Giving Back: A Conversation with Ruth Messinger


Giving Back: A Conversation with Ruth Messinger

By Aron Hirt-Manheimer, Editor, Reform Judaism Magazine

What inspired your commitment to social justice?

I was raised in a household where the prevailing mantra was to give something back. As Jews we were lucky to be living in America in the twentieth century. My dad started his own successful business, and we lived comfortably. So my family did give back. My maternal grandfather was the first executive director of the Jewish Federation of New York, my mother chaired both the Surprise Lake Camp and Jewish Child Care Association boards, and my dad was on the board of the Jewish Home and Hospital for fifty-five years. Our dinner-table conversation was always about local issues, national politics, and Jewish organizational life. So Jewish activism was something I understood from a very young age.

To this day, I take very seriously the Jewish mandate to remember what it means to be the other, the stranger, and therefore to respond to the needs of the other and the stranger. You can interpret that 7,000 different ways and the rabbis have, but I think it's really important for today's Jewish community to think expansively about our place in the world. The world keeps changing, and we American Jews have now risen to levels of affluence and influence that our grandparents and great-grandparents could never have imagined. We have to figure out what we're supposed to do with that, religiously, socially, and politically. With affluence and influence come responsibility.

So you chose to become director of the American Jewish World Service.

Yes. I love the ways in which AJWS allows me to express both my social activism and my Jewish identity. In fact, that's precisely how the organization got its start. One day in 1985, an individual with a broad sense of Jewish responsibility—Larry Phillips, the chief executive officer of Phillips van Heusen Shirt Company and an active board member of the international anti-hunger/development organization Oxfam International—had the realization that a significant number of Oxfam's board, contributors, and staff were Jewish—and the beneficiaries of Oxfam's charitable work had no inkling of this level of Jewish involvement. He thought, why not create a Jewish international development organization that, as it works in the world, would introduce people to Jews and to Jewish values, and thereby build friends for Jews around the globe?

Today we describe ourselves as the heart, hand, and voice of the American Jewish community in the developing world. We work to raise consciousness in the American Jewish community to support grassroots efforts for social change in the poorest countries of the world. We also run the AJWS Volunteer Corps, which sends skilled professionals who wish to do volunteer work to places where their skills will be most needed—it's our own version of the Peace Corps.

In addition, we bring college students to our project partner organizations in the developing world for both full summer and shorter spring break service and study programs, and we offer similar opportunities for teen groups and congregational delegations. The results are often quite dramatic: people in developing countries receive help, learn the skills they need, and develop a changed understanding of Jews and Judaism. The participants are also dramatically affected; they get a first-hand understanding of challenges in the world that are most often invisible in America, and often they come to see Judaism as a faith with a commitment to social justice, ready to put its muscle where its mouth is—a faith that values deeds as well as words. It's a win-win proposition.

Of all the causes in the world, how do you choose which projects to fund?

We raise funds both for grassroots long-term development and for emergency relief, such as the tsunami in Asia or the genocide in Sudan. We then channel the funds to community-based organizations with specific expertise in key areas, such as economic development or sustainable agriculture. In the case of an international disaster, we fund groups that, for example, know how to transport clean water into remote sites where water sources have been contaminated, or who can get needed food to people in isolated areas who cannot obtain resources from the allocated food distribution centers provided by larger international relief organizations.

In addition, we're always looking to move from relief to reconstruction as quickly as possible, so we seek out small grassroots groups that are capable of strengthening the community in which they live. After the tsunami, for example, we first distributed funds to Direct Relief International to ship medical supplies to India and Sri Lanka; and to the International Medical Corps to organize mobile health clinics, distribute clean water, hygiene kits and food, and provide counseling to individuals and families. At the same time, we enlisted help from our partners on the ground in finding local groups to fund.

In less than a month, we were replacing fishing boats and nets, and shortly thereafter we were supporting fisherfolk federations, groups that had come together to defend their right to continue fishing and to rebuild their communities. Following the disaster, large public and private interests tried to move entire villages inland "for their own safety" in order to claim territory that had belonged to the fisherfolk for future tourist beachfront development. Our grants, totaling more than 60 thus far, are helping individuals get back on their feet and back in their boats, but are also helping them fight for their right to rebuild on their own land.

Yet the bulk of our global work is not in emergency aid, but in ongoing grassroots international development. We scout out organizations that make a difference in their communities and provide them with technical assistance, financial aid, and skilled volunteers.

