American Jewish World Service, the 30-year-old nonprofit organization that supports human rights and anti-poverty activism in the developing world and educates the American Jewish community about global justice, recently announced that in July, Robert Bank, executive vice president, will succeed Ruth Messinger as president. Messinger has headed AJWS since 1998.
Bank, a native of South Africa, moved to New York to study piano at Juilliard. He went on to study law at the City University of New York Law School and worked for the New York City Law Department and Gay Men’s Health Crisis before joining AJWS in 2009.
We caught up with Bank by phone earlier this month.
Q: You lead a prominent Jewish organization that has “Jewish” in its title but a mission of Tikkun Olam to the wider, non-Jewish world. How do you reach a balance between Jewish and general values?
A: The mission of AJWS since 1985 has been to serve as proud Jews who stand as Jews to repair the world for those who are poorest and most oppressed. Everything we do at American Jewish World Service is deeply embedded in Jewish values. We draw from the lessons of Jewish history, from the tzelim elokim [being created in God’s image], the inherent dignity of every human being, tikkun olam [repairing the world] and tzedakah [charity]. We give American Jews the tremendous opportunity to support some of the poorest and most oppressed people in the world today. These are the strangers of today that our Jewish tradition teaches us about.
We have a seminal Jewish program called the Global Justice Fellowship, which connects American Jews to the work of our partners in the developing world by taking them to the developing world and teaching them together with rabbis.
The millennial generation, according to anecdotal and statistical evidence, is increasingly divorced from specifically religious — in our case, Jewish — values. They may see AJWS as “too Jewish.” How do you make the work of AJWS service attractive to them?
Young American Jews are enormously attracted to the global justice work that American Jewish World Service offers. We are at that intersection between global justice and Judaism; young American Jews that may not be that connected to Judaism find a home at AJWS.
How has your background, growing up in South Africa in the last years of apartheid and as an out-of-the-closet gay man, sensitized you to the work of AJWS?
Deeply. Both my experience of growing up in a racist regime, my experience of growing up in a Jewish minority in the diaspora, and my experience of being gay at a time when it was very difficult to be out of the closet and open about who I was has encouraged me to pursue justice for those who are discriminated against, persecuted and treated poorly.
The coverage of your appointment at AJWS hardly mentioned your gay identity. Have we reached a point — at least in parts of the Jewish community — that one’s gayness does not play a role in a candidate’s fitness for a leadership position, or in outsiders’ reactions to the appointment?
I am deeply proud of being an openly gay man who is serving in this role, as I’m deeply proud to be Jewish, South African, an immigrant, a lawyer and an activist. I feel very gratified that the Jewish community is more embracing of LGBT people and particularly gratified by the recent decision by the Reform movement to embrace people who are transgender.
You’re following an iconic figure, Ruth Messinger, who has largely defined what AJWS has become. How do you follow in the footsteps of such a person, carving out your own identity while keeping faithful to her vision?
Ruth is one of my heroes. She has been my mentor and my partner in the work. I have worked very, very closely with her in the past six and a half years, and we have together devised a strategy for the organization going forward.