Interview with Ruth Messinger
Note to readers: Ruth Messinger has been the president and CEO of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), an organization that advocates for human rights and works to end poverty around the world, since 1998. Previously, she served for twelve years on the New York City Council and for eight years as borough president of Manhattan. She also received the Democratic Party’s nomination for mayor of New York City in 1997. She lectures widely on social justice issues and serves on the board of many social justice organizations. She has been named one of the Forward’s “50 most influential Jews of the year” for ten years and was included in the Jerusalem Post’s list of the “World’s Most Influential Jews of 2011.”
How did you become interested and involved in social activism?
It really started in my home, growing up. We took it seriously. We were told to “give back to the city and to the country.” You know, “stand for good things and take action.” That’s just the way we were raised. I’ve been involved in social action my whole life at various levels and with various causes.
You have been an activist, an educator, a politician, and a nonprofit CEO. Which occupation is closest to your heart?
I was very happy being an activist during the ’60s. I was involved in various social movements of the ’60s: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war. Then I went to social work school and started working on New York City issues and challenges and was doing that professionally, including running for office, and being an activist in and around city issues. This was my great passion and love, and I did it for twenty years, until I lost an election. After that I took this position at AJWS and got really interested in the international social change and human rights work that we do. As you probably know, we have always worked on those issues overseas, but we also work on them in the States, doing policy advocacy. I’ve always tried to figure out ways to work on issues in the U.S. to change government policy, either at the city or at the national level.
The simple answer to your question is that I’ve liked all of it!
What do you see as the mission of the AJWS, vis-à-vis Judaism and American Jewry?
Well, I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that the mission of American Jewish World Service is to be an organization that is motivated by Jewish values and puts those values into practice in order to end poverty and realize human rights for marginalized people in the world. So that’s our mission. We work on that mission internationally by finding really good grassroots social change groups and projects and helping them do their work. And we work on that issue domestically with the American Jewish community, telling them ways that they can get involved in advocacy issues around global justice. So, right now, for the last year and a half, we’ve been working on efforts to reverse global hunger, and our current campaign is to insist that when Congress comes back into session they need to pass the Farm Bill because they’re putting millions of people at risk, both domestically and globally.[i]
What methods does AJWS utilize to share and spread its values?
We talk to our mission, and we do mobilizing and organizing in the American Jewish community to advance it. For instance, we just organized Global Hunger Shabbat, so we had speakers all over the country – members of our staff, volunteers, and rabbis – give information about the situation and urge people to take action on the Farm Bill. Our website tells people very specifically how to take action and what they can do to make social change, and we communicate with people by email, by direct mail, in public speaking, and, as I said, by taking many of the people who have done service programs with us and training them as advocates and activists.
Is there a program run by AJWS that you are most proud of?
Nope. I really love them all, and I think it’s just important for people to understand that there is a both a universal and domestic organizing and advocacy program, and that there are over 400 grassroots groups that are making social change around the world, not all of which I’ve visited, but many of which I’ve been privileged to go and see.
Is there anything about American Jewry today, in terms of public policy, values, and activism, that disappoints you?
A great deal on some days. We are a community that has a tendency to look at what’s wrong and not fully recognize the comparative influence and affluence of Jews in America in the twenty-first century and then not use that degree of influence and affluence to make further change and get more Jews involved in social justice. We must recognize the huge interest of your age cohort in doing things to make change in the world and understand that that is, indeed, very much a Jewish thing to do, and that it helps people live their Judaism.
Is there anything uniquely special about the programs run jointly by AJWS and the Center for the Jewish Future at YU?
There’s nothing unique, because we do similar work with people on campuses all over, but YU is one of the unusual places, in that it already has a center, a structure devoted to trying to promote activism and living Judaism in a variety of ways. This makes it very easy for us to work with YU and organize trips with them, because they’re really organized in a way to do that.
What is your advice to a college student interested in getting involved in social activism?
1) Do it. 2) Learn about the mechanisms for mobilizing and organizing. So go out and do something, seek some action, but then realize that you can be part of a team and go to lobby a member of Congress, realize that you can map out a strategy for getting something changed legislatively over time, that these lend themselves to issue campaigns. So people need to learn how to do that and they should, gradually, recognize that the world is a far-from-perfect place, and that some of that responsibility, for better or worse, is going to fall to their generation, and they ought to learn how to do these things collectively. I would hope very much for students to do this with a Jewish lens, from a Jewish point of view, because I think that the work reinforces the commitment to Judaism, and the commitment to Judaism strengthens the work.
Finally, considering recent events and your years of service to New York, do you have any reflections to share on the effects of Hurricane Sandy and the proper response to this natural disaster?
Well, I think this is a wake-up call in terms of the fact, as opposed to “the myth,” of climate change, and the notion that we, all over the world, including in this very developed part of the world, need to be more alert to understanding what the climate change projections are and need to be planning carefully for them in advance. We’re learning – we’ve learned this with Katrina, frankly, and now we’re learning it again with Sandy – that it’s not like the U.S. is a perfect place in which serious natural disasters won’t create real crisis. That’s just not true and we need to do a better job of disaster preparedness. New York and the large relief organizations ought to have been readier to handle the madness, and we need to take that lesson from recent days and start doing the things to make us readier the next time. And another thing, which we actually said in an official statement, is that we know from our experience in working on natural disasters around the world that there’s a huge set of needs immediately, but also a set of much longer-term needs for rebuilding that, in some ways, takes time, and, in some ways, it takes less time to get New York and the United States organized to do some of that rebuilding than it does to get Haiti to do it, but it still takes time.
[i] “Farm Bill” is a generic term referring to bills passed by Congress every several years to address changes in agriculture and food policy. The proposed 2012 version of this legislation addresses a range of propositions on water conservation, financial safety nets for American farmers, farmland preservation, and rural prosperity. For more information on the Farm Bill agenda, see www.farmbillfacts.org. To learn how you can take action, visit http://ajws.org/reversehunger/take_action.html .