In several countries of sub-Saharan Africa, for example, we assist women who teach AIDS prevention and provide care for local children orphaned by AIDS. In Peru we fund a group that airs its own radio program instructing Peruvians living in the remote Amazon in the latest approaches to fish-farming and agro-forestry. In Senegal, we assist an organization that educates women—who are the local farmers there—on irrigation and crop rotation techniques. The yield-maximizing methods they learn are critical in helping them subsist on their own land. Formerly these women farmers spent four or five months of the year living away from home, working as maids or prostitutes in order to feed their families, but now, making better use of the land, they are strengthening their families and moving toward self-sufficiency.

What do you say to Jews who feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the world's ills, they say, "There's little that I as a human being can do," and opt to do nothing?

I tell everyone we cannot, we must not, retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. To do so goes against Jewish tradition, which teaches: "If you save one life, you save the world." Our rabbis also taught that "You're not required to complete the task, but you cannot desist from it."

It's also important to give people hope that things can get better. And the truth is, small amounts of money spent in the developing world can go a long way. AJWS awards about six million dollars in grants each year to some 220 different organizations. Why? Because if you give these grassroots organizations $15,000 or $20,000, it will change the lives of their communities. Consider that 17,000 children under the age of five die every day from preventable causes such as pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. If people commit themselves to learning what is really going on, they will not only comprehend the seriousness of the problem, they will understand how little it takes to make a difference.

That's not to say I am not sympathetic to those who are depressed by the state of the world, because it's true that there's a lot that isn't going well. Unfortunately, this realization often diminishes or eliminates people's interest in trying to make change.

I just look at it very differently. Change only happens if we keep at it. There is much that needs to be done and there are still victories to be had. One of the excitements of working with AJWS in the developing world is being able to see what a difference we've made. I often feel that if only I could help more people see these results, they would be more hopeful about social change and would get more involved.

What else can be done to trigger action?

We see all the time that if you bring an issue to people's attention, there's a significant inclination to respond. I'll give you two examples. Rachel Koretsky, of Yardley, Pennsylvania, was told in September 2004 that she had to do a community service project for her bat mitzvah. She learned about Sudan and went to our website for information. She then announced to her parents that she wanted to raise $10,000 for our Sudan Relief and Advocacy Fund.

Knowing that theirs was not a wealthy community, her parents said, "Rachel, just do what you can." So she ran a raffle. The family didn't know that raffles are illegal in Pennsylvania. Eventually she had to close it down, but she wasn't going to give up. She designed "cans for Sudan" and put them in willing stores in Yardley. She wrote letters to her parents' friends, and arranged speaking engagements in local synagogues. Combining the proceeds with her bat mitzvah gifts, she gave us a check for $13,000.

Another story: in the last several months, many of the college students who participated in our spring break program in Central America decided upon their return to America to do something about Sudan. Assembling a small caravan, four of them traveled around California for 11 days, stopping at supermarkets, schools, and libraries and talking to people about the genocide. They obtained 1,400 signatures on our Sudan petition and encouraged Americans to send letters to Congress and President Bush. At one point, when they were asking the crowd to bring these issues to the attention of California's elected officials, a man replied, "We shouldn't have to tell our elected officials to care about genocide," and one of the students said, "Yes, in fact, you do. You have to tell them."

Right now I think the Jewish community needs to be asked by its leaders to step up to the plate, pick an issue of concern, and do something to rectify it. It can be poverty in your city; the needs of people in Israel, where there are serious problems of inequality and hunger; global poverty; Sudan—any issue anywhere in the world.

One of our goals is getting Jewish leaders to speak out from the pulpit, and many have responded. In the past two years we've sent two groups of twenty-five rabbinic students—from all denominations—on a weeklong service and study project in El Salvador. They've helped local grassroots organizations we support plant crops, replace homes, and build community structures.

They've also gotten a first-hand understanding of certain global problems and formulated strategies to address these issues in their current and future work. And the payoff has been tremendous. The first year after their return, the students spoke to more congregations than I've been able to address in the seven years I've been here. They are helping us to spread the fundamental understanding that extreme poverty is a threat to all of us in the world and that Jews—as individuals and as members of congregations or community associations—must take action.

How is poverty in the developing world a threat to us in North America?

Anyone who thinks HIV/AIDS will not accelerate in America if we don't solve it in Africa and the Caribbean is short-sighted. Diseases know no borders, as we've seen with SARS and the West Nile virus. Poverty has the potential to breed hopelessness and fuel terrorism. In today's globalized world, where international borders are becoming irrelevant, we must ask ourselves not only "what must I do to help my own?" but "what are my obligations to those who pick the beans for my morning coffee or sew my silk shirt?" Behind the work of their hands is a human heart that connects with our own.

Reprinted with permision from Reform Judaism Magazine, Winter 2005.