“I don’t often speak publicly about my religion,” retiring California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said on the evening of March 13 as she took the stage to be honored at “AJWS at 30: Celebrating Our Global Leaders.” Boxer went on to describe how she inherited her drive for social justice from her mother, an immigrant from Austria who didn’t finish high school and her father, a child of immigrants who worked his way through college and law school, who “taught me to speak up and fight.” And so, as she prepares to leave Congress after 10 years in the House of Representatives and 24 in the Senate, she said, she’s just completed a memoir, “The Art of Tough” (due out from Hachette in May). The evening celebrated three decades of work by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), during which time it has invested $270 million to support 550 international grantees fighting poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world. The evening’s honorees also included Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist best-known as the architect of Obamacare; Alejandra Ancheita, a Mexican land- and labor-rights activist and attorney; and AJWS president of 18 years, Ruth Messinger, who on July 1 will step down to become AJWS’s first global ambassador. The incoming president, taking the reins July 1, is AJWS executive vice president Robert Bank.
Emanuel, who spoke of how “meaningful work and meaningful relationships” are what “make a good life,” is plenty famous in his own right for his prodigious writing and work in world health and was introduced by his equally famous brother, Ari Emanuel, Hollywood’s most renown agent and co-CEO of the mega entertainment, sports and fashion agency WME-IMG.
Ancheita dedicated her award to fellow AJWS grantee, Honduran human and environmental rights activist, Berta Cáceres, who was murdered earlier this month in her home. “This work is full of risks,” Ancieta said, acknowledging that she, too, has faced death threats while working to fight illegal mining in Mexico.
The effervescent and normally outspoken Messinger, called to the stage by Bank, proclaimed herself “speechless” as she told of how her work at AJWS, following a career in New York City politics, has “enabled me to see the world in a different way,” to realize “what it means to feed the stranger and care for the hungry,” and she said, fundamental to her work at AJWS is dedication to B’tselem Elohim, “honoring the inherent dignity of every person.” Then, in announcing a fundraising goal of $18 million over the next five years for a new AJWS sustainability fund, Messinger acknowledged kickoff gifts of $5 million from Barbara and Eric Dobkin and $1 million from Lois and Dick Gunther.
The evening, which included performances by African-music vocal percussionists Adaawe and the Shakti Dance Company, performing South Indian classical dance, was co-chaired by Bill Resnick and Michael J. Stubbs, with Ari Emanuel and Norman Lear serving as honorary gala co-chairs. Also in attendance were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.