October 17, 2019

Ruth Messinger: Social justice with a smile

The tirelessly ebullient Ruth Messinger was in town last week and took time for an interview and tea at Le Pain Quotidien in West Hollywood, talking virtually nonstop for an hour about her past 18 years as president and CEO of the international aid organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a role she will leave in July. 

Messinger spoke in full paragraphs, describing AJWS’ successes fighting challenges in the developing world. Her giant smile never faded, and she didn’t sound at all tired or angry at the injustices she’s dedicated her life to overturning; she remains just as enthusiastic and fully engaged as any new convert to the world of social justice. She spoke of helping women fight genital cutting in Africa, of funding lawsuits to ward off big corporations raping the land of indigenous people in Latin America. Of fighting for the rights of underpaid garment workers in Cambodia and child brides in India. Under her leadership, AJWS has grown its $2.5 million annual budget to $35 million, and today it awards about 550 grants each year, often in amounts of about $40,000, to organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. AJWS funds social justice organizations in 19 countries and also advocates for those same groups of people through governmental channels inside the United States. 

Realistically, Messinger said, AJWS can’t fix every problem, but its goal is to give people “agency” and to find concrete ways to measure change. Take India, for example, where women younger than 18 can’t legally wed, but where families regularly marry off much younger girls. How do you stop that? It’s a matter of empowering women differently, she said. So AJWS funded a foundation that trains women to become taxi drivers, affording them financial independence. One woman, featured on the AJWS website, supports her whole family and says she can now choose whether to marry. These women’s cab driving also enables other women to travel without a chaperone.

“So women can call taxi agencies and say, ‘I want a woman.’ It’s now a huge, expanding field. And the woman gets to be in charge of her own life,”  Messinger said

Having just turned 75, Messinger will continue working for AJWS as a “global ambassador,” and it’s easy to see the value in keeping her on. She’s a glass-half-full kind of person: “People often ask me,” she said, “ ‘Isn’t this all very depressing?’ And I say, ‘No, there are depressing things in these countries, as there are in our own country. But we get to see people making live social change.’ ”

Messinger takes pride that AJWS is a Jewish organization focused on helping non-Jews around the world. Along the way, it is also teaching the far-flung people of the world who Jews are. She told the story of Sakena Yacoobi, a former Afghani grantee, whose organization deals with gender inequality in Muslim communities and Muslim-Hindu tensions, among other efforts. 

Early on in her time at AJWS, Messinger invited Yacoobi to speak to a group of potential donors at an event in New York. “I could see there was this one guy in the crowd who was thinking, ‘What are we doing here?’ And when I stepped up at the end and asked, ‘Are there any questions?’ his hand shot up. He said, ‘This is crazy. This is a Jewish group in New York, and you’re giving money to Muslim women in Afghanistan? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Why would you do that?’ ” Yaroobi, Messinger said, stepped up to the microphone to respond. “And she was wearing a hijab, and said, ‘May I answer him?’ I had no idea what was going to happen. And I said, ‘Of course.’ And she said, ‘Sir, I understand that you think it’s crazy for a New York Jewish group to be helping Muslim women in Afghanistan,’ and he said, ‘Yes!’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you imagine what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in Afghanistan taking money from New York Jews!’ The whole room burst out laughing,” Messinger said, “and I said, ‘I have nothing else to say.’ ”

AJWS has been working in Nepal since the earthquake last April, providing disaster relief long after other aid organizations left. It supports LGBT rights in Uganda and land rights activists in Honduras, where an activist and AJWS grantee, Berta Cáceres, was recently assassinated for her work. Messinger herself has personal relationships with the grantees, and regularly takes donors as well as rabbis to meet the workers and bear witness to what needs to be funded.

She often quotes the familiar Mishnaic tractate, “Save one life and you save the world,” and she loves the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society where some are guilty, all are responsible.” It is our duty, she says, “to make a difference.” 

Messinger got her start in the 1960s doing anti-war work and civil rights activism and “community organizing long before Barack Obama,” she said. She then became a New York City politician, representing the Upper West Side of Manhattan as a city councilwoman. From 1990-98, she was borough president of Manhattan, and in 1997 became the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York. She lost to the incumbent, Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

Politics taught her, she said, that “change comes from the bottom up.” And she loved that being a politician enabled her to be directly involved in supporting her own community. AJWS has been the opposite, but offers “the excitement of learning about the rest of the world.”

She’s learned that even in the developing world, people “need much less guidance than Americans imagine. They may need training to set up a website; they may need the advice of a larger, more strategic organization to help, say, take the issues of Kenyan girls to the Kenyan legislature. But it pays to be humble, it pays to ask, ‘What’s on your mind?’ ”

After July 1, once her replacement, Robert Bank — who since 2009 has been an executive vice president and second in command of AJWS — steps up to the plate, Messinger’s primary focus will be engaging rabbis in the United States in AJWS’ causes. She will continue to take groups of them on trips to meet with grantees, but also make sure the rabbis bring the message back to America. Messinger recently took a rabbinic group to the Dominican Republic to meet with people native to the Dominican but of Haitian descent. People who are, in essence, stateless, rejected by the country where they were born. “They met individuals who were being harassed every time they went out of their house, being asked for their birth certificates, being told to go back to Haiti, where they’ve never lived.” The rabbis returned to their pulpits charged with gathering letters to lobby Congress to help.

“I’m pushing them,” she said of the rabbis, to take what they witnessed and spread the word. “They’re only human; they have congregational challenges, they have chaplaincy challenges, their roof is leaking, but a part of being religious leaders is to say, ‘Where should we be making a difference in the world? And isn’t that a piece of what we’re told to do?’ ”

She said her other continuing role for AJWS will be to represent the Jewish world in international interfaith work. “Over the years, as we’ve grown, we’ve had everybody from the World Bank to an ecumenical group in Geneva saying, ‘We’re putting together an interfaith task force, and we have Catholics and five Christian denominations, and we just asked a Muslim,’ and, they’ll ask, ‘Are there any Jews?’ And we want to be there in a better way.

“Looking at the whole world, the American Jewish community is remarkably privileged, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the Middle East, or poor Jews in New York, because there are,” she said, still smiling, as the conversation wound down. 

“But if you look at the world, there aren’t a lot of Jews who don’t have clean water or sanitation, and in the larger world, there are a billion people who don’t have clean water or sanitation. So the question is, can we think in terms of these different circles of obligation? Our own Jewish community, the world Jewish community, the town we live in, the Middle East; but then there’s this larger circle, and when you go to work there, you’re putting a good name on who Jews are in the world. 

“We are,” she said, “fighting anti-Semitism just by what we do.”