Major studies like one from the Pew Centre last year suggest that fewer Jewish people are participating in Jewish-specific activities. This would seem like a difficulty for groups like American Jewish World Service, a humanitarian and emergency relief agency with a global mission but a distinctly Jewish vision.
On the contrary, according to Ruth Messinger, the agency’s president and chief executive officer, who will speak at the first annual Limmud Vancouver event Feb. 9.
Messinger said that the same studies indicate that Jews recognize it as a Jewish trait to pursue justice and to lead an ethical life. “What we want them to do is have a Jewish portal through which to do their work,” she said in a telephone interview from New York. Identifying “Jewish ways” of doing something, she said, can mean simply “that they can get some text basis for what they’re doing, they can do it as Jews in Jewish organizations.
“We like the fact that we can attract them to take their idealism and their energies and put them into a Jewish box and do the work with a Jewish organization. We think it strengthens their Judaism as well as their motivations towards the world,” she said.
While the projects AJWS takes on change realities of life for people in Africa, Central America and elsewhere, they can also influence opinions about Jews and Judaism.
“Much of the work that we do is in areas where there are very few Jews,” said Messinger. “Some of it takes place in areas where there are no Jews – and some of it takes place in areas where people have never heard about Jews, although I know that American Jews find that really hard to believe.”
Every place AJWS works, Messinger said, people become acquainted with Jews as people who respect their dignity, who are committed to social justice and to advancing human rights. “I can’t imagine a better way for the American Jewish community to be seen in this fairly troubled and divided 21st century,” she said.
Messinger recounted a story in which a farmer in Ghana told an AJWS volunteer – an American Jewish college student ending her stint in that country – that he had decided over the summer that he was a Jew. “And the college student, I’m happy to say, had the wisdom to say, ‘Oh, that’s absolutely wonderful, but can you tell me what you mean by that?’ The man said, ‘Yes, like you, I am somebody who wants to leave the world better than I found it.’”
AJWS does both grant-making to small, locally based groups around the world, as well as advocacy that aims to shape U.S. policy toward the developing world. But Messinger is emphatic that the visions of change come from the local community.
Messinger said government agencies and some large international foundations tend to sit in Washington, New York or Geneva and formulate answers to the lack of clean water in Central America or the lack of girls’ education in India.
“We are quite different,” she explained. “We help our grassroots organizations by letting them set the agenda of how they are going to do the work to change attitudes toward child marriage or to improve crop yields.… It is a Jewish value – again, it may exist in other faiths – but it is a Jewish value to believe that everyone is equally made in God’s image. If you actually believe that, then you should stop imagining that the solutions to the water problems in Kenya are going to come from world water experts. Some of them are going to come from the 450,000 Kenyans who depend on the water level in the lake being high enough for them to farm and herd and fish. So, for us, the notion of listening to the people on the ground actually comes from a value basis.”
How does an organization like AJWS operate in places where oppression of women, LGBT people or others is antithetical to the values of equality and human rights the organization champions?
“We do, of course, choose who we’re going to fund and we’re not going to fund,” she said. But finding groups that share AJWS’s vision is increasingly easy.
“There are women all over the world who are trying to figure out how to change their status, how to become more independent, how to be able to protect their daughter’s right to stay in school,” she said. “There are LGBT groups risking huge dangers in their communities to form an organization and to try to get some recognition. We find those groups – it’s not hard is what I’m trying to tell you – that are themselves challenging an entrenched cultural norm that doesn’t make sense to them and that doesn’t work in their experience. The people who want a different vision for their lives are already trying to make change in their own community.”
The benefits for local organizations partnering with AJWS are not only the funding and volunteer support they receive.
“Some of our organizations – on issues of violence against women and hate crimes against LGBT populations – some of our organizations find themselves often in significant danger,” she said. “We’re there when they get into trouble.… But I need to convey that these are people who would do this work anyway.”
Before heading AJWS, Messinger was a leading political figure in New York City, becoming the first woman nominated for mayor by the Democratic party. She is one of the more prominent presenters at the first-ever Limmud event in Vancouver. Limmud, the Hebrew word for learning, is a global phenomenon taking place in dozens of locations worldwide. The Vancouver event, which sold out in advance, features more than 40 separate presentations (three were featured in last week’s Jewish Independent), including such diverse topics as whether God has gender; reactions in the Talmud to the destruction of the Temple; and whether Dinah, Jacob’s only recorded daughter, should be considered the fifth matriarch. Participants will also have the opportunity to sing along in Yiddish, discuss and smell the 26 natural ingredients mentioned in the Torah, hear the tapestry of Jewish prayer with African melodies and the rhythms of Uganda’s Abayudaya Jews, and more. Full details at limmudvancouver.ca.
Pat Johnson is a Vancouver writer and principal in PRsuasiveMedia.com.