When Worlds Collide: Hollywood, Meet Hunger

Ruth Messinger was telling me how 1.1 million people in Darfur are at

risk for cholera when Matt McConaughey interrupted her.

The actor didn’t really interrupt her: he just happened to be walking

by. She stopped talking, and I stopped listening. On screen he’s

handsome, in person he’s shockingly, otherworldly cool and handsome, like he

just drove a Tesla down from Mt. Olympus.

We were sitting last Friday in the atrium of the Luxe Hotel off Sunset

Blvd in Brentwood, discussing Messinger’s activities on behalf of

American Jewish World Service, the organization she heads to extend

the Jewish value of tikkun olam, healing the world, to some of

the most wounded places on earth.

But wasn’t that Jennifer Garner?

Just as Messinger was detailing how every single woman in the refugee

camps had been raped—“Rape has become an accepted form of warfare in

these kind of wars”—Jennifer Garner, who must be 6 feet tall, perfect

everything, in high heels and a tight black dress, sweeps by in the

pocket of a V-formation entourage.

Hillary Lee, the regional director of AJWS, picks up her cell phone.

“I am texting the New York office,” she says. “They won’t believe this.”

Messinger sits on some fashionable outdoor couch, watching the

parade.  She’s dressed for shul as your favorite aunt would, a proper

black skirt, and blouse sensible shoes —she’ll be giving a talk later

that evening at Temple Emanuel. In Jewish and international aid

circles, Messinger, who was once also Borough President of Manhattan,

is famous, a visionary. Among the wattage that is amassing at the

Luxe, though, we’re barely extras. Messinger says she doesn’t know who

Jennifer Garner is, but still, who can keep talking when someone like

that walks by?

Lee prompts Messinger to tell me about her audience with Barack Obama.

It jars us back to the conversation— even among stars, the President

is still the Celebrity-in-Chief.

Two weeks ago, Messinger was one of six activists summoned to the

White House to meet with the President to discuss aid to Darfur.  Also

present were 12 members of Congress, including Rep. Howard Berman

(D-CA), and General Scott Gration, the Administration’s

newly-selected point man on the humanitarian crisis enveloping Sudan

and Chad.

“He was incredibly informed and focused,” Messinger said of Obama. “He

clearly knew as much or more about the issue as anyone there, but he

was gracious about haring people out.”

Messinger told Obama about the fate of the women in the refugee camps.

“I told him every single woman in the camps had been raped,” she says,

“ and I suggested that General Scott would benefit from having a woman

travel in his delegation in order to hear their stories.”

Obama called Scott over and told him to make sure a woman was a

senior part of the delegation.

Messinger had taken her message o the highest level of power, and left

feeling she had been heard.

“The president said that any issue that has so much horror associated

with it, that has bipartisan support and five yars of grass roots

activism behind it is high on the agenda, no matter how many other

important things he’s facing,” Messinger tells me.

Just then, another one walks by. She has long blonde hair and a red

dress that may just have been painted on.

Messinger shakes her head. “I don’t recognize her either.”

(Later that afternoon, as I drive beneath the huge electronic billboard at Bundy and

Santa Monica, I’ll see that Woman in Red in the background of an ad

for the movie.)

I get up and walk further down the atrium to where a woman stands with

a clipboard. She tells me there’s a press junket for a new movie

starring Garner and McConaughey, “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”

A ballroom is set up for the coming onslaught of print and broadcast

media. One hundred journalists will soon descend on these poor stars,

and rush to pump their every word around the world.  I saunter past a

buffet of fruit and croissant sandwiches back to Messinger, who begins

to tell me about how her organization is faring in this economy.

“People by and large don’t know this world,” she says of the

impoverished and war-torn countries where AJWS works. “And newspapers

don’t cover this world.”

Well, no, because “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” is opening.

Still, this summer AJWS will send 20 rabbinical students of all

denominations to Senegal to work on a development project in a

village there. Another 68 college students will participate in AJWS

programs in Ghana, Uganda, Honduras and Southeast Asia.  The idea

of AJWS has clearly caught hold: to engage Jews in

mending the forgotten places in the world.

“We’re seeding the community,” she tells me. “We’re developing a

generation that asks, ‘So what can I do now?’”

At that point I am inspired.  I want to get up, walk over to

McConaughey, and drag him over to Messinger. Get him involved. Shift a fraction of the

energy aimed at celebrities at some of of the world’s ugliest

problems, and people will pay attention.  Just ask George Clooney, or

Bono. The Jewish genius that created the magic of Hollywood is part of

the same tradition that gave rise to Ruth Messingers of the world. I

don’t say one is better than the other; I’d say we’re blessed to have

both, and wise to figure out how one can help the other.