Ruth Messinger: The Right Messenger for the American Jewish World Service
Ruth Messinger has been guiding the American Jewish World Service [AJWS} since 1998 as its executive director. It was established by Larry Phillips, an internationalist who was on the board of Oxfam, a British based relief organization. He noticed that there was a visibly large percentage of Jews as managers and donors compared to those of other faiths. The notion was born that the Jewish community could run a similar organization. Larry Simon became the first director along with a group of advisors which included Elie Weisel, Rabbi Mark Tenenbaum, other Rabbis, Jewish communal leaders, businessmen and scholars. That was in 1986. When Ms. Messinger was sought out to take charge of the AJWS it was a fortuitous occasion. She was originally a social worker, had been teaching at Hunter College for years, spent twenty years in elected office in New York culminating in a run for Mayor. Then her first stint with a non-profit, representing a whole new world, enabled her to bring her knowledge and passion to the Jewish community. It was a perfect fit and her skills fit perfectly for her role in the AJWS.
The most significant change over the last eight years has been size with the AJWS budget increasing from $2.1 million in 1998 to $30 million presently. During that period it has greatly increased its visibility. By taking advantage of the attention it received during the tsunami and now as a result of the genocide in Darfur it has been able to build fundraising, communications and in the last 2-3 years put into place the kind of managerial structure needed for a $30 million organization.
The AJWS deals with small grassroot organizations in the developing world in the hope of alleviating poverty hunger and oppression. It works with those groups to promote civil society and it stays with and funds them for a long time. It has also tremendously expanded its volunteer program, which resembles a Jewish Peace Corps in many respects. It has approximately 120 individuals and couples who are professionals and skilled in anything from public health, organizational management, fundraising, computers to education so that they can provide actual technical assistance to the projects currently in place. The volunteer program requires a commitment of 2 ½ months to a year and is now making a concerted effort to recruit Israelis. It also runs a number of seven week summer and one week alternate break programs for high school and college students as well as congregational delegations. This idea of combining an experience of service and study has become so popular that nearly three times as many people apply as can be accepted.
When asked how the volunteers are perceived in the poverty stricken countries they serve and how the people feel towards them, Ms. Messinger was full of pride in her answer. “Through our work, our staff, our guests, our volunteers … people in the developing world, many who have never met a Jew, come to see Jews as I think we want to be seen … as a people committed to social justice and as a faith that doesn’t proselytize but is available for concrete assistance. With our young people we hope to create a set of cross cultural connections. They come back and and say that we’ve changed their lives. They get a very different view of what’s going on in the world – a different view of what they had of their capacity to actually do something that makes a difference. The people they come to assist are overwhelmed from the very beginning by the notion that this is a group of American Jewish college students who want to give a week of vacation time to work in the field with people they’ve never met before.” Then Ms. Messinger remarked about one instance where a group of people in Uganda approached a volunteer saying they were arguing as to whether she was Muslim or Christian. When she replied that she was Jewish there was complete silence. Then someone said to her, “Jewish … does that mean you are a direct descendant of Abraham?” She answered,“Yes”.
Ms. Messsinger also related that when she was in Turkey, after a bad earthquake, a local woman asked why a Jewish person would come halfway around the world to help Muslims. She answered that the area was a broken part of the world right now and that one of the things we believe is that we should do our part to heal the world when it’s broken … we’re here to help you. The Turkish woman then commented that all the religions in the world are the same and they would always reach out to help others but the leaders get in the way.
The AJWS mandate is to work in the one third poorest countries in the world. They currently work in forty out of sixty of these. Out of $12 million in grants, with the average being $25,000.00, they focus on small locally planned economic development projects because they give people a stake in their community. They tend to stay with these projects for four to six years which insures a greater chance of success. When it comes to responding to disasters, the AJWS collaborates efforts with other major relief organizations by determining how they can be most helpful and insuring that donor contributions for these specific situations go directly where they were intended.
When asked what message the AJWS would like to give to the Jewish community at large, Ruth Messinger replied: “First of all I want to be sure that people understand that we at the AJWS recognize that there are many important Jewish claims on charitable money for the Jewish community, so people should continue to give to their congregation, if they have one, their federation, to any one of the many organizations that work in Israel and organizations that are dealing with the ongoing issues in the Middle East. We see ourselves as being the Jewish organization that deals with the rest of the world. We think that our work is attractive to many Jews who may or may not be Jewish givers. We hope that in giving to us, people will be thinking about the role of Jews as global citizens in the 21st Century. We are people committed to the role of social justice. We have a high level of resourcefulness that’s higher than many other communities and we can indeed do both the particular and the universal. I’ll add to that, that for some Jews who work with us, whether it’s responding to a disaster through us, or simply becoming informed about our work, or doing a volunteer program with us, or getting involved in doing advocacy with us – it is an entry or reentry point for them in thinking about doing their charitable work or activist work under a Jewish umbrella.”
Ms. Messinger has been amazed at the responsiveness of the Jewish community regarding Darfur. It has been phenomenal that individuals, congregations, up to the large national organizations have kept turf battles out of their general response to this crises. Save Darfur Coalition, which is made up of over 170 groups, was originally founded in July 2004 by the AJWS and the US Holocaust Museum. The Coalition has Christian faith based groups, Muslim faith based groups, secular and human rights organizations which includes African American groups, the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals among others. It has significantly increased the visibility of the AJWS and raised the level of activism by congregations and most dramatically college students. It is a key issue on campuses and it has been a way for Hillels on campus to work with non sectarian groups.
When one reflects carefully on the name of the American Jewish World Service it becomes obvious not only what it is but what it does and for that we can all be thankful. To learn more about this remarkable organization you can contact them at 800-889-7146 or visit their website: www.ajws.org.