Anachnu: Ruth Messenger

Editor’s note:  Anachnu, which means “we” in Hebrew,  is a new column by San Diego Jewish World editor and publisher Donald H. Harrison, in which he will tell about the Jews he meets–those who are famous, and those who are not. All of them have interesting and worthwhile stories.

By Donald H. Harrison

The farther away the event, the less it impacts us!

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Ruth Messenger

Ruth Messenger

SAN DIEGO – Ruth Messenger, who is completing her tenure as the chief executive officer of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), discussed her agency’s priorities over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Congregation Beth Israel, where she was a Shabbaton speaker.  She also met with the Leichtag Foundation in Encinitas as well as with some local LGBT groups.  I had the opportunity to interview her in La Jolla on Friday, Jan. 15, about four major AJWS priorities in the 19 countries where it works, and also about her memories of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Before becoming CEO of AJWS, Messenger had served as Manhattan Borough President and was the Democratic candidate who opposed the Republican incumbent Rudy Giuliani for reelection as New York City’s mayor.  Had Messenger won that election, she rather than Giuliani would have been mayor of New York City on September 11, 2001 when two terrorist-commandeered commercial jet aircraft smashed into the World Trade Center buildings, killing the passengers aboard the planes and thousands of occupants of those buildings as well as first-responders who were there when the twin towers collapsed.

Although Messenger differed with Giuliani on many issues – including what she described as the need for greater support of public education and for foster care – the Democrat said that Giuliani responded “beautifully” to the crisis caused by the terrorist attack. “He stepped up to the plate,” she said, providing reassurance and becoming a rallying point for American unity in a way that neither then President George W. Bush nor then-New York Gov. George Pataki seemed able to do.

She said when Giuliani first took office, he reorganized the New York City Police Department making it more responsive to crime, but failed to apply the lessons learned in the criminal justice realm to other areas of mayoral responsibility, such as the need to improve both K-12 education in New York City as well as higher education.

Messenger recalled that she was attending a breakfast meeting on 9-11 when she received a phone call from her former executive assistant for the Manhattan Borough.  The assistant told her that a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center. “Like everyone, the assumption was that it was a small private plane that didn’t know what the hell it was doing,” Messenger related.  “It was a totally blue sky day and one wondered how could a plane make that mistake. And then I remembered what happened next, which was before the second building was struck: I met someone on the street on my way to work (at AJWS) who said ‘a plane just blew up at the Pentagon.’  I remember saying to her: ‘Wait a minute, let’s not go telling stories!’ and she said, ‘No, no, my son works for CBS News.’  So I was in a state of panic, and by the time I got to work the second building had been hit.”

The AJWS offices were located at 36th Street and 5th Avenue, “so you look out the window and there’s the Empire State Building, so I said ‘okay, let’s close it down,’ so I sent everybody home.  I took one member of my staff and walked uptown to the closest hospital that I knew on the assumption—which was the assumption of everyone in medical care – that there would be all these injured people coming.  I knew about emergency procedures in Manhattan: they fill the hospitals closest to the scene and then farther north, and I was at a hospital at 60th Street, so I thought we would get a crowd eventually.  Well, of course, there were no injuries (only fatalities), so mostly what I did at the hospital was help the administrator organize all the volunteers who came on their own and had nothing to do.”

Messenger said as a result of her activity she probably was less traumatized by the event than were those people who returned to their homes and turned on their televisions. “Literally people who saw this happen every five minutes on their televisions screens were basket cases for weeks,” she recalled. “There were 24 hours when they showed those pictures on television over and over again.” Putting in time as a volunteer meant she didn’t see those repeating horrific images. “The biggest trauma for me, actually, was that I knew some people who were there –a handful of people who were killed, but I didn’t know them that well.  The only person I knew well was Mychal Judge, (a priest who was) the Fire Department chaplain, who was the first casualty brought out of the building.  I still have his picture on the wall by my desk and that was really horrible.”

