When Ruth Messinger talks about her work in fighting for social justice and human rights for people all over the world, she often knows what’s coming next.
“The question is — is that a Jewish problem?” said Messinger, executive director of the American Jewish World Service. “AJWS operates on the principle that the problems of marginalized people — violence, sexual assault, gender inequality, land threats, oppressive regimes — are in fact issues with which Jews need to be concerned, whether the victims of those problems are Jewish or not.”
Messinger raised those issues in Shabbat talks she gave in Princeton the weekend of Nov. 14-15 — Friday evening at Princeton University’s Center for Jewish Life/Hillel and Saturday morning at The Jewish Center.
Speaking to NJJN in advance of the talks, she described how the global mission of AJWS meshes with and enhances the particular mission of being Jewish.
“Because of our experience of oppression and persecution and because of our community trying to help improve the world or heal the world, the message many of us grew up with is that it is the job of Jews to pursue justice; more and more people in the Jewish community are thinking about how they can do that in all parts of the world.”
AJWS works in 19 countries, with more than 500 grassroots groups, in efforts that draw on Jewish values (AJWS distributes a weekly Torah commentary) and tap the energy of Jews who want to work beyond as well as within their own community.
As to why many Jews of today are more interested in the global community, Messinger contrasted the current environment with the one she grew up in. “Jews then were unlikely to know about some of the challenges for people in Asia or how to relate to the Ebola crisis in Africa,” she said. “Probably the horizons and perspectives of much of the American-Jewish community were focused on their own Jewish community, Israel, and the Middle East.”
But today, she continued, “if you are an average person reading a newspaper or watching CNN, you know what is going on in all kinds of far-flung places in the world.”
Messinger has found that younger people are attracted to AJWS’s work. “They are less likely to be large donors, but they are very engaged with us in our activism campaigns,” she said.
She described AJWS lobbying efforts to pass the International Violence against Women Act and to urge the Obama administration to appoint a special envoy for LGBT rights around the world.
In India, AJWS is conducting a campaign with local grassroots groups addressing the issue of early and child marriage.
AJWS also works on establishing land rights in Central America, Cambodia, India, and Haiti, where land is being appropriated by large corporations and farmers can’t grow enough food to eat; on natural resource rights; and on civil and political rights, helping people to build and rebuild democracies.
AJWS is also running a million-dollar campaign to respond to the Ebola crisis in Liberia. “The reason our work is particularly important,” said Messinger, “is that we are investing in grassroots community groups, training people to be door-to-door health workers so they can go about and give their neighbors information about how to recognize the virus and how to prevent transmission.”
The American-Jewish community is diverse, but AJWS’s reach is broad and can appeal to people with different priorities, said Messinger. She cited in particular children of Holocaust survivors who support AJWS. “Their take on the world is: ‘I’m here because people stepped forward to rescue my people; I should return the favor by taking note that there is ongoing genocide in Darfur and now there is a severe problem of ethnic cleansing in Burma.’”
In choosing how to “repair the world,” said Messinger, “you can think about different circles of obligation — to your own family, your own Jewish community, to your own Princeton community.”
“What we are saying is: What is your global obligation? Some may respond, ‘I have enough on my plate’; for other people, this is really exciting — it is a piece of what Judaism is all about.”
The Jewish Center’s Rabbi Adam Feldman had invited Messinger to speak. “We as Jews are obligated to take care of the other,” he told NJJN. “Sometimes that other is within our own community and sometimes it is across the world. AJWS is the Jewish response to poverty, hunger, human rights, and women’s rights all over the world.”