Ruth Messinger was one of New York City’s most prominent politicians in the 1980s and 1990s before she took the helm of a respected but low-profile nonprofit focused on international development: the American Jewish World Service.
After 17 years, Messinger is giving up the presidency of AJWS, which grew into a major player in the fight against global poverty under her leadership. In 2015, the group gave out nearly $40 million for projects in 19 nations.
Robert Bank, the executive vice president of AJWS, will succeed Messinger, 75, in July. Bank, 56, began his professional life as a concert pianist, became a lawyer for the city and then chief operating officer of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, one of the most prominent groups fighting against HIV/AIDS.
RNS asked Messinger and Bank to talk about their Jewishness, the mission of the AJWS and the American presidential election. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You two have worked together for seven years at AJWS, but didn’t you cross paths well before that?
A: Bank: As a lawyer, I litigated against some of the most troubling actors in the city — people who were evicting elderly women from apartments, not complying with building codes, destroying landmarked buildings. Ruth was the Manhattan borough president and these are areas that Ruth is very passionate about. And on a very personal level, I was moved by Ruth’s progressive attitude. In 1986, New York City still discriminated against gays and lesbians in employment, housing and public accommodations. Ruth cast the tie-breaking vote on the City Council that made New York City one of the leading proponents of LGBT rights in the 1980s.
Q: How did you both leap to serving people in lands about as far as you can get from New York City?
Bank: It’s interesting that we were both in New York City, and that we moved from the local to the global. But the grass-roots work in New York that we were a part of — fighting for adequate housing, health care and against discrimination — is very much like the work of groups we are currently funding at AJWS.
Messinger: All our work, locally and abroad, is really about learning to listen to “the other.” And I’ve written about this in terms of Judaism’s central Shema prayer, which calls on us to listen. AJWS prides itself on being different from some other very good international human rights and development organizations because we don’t send in the troops. That may be not the right metaphor. But the entire orientation of our program staff is to say: “How can we help you? What’s your vision of social change?” It seems to be so egregiously missing from public debate in the U.S. now.
Q: You’re talking about the vitriol of the current presidential campaign. What’s a good Jewish response?
Bank: Coming from South Africa, I grew up as a privileged white person. But I was a also a gay man living in an environment in which there was no way that I could tell anyone about that. Many, many decades later, I am looking at this country that I came to, this democracy, and it’s really shocking. What we’re hearing today is the marginalization of people because of their religion, their ethnic background.
What Jews should be doing now is what we do at the AJWS, which is to draw on our values. As Jews, we proudly stand with those who are most vulnerable and most oppressed in the developing world. We come together in the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, the responsibility to help repair the world, and of “tzedakah” (Hebrew for “justice”). We need to apply the lessons we have learned from our own history and the Holocaust. We should bring those values to this election and ask ourselves: Is there a candidate who stands for equality, dignity and justice for all?
Q: What about your own Jewishness? How did it bring you to the American Jewish World Service?
Messinger: I was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. From the very beginning, it was always a social justice Judaism: Give something back.That led me into a decade of 1960s activism. During that decade my mother worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary, so I got exposed to these ideas through her. But I also got to meet Rabbi (Abraham) Joshua Heschel. For me, it was personally profound when I was already active in the civil rights movement to have a prominent rabbi join with Dr. King and say, on the march to Selma, that he was “praying with his legs.”
Coming to AJWS after 20 years in New York City government resonated with my notion of being Jewish. I had thought that Judaism informed my values and politics. I had occasionally said that and not gotten much of a response. But then, with AJWS I got to work with even more diverse populations. But I could do it as a Jew, and talk about how Jews were working in these different countries on these human rights issues because we believe in them.
Messinger: And now for 50 years I’ve been a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue.
Bank: I was born in Cape Town and grew up among people who were a second generation of Eastern European immigrants who had either fled the Holocaust or the pogroms. My grandparents spoke Russian, Yiddish and Afrikaans and my grandfather opened a general store in District Six, which was one of the more diverse places even during apartheid. He was a Talmudic scholar, a devoutly observant Jew who didn’t work in the shop on Saturdays. I was sent by my parents to Jewish day school.
Very early, I was exposed to anti-apartheid activists. A close cousin was imprisoned and tried with Nelson Mandela. And what was interesting to me as a child was that both the prosecutors and the defendants’ lawyers were Jewish. On the one side we’ve got this Jewish person standing up for the rights of blacks in South Africa, and on the other side we’ve got a Jewish person who is defending the state. It was quite a complicated Jewish journey. It taught me early on that my Jewish values were those of the Jews representing Nelson Mandela.
Q: Is it a secondary goal of the AJWS to reduce anti-Semitism across the globe?
Bank: Yes, we’ve actually had great success in this regard. It can be shocking to hear the anti-Semitism taught to people. But we can also teach people about Jews as they teach us about themselves.
I was once in Thailand with a group of farmers who were trying to protect their forests from being destroyed by the government and a multinational corporation. An elder, who had brought 25 children to meet us, told us he had only heard bad things about Jews, and that he was surprised that we were trying to help. We told him what we believed and why we wanted to help. He seemed satisfied with our answers. Later, he told us that he had seen the film “Life Is Beautiful” and that he was going to make sure the children see it too, so they know what the Jews have suffered.
Messinger: Several years ago the AJWS sent a student to Northern Uganda and a farmer asked him if he was from this Jewish group. The student said he was, and the farmer told him that he was also Jewish. Our student asked him why he called himself Jewish. The farmer said it was because he wanted to leave the world a better place than when he found it.
Q: What is Robert Bank going to do differently once he’s in charge?
Bank: We are going to continue to work together, because Ruth is going to be here part time. I hope to build on two things. It’s important that more American Jews know about the incredible work of AJWS so we can be more impactful. The second goal is to increase that impact. Repairing the world is not something that happens overnight.
Q: Ms. Messinger, you plan to devote part of your semiretirement to photography. What do you want to take pictures of?
Messinger: When I come back from a trip abroad, our communications department always tells me that my photos are beautiful, but they would really prefer to see our grantee organization at work, or a photo with our donors. The complaint is that my pictures are of people. As a photographer, I am really interested in what you can learn about a person’s soul. I’m thinking about doing some of that photography in New York City.
Q: Mr. Bank, you were a concert pianist. Do you ever get to perform?
Bank: I don’t get a chance to either practice or perform, but I do get a chance to play. One of the great things about piano is you can do it by yourself. The piano is like a whole orchestra. It has melody and harmony. What I thought I wanted to do when I was very young was to be a conductor. You’re not the one who makes the sounds, but who encourages others to make the sound. I’ve been thinking about that recently as I’ve been moving into this position.