Jewish Values Go Global: A Review of Caryl Stern’s I Believe in Zero

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I Believe in Zero: Learning from the World’s Children
by Caryl Stern
New York: St Martin’s Press
With so many scandals about money for charity being diverted to the pockets of corrupt CEOs, it is refreshing to listen to a president of a charity who tells a global story about how her Jewish values and family history lead her to work to aid children around the world. Caryl Stern, the President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF, has written an interesting and affecting account of her trips to various countries in need of poverty relief and of the real abilities of the citizens in developed countries to make a difference to those in need globally. “Zero” in the title of Stern’s book, refers to UNICEF’s bold aim: ZERO hunger, poverty and disease.
Prior to her work at UNICEF, Stern was the Chief Operating Officer of the Anti-Defamation League. In this book, which reports her experiences in her new job, she recounts what she experiences in each place she visits. In Mozambique, she visits clinics that care for severely malnourished children and those that help people with AIDS. Stern presents facts and statistics – over half of Mozambique’s population lived in poverty in 2007 – along with personal accounts of people she meets whom her organization helps. In this place so far from her Queens home, she seeks out a synagogue where she feels “strangely and unexpectedly at home” although there are only seven Jews remaining in the country, most having fled during the civil war that ended in 1992.
What makes I Believe in Zero more than a cheerleading book for UNICEF is Stern’s personal take on her experiences in the places she visits. She compares her life and her childrens’ lives, enjoying easy access to medical care and education, with the lives of people who must walk four hours each way to a clinic to get medicine. She does not portray herself as a heroine but as person who sees a need and wants to be helpful. Stern writes about being motivated to help refugee children by the pictures she holds in her mind of her own mother and uncle, ages six and four, traveling with a woman they don’t know and won’t see again on a ship to the United States in 1939. She also remembers her grandfather who was one of the few passengers to survive on the ship SS St Louis, turned away from Cuba and the US in 1939, most of its passengers sent back to Nazi Germany to perish. Stern writes that “thanks to my family legacy, I know that when I choose to be the person who makes a difference – when I care, when I act, when I give – my life is at its richest.” She uses this Holocaust imagery to write movingly about her time in Darfur. She feels grateful when a Muslim woman she has helped realizes that Stern is doing her work specifically as a Jew.
With humility, Stern writes that the assumptions she and other aid workers make in assisting those who need help are based on a limited understanding, and that “only the expertise of those we are trying to help married with our own would bring about sustainable change.” She is referring here to a group of women who want to build a center for themselves and their babies and who hope that the visiting Western women will be able to help them acquire concrete to construct it. Stern recounts that it took her a “long time to process” the trip to Darfur and that she incorporated that experience into her next Passover seder.
Stern’s dedication to making use of what she has learned from her family history is evident throughout her book. Two of the most moving chapters are about trips she takes to Peru and to Brazil with her own sons and with other donors and their children. The parents want to let the children see first hand just how difficult conditions are for children living in developing countries and what a difference they themselves can make in the lives of others. Stern writes about seeing the American children disengage from the electronics they have brought with them on the trip, listening instead to the story of a boy born with AIDS who received help from an online support group for children with AIDS. The problem is that the public computer at the UNICEF office was a bus ride away from his home, and he and his mother gave up meals every other week to afford the bus fare. The group purchased a computer for the boy who, Stern informs readers, is now a youth advocate in Brazil and leader of the National Network of Adolescents and Youth Living with HIV/AIDS. The Americans are visibly moved by the tale of this boy and others, and learn to enjoy personal interactions and natural beauty as they disconnect from the electronic devices that dominate their lives back home. Stern writes, “Most of all the trip confirmed for me the great responsibility we as parents have to teach our children about diversity and to help them fit into the global village our world has become.”
Stern writes of the difficulties of calling attention to the dire situations that occur daily around the world – including the attention of those in positions to help. She valorizes celebrities who are similarly concerned – Olivia Harrison, the widow of Beatle George Harrison accompanies her to Bangladesh, and NBA star Dikembe Mutombo goes with her to Haiti in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake there. Stern gushes for a few pages over royals William and Kate of England and Mary and Frederik of Denmark who help pack two planes bringing relief supplies to Nairobi in 2011. Celebrities are certainly useful in getting a message out to those who might not respond otherwise, but the attention paid them seemed fawning to me.
I Believe in Zero is an informative and personal account of poverty issues facing a number of countries around the world. What makes it especially meaningful to a Jewish audience is the author’s sincere grappling with how she can live her Jewish values in the present, bring lessons from the past to bear on her life today, and transmit what is important to her to her children. As a lesson on how to fully incorporate Jewish values into a modern life, I Believe in Zero is a valuable examination.
Beth Kissileff is editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014). She is a freelance writer on a variety of Jewish and literary topics and her novel is under submission for publication. She is at work on a second novel, a volume of short stories and an anthology on Exodus.