Messenger said she has the impression that “9-11 had an impact on people that was literally less and less the farther you were from where it happened.  The people who lived down there –even for those who weren’t down there that day—for them it was like post-traumatic stress.  If you lived just a little farther away, it was a little less.”


The greater distance one is from a horrendous event, the less impact it has on one personally.  This is one of the frustrations and challenges for American Jewish World Service, which works to ameliorate human misery in 19 poor countries.  One job of AJWS is to encourage people in the United States to take an interest and to care about people in countries that are geographically or socially far away.

“The United Nations divides the world in thirds – rich, middle and poor – and while we work only in 19 countries, they are all in the poorest third,” Messenger told me.  Seven countries are in the Western Hemisphere: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti.    Another seven are in sub-Saharan Africa: Senegal, Liberia, Ivory Cost, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of The Congo, and The Sudan.  Five countries are in Asia: India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia.

Within these countries, she said, AJWS works to aid and empower people who are most marginalized, typically falling within such categories as 1) girls and women; 2) religious and ethnic minorities; 3) lesbians, gays, transgender and transsexual individuals, and 4) people living in rural areas or of lower caste. Rather than sending American staff members to these countries, Messenger said, AJWS seeks out indigenous groups, already organized, grappling with issues of inequality and discrimination and then funds them.  While most of the time this funding is publicized, in some instances the groups would be endangered if it were known that their benefactors either were Americans or Jews.  In such cases, she said, financial aid is transmitted quietly and without publicity.

Our conversation ranged over the different types of groups and issues with which AJWS grapples.

Girls and Women – “A big piece of work we do right now, thanks to a very large grant from a donor, is to work on early and childhood marriage in India,” Messenger told me.  “We are not going into four states in India and telling them ‘observe the law’ because the law says no one can be married before 18, but no one listens to that.  Instead we are asking ‘where are the people on the ground?  Who are organizing?’  And it turns out that they are right there and they are doing things.  There is an organization in one particular community that is reaching out to young women to say ‘you don’t need to get married.’  It is run by a young woman who was married off by her family and abused by her husband, and she just fought back, and got her parents to allow her to get a divorce and live with the shame of it.  Anyway, she wants social change.  We would love to be increasingly known over time not just as people doing important justice work in their communities but who also are helping them make broader change.”

Messenger said when a girl can be married off against her will, it fosters the idea of females as being property rather than human beings as deserving as men of equal protection under the law.  One result: “The number of horrendous rape and assaults has been pretty terrifying.”

Religious and ethnic minorities – Currently in the Dominican Republic, there are between 400,000 to 500,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent, “for whom the D.R. over the last several years has adopted a policy and had a court decision that allows them to throw these people out, send them back to Haiti.  Only they have never lived in Haiti, and they don’t speak Creole. Their grandparents lived in Haiti,” Messenger told me.

“This is an issue that neither the United States nor the United Nations is yet doing enough about and it is an issue of statelessness.” Messenger added that “statelessness” is an issue for which members of the Jewish community have great empathy, so many of our people throughout history having been expelled from one country or another with no place willing to accept them.

There is a similar situation in Burma, she said, where “a fundamentalist Buddhist government is pushing Muslims out to sea. So, we are working with the Muslim community in Burma.”

LGBT – “We do a lot of work with this (Obama) administration on LGBT issues because there are 77 countries in the world where loving someone of the same sex is punishable by imprisonment and five countries where it is punishable by death,” Messenger said.

“We got very involved with grassroots groups in these issues in about 14 of the countries where we work, including Uganda, which has been in the spotlight with its anti-homosexuality bill.  We worked very hard a year ago with other organizations to secure the appointment by (Secretary of State) John Kerry of the first-ever social ambassador for LGBT issues.  They chose a diplomat who had a lot of experience and is himsef gay {Randy Berry} and is now traveling all over the world.  His efforts are different than ours, he is not going to grassroots organizations, he is going to governments and telling them that this issue is of concern to the United States.  It is a very complicated role to avoid backlash.”

