Ruth Messinger’s professional life has been guided by Jewish values, public service, and ethics that command compassion for the oppressed.
As president of the American Jewish World Service since 1998, she has sought social justice in some of the most poverty-stricken countries of the world, come to the aid of those stricken by disaster, and been a global voice for the rights and empowerment of women.
“Social justice is integral to us as Jews,” said Messinger, the 2015 honoree at the annual Myrtle Wreath Awards Luncheon of Southern New Jersey Hadassah, held Oct. 25 at the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe.
She told the 325 women present that “we as Jews have a moral mission” to advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves.
“I think we do our work Jewishly in that we approach the other, not as the other but as a fellow human being,” said Messinger. “We are all made in the image of God.”
In introducing Messinger, region president Sherryl Kaufman said the honoree’s efforts —to serve as “a compassionate voice for the oppressed” and “empowering and enriching the lives of women and girls” — align with Hadassah’s own tagline: “the power of women who do.”
Messinger agreed. “You at Hadassah, you do the Lord’s work,” she said. “You put our Jewish values forward to protect the health of those in peril in Israel, a country that needs our help, and you stand up for women and girls.”
Messinger said her organization operates in 19 countries in the developing world. AJWS partners with local groups, offering support, training, and financial assistance to enable women to “become agents of change.”
Messinger cited the example of Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman who is founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa. Gbowee’s organization brought Muslim and Christian women together and played a pivotal role in ending the country’s 14-year civil war. Her efforts also paved the way for the election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first woman head of state. Gbowee was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
AJWS backs up its humanitarian work with advocacy in Washington to ensure internationally “the United States government stands more firmly for human rights.”
Messinger, a great-grandmother who formerly served on the New York City Council and as Manhattan Borough president, recently announced that she will step down as president of AJWS as of July 2016.
She currently is on the State Department’s religion and foreign policy working group and on the World Bank’s moral imperative working group. She serves on the boards of National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Hazon, and United to End Genocide, among others.
Messinger noted that a side benefit to AJWS’s work is creating “an image of Jews in places where they have never met a Jew that Jews are committed to social justice.”
She said she is deeply troubled by the crisis of the refugees from Syria and other conflicts, and the muted response of some countries, including the United States, to their plight.
She said she believes the overwhelming majority of Syrians are not terrorists, but rather desperate people fleeing for their lives. Similarly, she spoke of the Rohingya ethnic Muslim minority in Myanmar, or Burma, who are being brutalized by the Buddhist majority and forced into internment camps. Many are desperately fleeing by boat only to find a “hostile” welcome elsewhere.
As Jews, Messinger said, that scenario “should sound familiar.”
Messinger urged those with grandchildren to speak to them about where their own parents or grandparents came from, why they sought refuge in the United States, and how America allowed their families to thrive and become successful.
She added: “Remind them that most would not have been allowed into this country under today’s immigration laws.”