April 21, 2009 | 6:57 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Ruth Messinger was telling me how 1.1 million people in Darfur are at
risk for cholera when Matt McConaughey interrupted her.
The actor didn’t really interrupt her: he just happened to be walking
by. She stopped talking, and I stopped listening. On screen he’s
handsome, in person he’s shockingly, otherworldly cool and handsome, like he
just drove a Tesla down from Mt. Olympus.
We were sitting last Friday in the atrium of the Luxe Hotel off Sunset
Blvd in Brentwood, discussing Messinger’s activities on behalf of
American Jewish World Service, the organization she heads to extend
the Jewish value of tikkun olam, healing the world, to some of
the most wounded places on earth.
But wasn’t that Jennifer Garner?
Just as Messinger was detailing how every single woman in the refugee
camps had been raped—“Rape has become an accepted form of warfare in
these kind of wars”—Jennifer Garner, who must be 6 feet tall, perfect
everything, in high heels and a tight black dress, sweeps by in the
pocket of a V-formation entourage.
Hillary Lee, the regional director of AJWS, picks up her cell phone.
“I am texting the New York office,” she says. “They won’t believe this.”
Messinger sits on some fashionable outdoor couch, watching the
parade. She’s dressed for shul as your favorite aunt would, a proper
black skirt, and blouse sensible shoes —she’ll be giving a talk later
that evening at Temple Emanuel. In Jewish and international aid
circles, Messinger, who was once also Borough President of Manhattan,
is famous, a visionary. Among the wattage that is amassing at the
Luxe, though, we’re barely extras. Messinger says she doesn’t know who
Jennifer Garner is, but still, who can keep talking when someone like
that walks by?
Lee prompts Messinger to tell me about her audience with Barack Obama.
It jars us back to the conversation— even among stars, the President
is still the Celebrity-in-Chief.
Two weeks ago, Messinger was one of six activists summoned to the
White House to meet with the President to discuss aid to Darfur. Also
present were 12 members of Congress, including Rep. Howard Berman
(D-CA), and General Scott Gration, the Administration’s
newly-selected point man on the humanitarian crisis enveloping Sudan
“He was incredibly informed and focused,” Messinger said of Obama. “He
clearly knew as much or more about the issue as anyone there, but he
was gracious about haring people out.”
Messinger told Obama about the fate of the women in the refugee camps.
“I told him every single woman in the camps had been raped,” she says,
“ and I suggested that General Scott would benefit from having a woman
travel in his delegation in order to hear their stories.”
Obama called Scott over and told him to make sure a woman was a
senior part of the delegation.
Messinger had taken her message o the highest level of power, and left
feeling she had been heard.
“The president said that any issue that has so much horror associated
with it, that has bipartisan support and five yars of grass roots
activism behind it is high on the agenda, no matter how many other
important things he’s facing,” Messinger tells me.
Just then, another one walks by. She has long blonde hair and a red
dress that may just have been painted on.
Messinger shakes her head. “I don’t recognize her either.”
(Later that afternoon, as I drive beneath the huge electronic billboard at Bundy and
Santa Monica, I’ll see that Woman in Red in the background of an ad
for the movie.)
I get up and walk further down the atrium to where a woman stands with
a clipboard. She tells me there’s a press junket for a new movie
starring Garner and McConaughey, “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.”
A ballroom is set up for the coming onslaught of print and broadcast
media. One hundred journalists will soon descend on these poor stars,
and rush to pump their every word around the world. I saunter past a
buffet of fruit and croissant sandwiches back to Messinger, who begins
to tell me about how her organization is faring in this economy.
“People by and large don’t know this world,” she says of the
impoverished and war-torn countries where AJWS works. “And newspapers
don’t cover this world.”
Well, no, because “The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” is opening.
Still, this summer AJWS will send 20 rabbinical students of all
denominations to Senegal to work on a development project in a
village there. Another 68 college students will participate in AJWS
programs in Ghana, Uganda, Honduras and Southeast Asia. The idea
of AJWS has clearly caught hold: to engage Jews in
mending the forgotten places in the world.
“We’re seeding the community,” she tells me. “We’re developing a
generation that asks, ‘So what can I do now?’”
At that point I am inspired. I want to get up, walk over to
McConaughey, and drag him over to Messinger. Get him involved. Shift a fraction of the
energy aimed at celebrities at some of of the world’s ugliest
problems, and people will pay attention. Just ask George Clooney, or
Bono. The Jewish genius that created the magic of Hollywood is part of
the same tradition that gave rise to Ruth Messingers of the world. I
don’t say one is better than the other; I’d say we’re blessed to have
both, and wise to figure out how one can help the other.
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