Rural and lower caste – “We have contacts to organizations who are representing particularly marginalized people, marginalized because they are rural, or of a lower caste, or because they are a sexual minority. Those people it turns out, sadly over and over again, don’t get help.  The (U.S. AID) money goes to their government, which is true in Nepal, and they deliberately don’t get help. I set some people on the ground a week after the earthquake and they met earthquake-teams, people who have more expertise than we have, sent, for example, by the government of Japan, and they told my staff people that the government had told them the only problems were in Katmandu. That was a lie; there were huge problems in surrounding rural areas, but for whatever reasons the government of Nepal only wanted help in Katmandu.  So finding the people who aren’t helped by the system has always been a piece of what we have done, and I think that we have been smart.  There have been some big disasters in the last 18 years that we haven’t responded to, because we feared that we couldn’t bring any kind of value added.  But in general our niche is to find groups making social change themselves.”

In Liberia, Messenger said, “We worked on post-civil war issues, rebuilding the country, land tenure and land rights, and were probably funding 8 to 10 grassroots organizations when the ebola virus started to spread. So of course immediately world attention focused, with U.S. teams coming in, and building treatment centers, with no idea where the virus was, or where it would spread.”

The Marines constructing the health centers were in protective gear—moon suits—and indigenous people regarded them with fear.  Who were they and what were they really doing?  What western interventionists did not immediately understand, Messenger said, was that some of the death rituals of the Liberians were contributing to the spread of ebola.  “They have their own version of washing the body, and in what is a cross between a shiva and a wake, the body sits on a porch and the local people come and pay their respects, and they literally touch the bodies, like the Torah.  For reasons that no scientist has yet explained to me, ebola is the only virus that is more contagious in the 24 hours after death than when a person dies.”

“Imagine that you are organizing a shiva and people show up in protective gear and tell you that you are not able to do that,” Messenger continued. What we did was to contact all the groups that we were funding and said, “We don’t actually do this, but we are assuming that you can’t do the land rights organizing that we are supporting you to do at this point. So are you a group that would like to get some basic public health training which we could organize and be helpful in your home community?  Most of our groups said yes. So they were going door to door saying ‘the virus is real, the virus is not brought by these men in moon suits, who are actually helpful, but meanwhile here is what you have to do.  Here is bleach, here is water…’  We believe, and the White House believes, I am happy to say, that we contributed significantly to  this.  That is the biggest thing that I have learned in this job: you have to listen.”

In addition to the grassroots and community organizations it supports in 19 countries currently (it has worked in other countries in the past) AJWS maintains a staff of five people in Washington who either alone or in coalition with other organizations works to influence the administration and Congress to help people in the greatest need around the world.

An example, Messenger told me, was the Farm Bill, in which AJWS worked to have a provision removed that would have required all food supplied by the U.S. government to disaster victims to be American grown and carried in American ships.

“Now the United States is authorized by law to spend up to 45 percent of its money after any disaster buying food locally, which is cheaper, food gets there faster, and it is an investment in local farmers,” said Messenger.

After 17 years with the organization, Messenger will be succeeded as CEO by Robert Bank, whom she previously had brought in as executive vice president.  Messenger will assume the title of global ambassador, in which she will continue the work of escorting visitors to the various countries within which AJWS works.  In fact, she was scheduled to fly from San Diego to the Dominican Republic with ten rabbis to familiarize them with her agency’s work there.

A system-wide program with rabbis, she said, is intended as a force multiplier.  The rabbis, selected from throughout the United States and representing the breadth of Jewish movements, will witness the needs in the countries they visit, and then from their pulpits, and in their communities, will spread the message of tikkun olam (repairing the world.)

Why does all this concern us as Jewish Americans?  “We were stateless, we were victims of a genocide, we are told to take care of the other and the stranger,” Messenger said.  “But increasingly this is a small world and if you don’t pay attention to these issues they are going to keep coming back to bite us.”
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]. Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)


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One Response to “Anachnu: Ruth Messenger”


  1. […] To read an SDJW interview with outgoing AJWS President Ruth Messenger, click on this link: […]

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