Shortly after a failed mayoral bid in New York City ended her political career in 1997, Ruth Messinger became president of the American Jewish World Service, an international human rights organization that works to alleviate poverty, hunger, and disease in the developing world. Since then, the organization has seen its annual budget jump from $2 million to $29 million. It distributes about $13 million in grants each year to more than 400 grassroots projects around the world and has sent 3,000 Jewish volunteers overseas.
Messinger, who was recently appointed to the White House Task Force on Global Poverty, talked with JTA about the challenges of globalization, the reasons why young people are inspired to take part in her organization’s trips, and why she thinks Jews should be involved in fixing the world – not just their own communities.
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of the interview.
Q: Some have criticized Western countries for dumping money on places like Africa and creating a culture of dependence there. How does AJWS work to avoid that?
A: There are one billion people in the world who have nothing and make less than a dollar a day. If someone doesn’t help them, they’ll remain dirt poor and ravaged by disease. So it’s our imperative to help them.
The worst thing in the world is to just give food or used clothing – that could not be more culturally inappropriate. The instinct all too often is for people to clean their closets, without understanding needs. A month after the tsunami, the highest point in Sri Lanka was a mountain of American blankets!
We’re offering funds for a specific purpose where we’ve been asked by the community. This way they can, for example, practice drip irrigation – which, by the way, most people in the world learn from Israel – so they can take other steps [to gain nutritional independence], which is encouraging to both the people on the ground and to us. We work with our community of activists – 70,000 advocates – to urge better U.S. policy. The U.S. government funds American farmers to grow surplus food and dump the surplus in the developing countries – that’s undercutting local farmers, that’s encouraging dependence, not independence. That’s bad American policy.
Q: How does the Jewish community react to an organization that spends a great deal of resources helping non-Jews?
A: We wouldn’t have built a list of 70,000 activists or 3,000 alumni and face a demand for more service programs if people weren’t attracted to our mission. Part of being Jewish is to put Jewish values into practice where the poorest people are. This is not some new piece of Judaism: The rabbis and Jewish leaders have discussed the balance between helping Jews and non-Jews, the balance of working with different communities, the balance of showing who we are and building a better world not only ourselves but for others. It doesn’t say, “Build justice for Jews.”
Q: Why do you think AJWS missions appeal to younger Jews?
A: I don’t think it’s surprising that many young people – but not just young people – are interested in finding out the makeup of the entire world. The global changes of the last decade have helped people understand that we are all dependent on each other; what happens in one place has repercussions around the world. Congregations ask me to come and speak: What’s our position in the broader world, what’s the Jewish lens in understanding that? What does it mean in 2009 to help heal the world and how shall we use our history and our position as educated, influential players to try and make a difference?
Q: AJWS is kind of like a Jewish peace corps, assisting developing countries. Is the volunteer work important for the countries themselves or more for the volunteers?
A: The projects that engage with us want 15 volunteers. They understand that more hands will get more work done faster. The projects with the community might have been put aside, their lives taken up with their own farming, with their own efforts to earn $1 or $2 a day. They are so appreciative of having someone volunteer because a library needs a roof. They recognize the value of having young Americans in Uganda or Thailand or India or El Salvador, having their communities see that there are people from the West, from America, from the Jewish community, that care about them and care about being helpful. I want the volunteers to understand the Jewish mandate for social justice, I want them to have direct personal experience in the developing world where they live and make friends, where they understand other people in other countries so they will come back to America and write about it and talk about it in the Jewish community, in their Jewish community.
Q: With so many challenges facing the Jewish community right now – education funding, assimilation, intermarriage – how can helping developing countries be a priority?
A: The American community has serious problems now and the Jewish community has some particular problems of our own. On the other hand, this is a community that has the experience of being an outsider, and we know what happens when no one responds, when you call for help and no one’s there. Comparatively we are a prosperous, affluent, and influential community and we want to be sure that Jews think about helping those that haven’t gotten to that level, as well as working in the Jewish community, too. There’s time and space and energy for all of that.
Q: You have said it’s important for Jews to be seen doing this kind of work. Why?
A: It helps people in the rest of the world who have never met a Jew, or have never heard of the Jewish religion. It’s important for them to see Jews in precisely the way we ought to be seen: as people committed to social justice, coming into their communities and working with their local people to help get work done.