May 2, 2008
Why Ruth Messinger is my American Idol
Ruth Messinger’s face is like a map of all the countries she’s visited. Visible in the lines of her skin, there are pangs of hunger, the violence of genocide, the ravages of poverty; but in her eyes - drip irrigation begins in a small Mexican village, an HIV-infected woman and her child receive medical care in Zambia, and in Gujarat, India, low-caste sewage workers’ rights are newly represented.
The list of deeds she’s inspired in the developing world runs long as a lifeline. Hers is the kind of work that is not only improving lives, but prolonging them.
As president of American Jewish World Service, a social change organization that provides grants to 350 grassroots programs in 38 developing countries worldwide, Messinger is a global harbinger of hope for millions of people struggling to survive. Under her leadership, AJWS promotes the Jewish value to pursue social justice and they recruit Jewish volunteers to travel to developing countries and help alleviate the poverty, hunger and disease most politicians only talk about.
For Messinger, talking was just the beginning. She spent 20 years working in public service in New York City as a groundbreaking female in politics: in 1997, she became the first woman in Manhattan history to win the Democratic mayoral nomination (and ran opposite Rudy Giuliani).
Though she lost the election, she shaped her experience into an instructive on the challenges women in politics face, and wrote the following for the Jewish Women’s Archive:
During the years that I held elected office, the percentage of women holding such positions across the U.S. went from about 4% to 20%. An impressive increase to be sure â” very important for the advance of women and, in my judgment, for the improvement of politics â” but also in some ways a painful one, given the hurdles that women in politics encounter. The public often has different expectations of women than of men. They are not sure that women should be working, particularly in a business they think of as dirty. Experienced political donors contribute less to women than to men and, if asked why, cannot justify this decision. Male colleagues are often people who really have never dealt with women as equals and are easily threatened by women expecting to be treated that way.
Instead of leveraging her political clout into a cozy Manhattan lifestyle, Messinger took her hard-hitting activism to the Sudan and confronted the atrocities of the genocide in Darfur. Upon her return, she awakened the American Jewish community and hammered awareness of the conflict into mainstream consciousness.
And, in the middle of doing all that, Messinger mothered 3 children, 8 grandchildren and celebrated the birth of a great-grandchild.
There are many ways to admire Messinger—as an agent of social change, an accomplished woman, and as a Jewish example of how religion can motivate goodness in the world.
But I admire her most for being fearless. In an age when the global conflicts we face seem so huge, so insurmountable, Messinger marches on unfazed. To say that she is changing the world is an understatement; she is actually saving it.