By Dave Schechter Ruth Messinger (photo by Jeff Zorbedian for AJWS)
“Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the biblical injunction found in Deuteronomy, is one tenet by which the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) operates.
Another is an interpretation of “Shema,” the first word of Judaism’s central prayer, that emphasizes listening to people in need rather than offering preconceived solutions to their problems.
“Our mission is to be an organization that is inspired by Jewish values, the Jewish application to pursue justice, to do what we can to realize human rights and end poverty for marginalized people in the developing world,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger told the Atlanta Jewish Times at the Carter Center on Feb. 9.
Messinger participated in a four-day meeting convened by former President Jimmy Carter, Beyond Violence: Women Leading for Peaceful Societies. The meeting focused on the rights of women in what have been known as developing nations but now are being called the Global South. The subjects included how to work across boundaries of culture and faith, particularly in nations where men hold positions of legal, religious and cultural authority.
Founded in 1985, AJWS funds more than 300 grassroots organizations in 19 countries in Asia, Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. The organization raises and spends $32 million on what Messinger calls its “core work,” compared with $2.8 million when she took the helm in 1998. Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities based on financial performance and accountability and transparency, gives AJWS a four-star rating.
At a time of heightened anti-Semitic activity in Europe and elsewhere, Messinger said the Jewish aspect of AJWS is almost never a problem “because we don’t work with governments. We don’t work with national religious leaders. We work in countries with people of all kinds of religious backgrounds.” Religion is not a factor in receiving support from AJWS.
The issues addressed by AJWS range from gender-based violence to land rights, from access to education to reproductive rights, from forced child marriage to rape as a weapon of war. AJWS does not advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights but supports groups that do so in their own countries, Messinger said.
Messinger pointed to the “ask, don’t tell” approach AJWS employs. “Part of what we think is our special niche — and we believe it’s Jewish — is we listen to people on the ground,” she said, explaining that it can be tempting for well-intentioned outsiders to tell locals how to solve their problems, but the greater value is assisting with indigenous solutions.
“I believe that as Jews … of every stripe, we are instructed by our faith to work for social justice. You can choose where you want to do that, but we’re told that’s an obligation to pursue justice. We’re told to work for the other and the stranger. And you’re reminded that you might not win, but you have to participate,” she said.
AJWS does not work on issues directly affecting Jews in the United States or Israel. The populations subjected to violence and rape or without access to clean water and sufficient food “are by and large not Jewish and by and large not in this country,” Messinger said. “So we argue that there should be a Jewish organization that is addressing these issues. We are seen by many people who may never have met a Jew who come to the conclusion that Jews are a people committed to social justice.”
Messinger came to AJWS after two decades in New York government, first as a councilwoman representing the upper west side of Manhattan and then as Manhattan borough president. She left politics after a losing mayoral bid in 1997 against incumbent Rudy Giuliani.
Her political savvy aids the dual strategy of AJWS: funding groups in other countries and involving faith communities, including numerous rabbis and congregations as well as non-Jews, to lobby for U.S. government policies that support those activities.
A current priority is Senate passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), which has been introduced in Congress each of the past five years. The act would require that the issue “be addressed by the United States in its broader geopolitical, diplomatic work,” Messinger said, and formalize a State Department Office of Women’s Issues, to be headed by an ambassadorial-level official.
Messinger has asked Carter to help persuade Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to co-sponsor IVAWA. The Atlanta Leadership Council of AJWS has met with Isakson to seek his support.
Critics contend that the measure would impose “politically correct” American standards on other nations and unfairly target men, to the exclusion of other social factors.
For those interested in seeing its work in person, AJWS offers study tours, including trips to Mexico this June and Cambodia next year. The AJWS Global Justice Fellowship is a program that involves rabbis (including several in Atlanta) and lay leaders in a more intensive commitment.
The Atlanta Leadership Council of AJWS was created about a year ago. Anyone interested can contact Enid Draluck at firstname.lastname@example.org.