You won’t find any photos of prominent politicians or major donors at Ruth Messinger’s office at the American Jewish World Service, which describes itself as “the first and only Jewish organization dedicated solely to ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world.” Rather, the AJWS president displays pictures from meetings with the poorest of the poor, often young girls, from around the world, and small handmade artifacts she has received on her travels as tokens of admiration.
Messinger, who turns 75 next week, has announced she will step down from her post in 2016. Her able and popular successor, current executive vice president Robert Bank, has already named her to a new position: AJWS global ambassador.
It’s a perfect title because, in addition to her overseeing the expanded work of the organization, Messinger has represented the values of the Jewish tradition to communities around the world during her nearly two decades as president. She has increased AJWS visibility, budget and staff while focusing on issues including genocide, female genital cutting, recovery from natural disasters, sustainable agriculture and equal rights for LGBT people. The application of Jewish values in a universal way seems particularly attractive to millennial Jews.
As part of its mandate, AJWS financially supports anti-poverty and human rights groups around the world, sends volunteers on educational and community-building trips, and teaches its volunteers the Jewish roots of their work.
“AJWS has been in the ‘Torah business’ for quite some time,” Messinger said in a 2009 Jewish Week interview. “Our mission … to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease … and to educate in the Jewish community about global responsibility … is deeply rooted in Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice.”
She has also noted that her earlier career in politics and community organizing “was influenced by my Judaism and the Jewish traditions with which I was raised.”
Her pre-AJWS career included stints as a teacher, social worker, member of New York’s City Council, and Manhattan borough president. In 1997, she lost the mayoral race to incumbent Rudy Giuliani.
Her loss was the Jewish community’s, and the wider world’s, gain.