A Discussion with Ruth Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service
April 8, 2009
Background: In this discussion, Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), talks about her long career in New York City politics and her transition in the late 1990s to the top post of AJWS. Messinger describes AJWS' support for hundreds of development projects around the world, all of them initiated at the grassroots by people from the communities that the projects serve. Because this interview was conducted soon after the Sudanese President Omar Bashir ordered western NGOs out of Darfur, Messinger also speaks about AJWS' advocacy of Sudan in the United States and international circles.
You have had a long and varied career. Your work in New York City politics is well known but rather different from what you are doing now with AJWS. What brought you to AJWS and how did your Jewish background and values play a part in your career progression?
I had always understood that the work I did in the time before I got to AJWS—which was mostly politics and community organizing—was influenced by my Judaism and the Jewish traditions with which I was raised. My strong drive towards social justice to me had direct links to core Jewish values, but I rarely articulated this.
In 1997, after 20 years in city government, I lost an election and was looking for a job. My interest and skills led me to look to run a not-for-profit organization in the city, working on any one of about ten issues that had driven me up to that point. As it turns out, organizations working on those issues were not interested in hiring me, transparently because they were worried about potential repercussions for their relationship with the mayor (who had defeated me in the election).
AJWS wanted to hire me. What appealed to me was that they were a not-for-profit and emphasized a grassroots approach to humanitarian work. The set of issues they dealt with was totally different, and I thought it would be a good time in my life to do something new. Those things were much more relevant than the fact that AJWS was a Jewish organization. I can’t say I did a lot of explicit thinking about that aspect until shortly after I got here. Then I realized that this was quite an amazing opportunity. It gave me a chance to learn more about Jewish text, and gave me a chance to talk explicitly, as I had not done in politics, about Jewish connections to social justice. It gave me a chance to talk to lots and lots of people in the Jewish community about the fact that Judaism seemed to be insufficiently emphasizing the social justice aspect of the religion.
What makes AJWS Jewish, in your understanding?
Our mission statement says that we have a dual mission. The first part is the eradication of poverty, disease, and hunger, and the second is to educate the Jewish community about global social responsibility. Too often Jews are, or seem to be, focused on the Jewish community, and not on others in need. We at AJWS think that the Jewish faith requires that people pay attention to the other, to the stranger. Jewish sages said that if all the problems of the world were on one side of a scale, and poverty was on the other, poverty would be heavier. That idea guides us.
There were many Jewish organizations doing humanitarian or poverty work, but that was mostly within Jewish communities. There weren’t that many that had expanded the circle of obligation to the rest of the world.
We work with a very particular method that we think is essential for international development work, which is to emphasize grassroots groups working on their own agendas. We believe in providing these groups with a great degree of self-determination about how they want to work and about how they want to pull themselves out of poverty. This is a principle that is, as you know, not often respected by governments and institutions. But I think you have to take with a grain of salt any government that says they know how to solve the problems of small farmers around the world.
From the point of view of rooting our work in Judaism, we reference often the words and concept of tikkun olam, which means “to heal the world.” More often I talk about how scripture teaches that each person is made in the image of God, and emphasize that this teaching leads directly to a humanitarian, or mitzvah obligation.
As we do our work around the world (we work in 36 countries) we do, in a low-key fashion, tell the people that the help that we are able to provide comes from the American Jewish community. We tell them what it is that motivates the Jewish community to do good around the world. But we do not proselytize. In fact, we go out of our way to not proselytize.
There is lively debate in the U.S. around two areas having to do with faith-inspired charitable organizations: religious discrimination in hiring, and proselytizing. How does AJWS come down on these two issues?
The basic answer, as I said, is that we do not proselytize. But there is a wrinkle of complexity. It is true that there’s a little bit of revised thinking about proselytizing in the modern Jewish community in America. Many point to statistics that show really high rates of intermarriage, and ask how the ranks of the faithful can be enlarged. But by and large, Jews don’t proselytize. And where we work in the world, there’s a need to make that point.
What we find very often though, is that there is great curiosity about Jews and Judaism in the communities where we work. Our partners ask, “Who are the Jews? What is a Jew?” A common misconception we encounter is that all Jews live in Israel. People are rather curious to discover that we share the Old Testament. Most of what is pretty common knowledge to Americans is little known in much of the developing world. There are always moments (as for example happened when I was talking to some poor rural Peruvian farmers who were Catholics) of, “Oh, you’re the people who walked in the desert for 40 years.”
