‘Despair is not a strategy’

‘Despair is not a strategy’

Ruth Messinger says synagogue leaders can help achieve social change

Ruth Messinger (Jeff Zorbedian)
Ruth Messinger (Jeff Zorbedian)

Ruth Messinger has a new job — not so different from her old one, but with a new title and a new focus.

After 18 years heading the American Jewish World Service — she served as its president from 1998 until July 2016 — she has passed the baton to Robert Bank, AJWS’s executive vice-president.

But she is not leaving the organization she worked so hard, and successfully, to grow. As the group’s inaugural global ambassador, Ms. Messinger will continue to “engage rabbis and interfaith leaders to speak out on behalf of oppressed and persecuted communities worldwide.”

Ms. Messinger is no stranger to big jobs. Before she took on her role at AJWS, she devoted 20 years to public service in New York City, serving as both a city council member and as Manhattan Borough President. But she is particularly proud of her accomplishments in the area of advocacy and social change.

She will speak about this work — and what synagogues can do to help bring about social change — on April 29 at Temple Emanu-El in Closter. In a talk called “What’s Jewish about Global Social Justice?” the former AJWS president will explore “how AJWS turns Jewish values into global impact.”

On its website, AJWS defines itself as “a community of Jewish global citizens fighting for a better world.” Through its grants, the group provides financial support to 450 local advocacy organizations in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean that are working to end poverty and advance the rights of some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world. At home, AJWS mobilizes its supporters to persuade the United States Congress and the president of the United States to adopt policies and laws that improve the lives of people in the developing world.

The Jewish teachings guiding its work are “the imperative to repair the world, or tikkun olam; donating money to achieve justice, or tzedakah; believing in the inherent dignity of every person, or tzelem elohim; understanding that international human rights law is part of the global response to the Holocaust and promises a better world for all; and furthering the work of earlier generations of Jewish activists for justice and equality.”

Ms. Messinger’s accomplishments have been widely recognized. She was named one of the 10 most inspiring women religious leaders of 2012 by the Huffington Post, the sixth most influential Jew in the world by the Jerusalem Post, and was listed annually on The Forward’s “Forward 50” for nearly a decade. In addition, she sits on the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, co-chairs the Sub-Working Group on Social Justice, and is a member of the World Bank’s Moral Imperative working group on extreme poverty.

And yet, she insists, much can be done on the local level to further the work of international development.

“The likelihood is that we have an administration choosing to ignore human rights issues,” she said in an interview. “If we don’t pay attention to human rights, it will come back to haunt us.” On the subject of “land use and land abuse,” she said, there is little protection for small farmers around the world. This will create new pressures for migration, ultimately affecting our national security.

“We live in a global universe,” she said. “With that comes global responsibility.” While no one congregation or community can do everything, “despair is not a strategy.” But the situation should be part of the discussion, she said, asking, “What does the Jewish faith and Jewish texts say about that?”

Contributing funds is one way to help, she said, noting that “giving money is not an idle activity. How people contribute and think about charitable works is part of being an effective citizen motivated by Jewish values.” But, she stressed, “there are always other activities. Pick your issue.” Whether someone’s concern is the lack of respect for women’s bodies or mistreatment of the LGBT community, synagogue members can track these issues and share their concerns with others.

Ms. Messinger said she is particularly proud of “growing an extraordinary organization with an amazing staff,” being able to move from working with $3 million to $36 million a year — this from a leader who launched campaigns to end the Darfur genocide, reform international food aid, stop violence against women, end land grabs, and respond to natural disasters around the globe.

She “felt as if I had a lot to learn every day about what goes on in the world — the dimensions of the problems,” Ms. Messinger said. One of the things she learned was the “extent to which people are organizing to fight back, the grassroots activism.” Through her organization’s in-country consultants, “we found groups to work with” in the 19 countries to which AJWS has provided assistance.

“Pretty consistently we find groups already fighting their own battles to end poverty,” she said.

Ms. Messinger spoke of a “fierce belief,” reinforced by Jewish values, that “assumes people on the ground know best their own vision of justice. We’re helping to create a civil society to be able to do advocacy,” she said, noting that in addition to working with countries following natural disasters, her group has been concerned with the status of women and girls, including child marriage, natural resource rights, and environmental justice.

Our government, she said “should adhere to international standards of human rights” in their giving of aid and in their diplomatic efforts. “They’ve threatened to cut 20 percent in foreign aid,” she said, although such aid constitutes less than one percent of the total federal budget.

Ms. Messinger is hopeful that people will come to hear her speak. “The point is there are new challenges with this administration,” she said. “We have to think strategically and identify issues that individuals and congregations” can work on. She also said that while AJWS traditionally has made Passover readings available on its website, AJWS.org, this year the organization has compiled a Haggadah, “Next Year in a Just World,” downloadable from the site.

While much of her work concerns the international arena, Ms. Messinger — who is married to Andrew Lachman and has three children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren — is also active in her own Manhattan shul, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

Who: Ruth Messinger

What: Will deliver a talk, “What’s Jewish about Global Social Justice?”

When: On April 29 at 9 a.m.

Where: At Temple Emanu-El, 180 Piermont Road, Closter

For more information: Call 201-750-9997 or go to www.templeemanu-el.com

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