Ruth Messinger is arguably best known for being president and CEO of American Jewish World Service between 1998 and 2016. But, as she told a large group of women attending the Fall Impact Forum of the Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta on Sept. 7, she landed at the international development agency simply because she needed a job.
It was 1997 and Messinger had just lost her campaign to remove incumbent Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York City.
In a Q&A with Lois Frank, Messinger amused, educated and encouraged her socially conscious audience to get even more involved.
“I was raised in the Conservative movement,” she noted as she sat in Congregation Or Hadash, which is associated with the movement. “But when I am asked what denomination I am in, I say, social justice. Occasionally this term is disparaged, but its work is of immense importance.”
She acknowledged that social activism doesn’t always lead to justice.
“There is a difference between service and advocacy. Too many organizations do service but are not moving the arc of the universe to justice,” said Messinger. She emphasized that helping individuals is one thing, but what is needed is systemic change.
“We have the power to change systems. Every woman in this room has significant power to create more justice in the world,” said Messinger. People can’t provide enough peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken soup for the world, for example, but they can solve food insecurity.
When asked by Frank where the world is currently positioned on the arc of justice, Messinger said she has seen immense changes over her lifetime, but the change is “much too slow.” Claiming that “we are losing America,” Messinger said we shouldn’t focus on voting rights, but rather on voting responsibility. She challenged her audience to think of three young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who they can follow up with, making sure they register and actually vote in the upcoming November elections.
“I have never missed an election in my life,” she said. But too many people have. She pointed out that the recent New York City primary saw only an eight percent turnout. Messinger, who served on the New York City Council from 1978 to 1989, representing the Upper West Side of Manhattan, argued that there is “a lot more work to do.”
The American Jewish World Service, Messinger said, is motivated by Jewish values, listing several areas the organization has worked in around the world. The group has focused on the poorest countries and the most marginalized populations, she said, and “many of our most important programs have been run by women. I am biased toward women and people who step out to make a difference.” Messinger also added that in non-Orthodox seminaries in the U.S. women constitute the majority of the students.
There is a difference between service and advocacy. Too many organizations do service but are not moving the arc of the universe to justice.
Frank addressed the fraught political divides in the U.S. and asked how people can “bring the vitriol down.”
“It’s really hard, but it’s critical,” said Messinger who placed some of the blame on social media, which “reinforces these tendencies.” She also complained that there are not many people in public life with moral courage.
While naming her mother as her earliest influence, Messinger identified two other heroes of hers, including leading Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Atlanta’s own, late Congressman John Lewis — a friend to many in her audience.
She concluded her remarks with several inspirational quotes.
“Despair is not a strategy,” which Messinger said is her own. Then she paraphrased a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt to the effect that “every day is a day you can do something that you think you cannot do.”
Her mantra, as she called it, however, comes from Rabbi Heschel. “In a free society, when terrible wrong exists, all are responsible.”
- Jan Jaben-Eilon
- Ruth Messinger
- American Jewish World Service
- Jewish Women’s Fund of Atlanta
- Fall Impact Forum
- Mayor Rudy Giuliani
- Lois Frank
- Congregation Or Hadash
- Voting Rights
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
- Congressman John Lewis
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- New York City