We have no hiring restrictions (though of course by law we could). I do make it really clear to those who want to work for AJWS that people who interact with our project partners for the purpose of grant-making need to be comfortable talking about the fact that the support is coming from a Jewish organization. But, apparently, lots of non-Jews have no problem doing that! We have many non-Jews on staff and they love the work.
A recent study reviews flows of humanitarian aid through different categories of faith-inspired organizations. The statistics show that Jewish organizations in the international sphere after WWII, represented, among all categories of private not-for-profit organizations with faith links, a very large proportion of overall humanitarian assistance, but that in the last several decades that proportion has declined sharply. How do you fit AJWS into this pattern? Are Jewish Americans giving less or are they giving through non-faith-linked organizations?
I don’t know that study, but I can speak a bit about my own perceptions of Jewish philanthropy. Yes, Jews are philanthropic, but not—although I hear this often—more philanthropic than any other group in the world. Certainly there are Jewish organizations that meet Jewish-related needs. Jewish giving to Israel-related causes accounts for a significant portion of Jewish philanthropy. But there has been some steady increase in Jewish giving to different causes in America. And yes, many Jews are giving through a wide range of organizations, most without any specific Jewish identity. That’s important also as part of their desire to contribute to the wider community and to consolidate their acceptance within it.
How did AJWS get started in 1985? Did it have any predecessor organization?
AJWS has no predecessor in the American Jewish community nor did it grow from or merge with any other organization. The founder, who was a member of the board of Oxfam, had a specific concept of an organizational gap that needed to be filled. He came to the conclusion one day that a significant percentage of the board, staff, and donors to Oxfam were Jewish because they were attached to its international work. His observation was that there ought to be a route for Jews to do international giving, as Jews.
Who would you describe as your compatriots in organizational terms?
In the Jewish community there is no similar organization, and I am proud to say that, because it helps to assure that there is no overlap or inappropriate duplication. There are other Jewish humanitarian international organizations, notably the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, but their priority is helping Jewish communities in need around the world. We are the only Jewish group that does international development work broadly, without regard to religion or nationality.
Do you work with all the different segments of the Jewish community in the U.S.?
We reach out to all segments of the Jewish community, and have significant participation from all of them.
As I said earlier, a significant interest of ours is education in the Jewish community about global social responsibility. We run two programs a year targeted to students in rabbinical school, with the specific idea of educating the next generation of Jewish educators and leaders to be ready to talk about global work. We’ve taken something like 150 rabbinic students on trips to our partner sites, and these students come from all denominations. We have similar programs for college students. We have a wide range of service programs, and a broad spectrum of participation.
Where do you take the different groups?
All of our group trips, from college students to rabbinic students, go where we have partners and projects that are really receptive to having a group work with them for a week or so. One of the rabbinic trips is to Central American, to work with rural farming communities, and there’s a group going to Senegal this June.
What would be an example of one of the more exciting projects you’re supporting?
I don’t want to sound Pollyanish, but I love all of our projects. Some are exciting because they’ve grown. Some are exciting because they’re not growing, just looking to do what they do more intensively. Some are quite innovative and are pioneering new solutions. One project in Senegal, Tostan, has gone from being a grassroots “start-up” to being the largest organization working against female genital mutilation in the world. We support an after school soccer program that’s turning into a second home for kids in Peru. In South Africa there are several amazing groups working in the townships. A program in Chad is helping mothers during deliveries. Some small projects are highly successful, while others have grown to be quite large. I could go on! A common quality is sterling and innovative leadership.
Could you tell us a little about the process through which projects are chosen and funded by AJWS?
By and large now, although we get many inquiries, the great bulk of our projects come as referrals from our existing projects. We’re helping some 400 groups around the world in 36 countries, and it’s common for groups to say to us, “There’s somebody down the road doing health-care work, why don’t you check them out.”
Beyond that, our grants department is remarkably good at picking out which projects, based on our experience, are particularly likely to become sustainable. Not self-sufficient, necessarily, that’s not what we’re aiming for, but sustainable, able to plan thoughtfully for their future.
Are there any international NGOs that you work closely with?
I think that it would be fair to say that the three we are most connected to are: the Global Fund for Women; Firelight, a small organization that works with AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan Africa; and the Steven Lewis Foundation. But we also do some work with larger entities, like the International Rescue Committee.
Have you been affected by the Madoff disaster?
