite our many sins and shortcomings.
Yom Kippur is not your typical mea culpa. Instead, it pairs words with actions, compelling us both to make amends for past misdeeds and also to map out a course of improvement. In fact, a central premise of the holiday is ensuring that our pleas for forgiveness are not filled with empty promises to do better.
For this reason, and despite its ancient origins, Yom Kippur has always seemed to me to be a holiday that is quintessentially American. After all, what could be more American than a second act – the idea that, in a country filled with abundant resources and limitless possibility, we can reinvent ourselves as we work to build a more vibrant and fulfilling future? It’s almost a national birthright: having a strong sense of optimism that we can make tomorrow better than today. And as Yom Kippur begins this year, I believe each one of us – Jew and Christian, rich and poor, black and white – has a unique opportunity to channel this birthright into something truly extraordinary: ending hunger once and for all.
This year, members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have been working diligently to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, ensuring the continued availability of funds for vital programs like WIC, which provides critical nourishment to women, infants and children of all ages. First Lady Michelle Obama argued eloquently for congressional action earlier this summer. And there’s no doubt that breathing new life into child nutrition initiatives will transform the daily lives of literally millions of kids, helping to put food on their tables and putting them in a position to learn, grow and thrive.
Yet, as the dust settles, the spotlight inevitably fades and, once again, it seems likely that hunger will become the low man on the totem pole of national priorities. This, at a time when the stakes have never been higher, with over 49 million Americans (including nearly 17 million children) unsure where, or whether, they’ll find their next meal. The numbers make it a tragedy; the fact that this deprivation exists in the richest country in the history of the world makes it a bona fide scandal.
Of course, even more scandalous is our failure to make this a front burner concern. Doing so would not simply be an exercise in civic responsibility or in feeling good – It would, more importantly, solve the problem. A sustained focus on crafting targeted public policies (like the Child Nutrition Act) that promote access to fresh, healthy food and help people build the skills they need to compete in the 21st century economy would relegate hunger to the history books. Keeping the momentum going from child nutrition reauthorization is absolutely essential – and is completely up to us. We don’t have to change the channel, and we shouldn’t; not now, when real progress is firmly within our grasp.
It seems appropriate that Yom Kippur coincides with the beginning of fall, a season for getting back to work and down to business. As I sit in synagogue this year, examining my conscience and making plans for what I’ll do different in the months ahead, I will be thinking about concrete steps I can take to move the needle in the hunger debate. Concentrating my energies on the dawning of a new day: how authentically Jewish – and how thoroughly American.