April 21, 2005
Two weeks ago, I walked in early for a dinner meeting at Sprazzo, a small Italian restaurant on Westwood Boulevard. The owner was busy pushing several small tables together, re-draping white tablecloths and rearranging place settings so that, by the time the other guests arrived, we all sat down to one long banquet table, stretching from one side of the room to the other.
The guest of honor sat in the center.
Someone who has known Ruth Messinger for a long time told me that she is a passionate crusader, but starchy and humorless. I was envisioning a lengthy dinner with a lean, hungry version of Bella Abzug.
Messinger was a social worker who entered politics in the '70s, when she became disgusted with New York City's school system. She served as borough president of Manhattan, and, as the flag-carrier of the city's liberal West Side, ran against Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani in his 1997 bid for re-election. He creamed her.
Messinger wasn't left enough for some -- she barely beat Al Sharpton in the primary -- and too left, or left-seeming, for others. The unions deserted her, she got just 27 percent of the Jewish vote, and in the heavily Democratic city she lost by 17 points.
Messinger looked around for a place to make a difference, and found it in a small organization called American Jewish World Service (AJWS).
AJWS collects and distributes money to combat hunger and disease and for disaster-relief efforts and long-term development aid. It sends Jewish professionals to three continents to lend expertise to development NGOs, and runs a popular Alternative Break program in partnership with Hillel. The program sends college students to work on grass-roots development projects abroad while learning about the connections between social justice, service and Judaism.
AJWS is an upstart among Jewish organizations, yet under Messinger's inspired leadership it has been attracting press, money and volunteers.
A lot of AJWS's money and energy is coming from younger Jews. Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar congregation, a former AJWS intern, was among those at the dinner, and Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) Director Daniel Sokatch organized it. After our dinner, Messinger spoke to young Jewish professionals brought together by the PJA.
The message of AJWS resonates among this putatively elusive, disinterested species. College-age Jews flock to join its Alternative Break program, Gen X Jews make their first donations to its coffers. When Messinger took over, the annual budget was $2.5 million. Now it's $11 million.
That jump proves what should be clear to anyone familiar with the litany of polls and surveys decrying the sad state of Jewish life: The majority of Jews are not unaffiliated; they're un-fulfilliated.
Standard synagogue services don't speak to their souls, standard Jewish organizations don't spark their imaginations and standard Jewish concerns over anti-Semitism and Israel don't engage their intellects. The last National Jewish Population Survey showed an affiliation rate of around 30 percent. Don't believe it. That's the fulfilliation rate. I just haven't met many young Jews who don't want to be moved by their heritage or inspired by their faith. What they say is that religious services bore the stuffing out of them; synagogues can be cold; organized Jewish life expensive and elitist, and Jewish political expression ossified.
But along comes a Messinger -- and thankfully she has her counterparts in the synagogue and organizational world -- who offers the unfulfilled something important, with a twist: It's shot through with Jewish values, study and connection. "It's important for the American Jewish college student to see how little it takes to make a difference in people's lives," she said. "The young people see this as a really Jewish thing to do."
At Sprazzo, it turned out that Messinger's good dinner company, too. She drank a couple of glasses of Pinot Grigio, laughed at all the right moments, and spoke of AJWS's mission with passion, without starchiness.
The problems of the developing world, she said, are "silent tsunamis." The deaths of thousands from hunger, violence and preventable diseases rarely make the headlines, but demand our response just the same. "Some 300,000 people will die in Sudan in the next three months. This is Rwanda in slow motion," she said, speaking of the crisis in Darfur.
AJWS has helped put Darfur on the international agenda. When aid money and volunteers flow into troubled regions from AJWS, she pointed out, these Jews become the positive "stereotype of what all Jews are."
AJWS speaks to the imperative of individual and collective responsibility that is at the heart of the Passover narrative, and it became easy for me to imagine the banquet table at Sprazzo as a kind of pre-seder table. There was talk of repression, of plagues and finally of the hope for deliverance, which, we are taught every spring, is in our very own hands.
"If you take seriously the idea that you were once slaves," Messinger said, "then you help."