The short is answer is no, we were not directly affected. Back in December and January when I was being asked about this frequently, I told people, “We lost all of our money legally!” The long answer is more complicated, because about five of our donors did have money invested with Madoff, and in some of those cases entire family foundations were wiped out. Most of them had given the contributions for 2008. But the projection for 2009 is, by my best estimate, that we are behind about $600,000 dollars before we even start.
Anti-Semitism is still prevalent in much of the world. Do you encounter it in your work?
By and large, we are welcomed and treated with respect. My favorite quote about us came from a group in Peru that we support; it was quite small when we started to support them, but has since grown significantly. I took some of our funders to visit them, and one group member asked a leader from this organization, “Why, when you have larger funders, do you still partner with AJWS?” Her answer was, “Because AJWS funds with humility.”
We are treated well even in countries with fairly high or known and announced dimensions of anti-Semitism. The good news is that people all over the world treat their national leaders with a significant degree of skepticism. What you hear leaders saying about Jews, and what the people themselves feel about Jews, is often significantly different. An important aspect of what we are doing is working in the communities, and when you are in close proximity like that, the myths and prejudices tend not to stand up as well, and we are helping people develop new (and positive) images of Jews.
We fund Sakena Yacoobi, who heads the Afghan Learning Institute. They funded a network of girls schools in Afghanistan, the secret schools during the Taliban era. She’s an amazing woman; she recently won the Henry Kravis prize. We are still funding her to do work around women’s education and day care. Early on in our partnership, she came to the States, and spoke with me at a fundraiser cocktail party. Some person in the living room challenged me, “I don’t understand why a Jewish organization is sending money to a Muslim women working in a Muslim community.” I get questions like this often, so I summoned my energies, and got ready to answer, “That’s exactly what we are doing.” Sakena then stepped in and said, “If you think it’s difficult to be a Jewish organization in New York funding a Muslim organization in Afghanistan, imagine what it’s like for a Muslim woman in Afghanistan to take money from New York Jews.
We are always concerned to be sure that we do not have a negative impact on our grantees, but we find that they are keen to accept our funding, because they need money but also because they appreciate our philosophy and approach. That’s true in many places, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
To turn to a different subject, to what extent is AJWS involved in the larger NGO community?
I think the answer is as much as we can for a medium-sized organization, and probably not quite enough. After disasters, I find that I’m pleased with the levels of cooperation that I see. After the earthquake in Turkey we helped to fund Mercy Corps to put up tents. We do a lot of work with the IRC. We’re members of Interaction. We have a small advocacy office in Washington that is active on the limited number of things on which we do advocacy work. We are a part of M-FAN, which is a new coalition of international groups trying to influence the Foreign Assistance Reform Act.
You and AJWS are prominent advocates on Sudan and Darfur. What is the situation with NGOs there, as far as you know?
I have no idea why some organizations are still there and others have been kicked out. One explanation that I’ve heard is that the government threw out organizations that were allegedly providing information to the ICC prosecutors. To me, that explanation doesn’t make much sense. I think that that could only be a part of the story. Even if Bashir thinks that those groups were providing information to the ICC—and I’m pretty sure they weren’t—it is totally unclear how he would have gotten this information. I myself can’t get people to come and talk about what they see in the camps. They say, “If we’re on the ground, we can’t be seen talking about what’s happening.”
I think Bashir is much more clever than the West gives him credit for. The speed at which he retaliated for the [ICC] indictments was breathtaking. He’s said, “I don’t trust these groups,” and used the opportunity to create a situation where one million people who were being cared for by INGOS are now at significant risk of hunger and waterborne disease. Bashir has managed to do genocide by killing, attrition, and now by starvation.
I am hoping that General Gration and President Obama are serious about their understanding of the dimensions of the immediate problem. Our administration is saying the right things, but we are at a critical moment. I’m very much hoping that the U.S. will move dollar resources to the groups still operating there. These things don’t get accomplished quickly, but they need to.
The Darfur advocacy community has done a lot of work over the past six years to move Darfur front and center. But given that we’re six years in and people are still dying. We proved how possible it is to organize, and mobilize college campuses, but we haven’t stopped an ongoing genocide. So there should be some questioning, some negative self-assessment, and some more intensive advocacy.
Around the time of the Beijing Olympics you were quite active on pressuring China on Sudan issues. Where does that stand now?
There is still a major focus on China through the divestment campaign. The action point now is divestment is from multinational oil companies. The campaign has been extremely effective. For one, they brought TIAA-CREF to its knees. TIAA-CREF is now reviewing every one of its funds to ensure that they’re not invested in organizations with culpability in Sudan.