Judaism and Global Justice: A Conversation with Ruth Messinger

Editor's note: Ruth Messinger is the president of the American Jewish World Service, or AJWS, an international development organization that is motivated by Judaism's imperative to pursue justice.

What brought you to American Jewish World Service (AJWS)? 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 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, and AJWS wanted to hire me even though I would have to learn international development on the job. I can't say I did a lot of explicit thinking about the fact that AJWS was a Jewish organization until shortly after I got here. Then I realized that this was quite an amazing opportunity. It gave me a chance to learn more Jewish text and gave me a chance to talk explicitly, as I had not done in politics, about Jewish connections to social justice.

What makes AJWS Jewish, in your understanding?

Our mission statement has two parts. We are committed to the eradication of poverty, disease, and hunger around the world, and we are committed to educating the Jewish community about global social responsibility. Too often, Jews seem to be focused on the Jewish community and not on others in need. There are many Jewish organizations doing humanitarian or poverty work, but not that many that have expanded the circle of obligation to the rest of the world. We at AJWS think that the Jewish faith requires that people respond to the other and the stranger. Jewish sages say 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.

We work in a particular way, helping grassroots groups work on their own agendas. We believe in providing these groups with a great degree of self-determination about how they want to pull themselves out of poverty. This is a principle that is not often respected by governments and institutions, which operate in a very top-down style.

From the point of view of rooting our work in Judaism, we often refer to the 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 giving a voice to those who are to be helped, letting them set the agenda for their work.

As we do our work around the world we tell the people that the help 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. We do not proselytize, but we create greater understanding across the globe about who Jews are, what we believe and what we do.

We find very often 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. Christians are rather curious to discover that we share the Old Testament. Most of what is pretty common knowledge to Americans is little known where we work, so we have many chances to educate, to teach as well as to learn.

What would be an example of one of the more exciting projects you're supporting?

I don't want to sound Pollyannaish, 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 cutting 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.

How are projects chosen to be funded by AJWS?

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.

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 do is work in and with the communities, and when you are in close proximity like that myths and prejudices disappear, and people develop new and positive images of each other.

We fund Sakena Yacoobi, who heads the Afghan Learning Institute. They funded a network of secret girls' schools in Afghanistan during the Taliban era. We are still funding her to do work on women's education and day care. Early on in our partnership, she came to the States, and spoke with me at a fundraising 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 and here's why." 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." That was the end of that discussion.

An extended interview with Ruth Messinger is available here.

This interview is third in a series of conversations with activists working for development and peace who draw their inspiration and direction from their faith. The series is based on interviews led by Katherine Marshall, as part of policy explorations for the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the World Faiths Development Dialogue.