When I was growing up, I remember yearning to fast like the adults did on Yom Kippur, feeling a sense of accomplishment and self-righteousness at 8 years old when I fasted until lunchtime, and bragging to everyone I knew, when I was 11, that I had fasted the entire day.
Approximately 13 million people in the U.S., including nearly 1 million children, will experience hunger this year, what Dictionary.com calls “the painful sensation or state of weakness caused by lack of food,” or what the Department of Agriculture calls “very low food security.” On Sept. 23, the number of Americans experiencing that sensation will increase by 22 percent as Jews across the country forego food and water for the fast of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
That’s not really true, of course: the experience of a person fasting for a single day by choice, with the comforting certainty of a (likely extravagant) break-fast ahead, contrasts starkly with the experience of someone who is suffering from hunger and doesn’t know when or from where their next meal will come. Still, for the half of America’s 5.3 million Jews who fast on Yom Kippur (which includes 20 percent of Jews “by upbringing” who claim to have no religious beliefs themselves), the temporary sensation provides an opportunity for us to consider how others experience real food insecurity and to commit to action, both over the holiday and in the New Year.
There is strong support in the Yom Kippur liturgy for the fast to inspire this kind of action. In fact, in the beginning of the traditional Yom Kippur reading from the Prophets (a portion from Isaiah, a Babylonian prophet), the people wonder why God has not been attentive to their fasting. They ask God directly, “Why do we fast?“ The deific response is that their fast has not met God’s criteria: “No, this is the fast that I desire: to loose the bonds of injustice, and to untie the cords of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke…to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home, when you see the naked to clothe him….”
Looking back, the fast of my youth missed the point—I didn’t use the discomfort to inspire me to act differently, in a way that would make my community and the world better. Today, I try to make my fast more productive; together with my family, we use the discomfort of the day to consider the contrast with those who face real deprivation, and motivate ourselves to take action to build a better, more just world.
This imperative of action animates “A Different Kind of High Holiday Service,” the national campaign through which the Jewish service organization Repair the World is supporting young adult Jews in addressing food justice issues around the High Holidays through volunteering and service. In communities across the country, young adults are volunteering with urban farms, serving in soup kitchens and food pantries, sorting food contributions, and teaching about nutrition integral to their observance of the High Holidays.
There are many great opportunities to be involved in creating more just food systems in our communities, and many inspiring people working on these issues. This high holidays, Repair the World’s campaign is giving people a way to be involved as they’re inspired to act. As we think about the year that was, the year to come, and the world/communities where we want to live, let’s begin the year with action.
David Eisner is president and CEO of Repair the World, a national Jewish nonprofit focused on promoting service and food and education justice.