Calling A Generation To Service
Staff Writer
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Ruth Messinger, a former member of the New York City Council and former Manhattan borough president, has served as president of American Jewish World Service for a decade. A social worker by training and a leading activist against the genocide in Darfur, she has traveled around the world on behalf of AJWS and related social causes. Under her guidance, AJWS, which had been a low-profile organization, has raised its public image in the Jewish community, increasing both the size of its staff and budget. AJWS, 23 years old, cemented its identity in the United States, for its immediate and effective work in Southeast Asia, notably Thailand, after the destructive tsunami of 2004. Earlier this month, Messinger sat down with The Jewish Week to discuss how Jewish activism has changed over the years, and where it is headed. Jewish Week: When you think of hands-on, Jewish activism in this country, what usually come to your mind is civil rights, freedom riders, voter registration. That was a while ago. What’s the state of Jewish activism now, what turns people on, and how has it changed over the years? RM: It has both changed and stayed the same. There’s always a high level of Jewish activism, because it’s the way many Jews were raised; it’s because they realize they have to put their values into practice. A certain amount of Jewish activism and a certain amount of Jewish philanthropy goes to non-Jewish issues and causes. In the ‘60s you saw Jews very visibly in these movements — the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement — larger than their percentage of the ‘general population. It was distressing for many Jews in my generation, the 60s activist generation, when that participation seemed to founder. There were some generations [after that] when there wasn’t some general activism; a lot of people seemed to get to college, go through college, come out with a career plan in mind, and they acted as if they didn’t know there were problems in the world, Jewish and non-Jewish. No time for “those political issues.” Now there’s been a significant resurgence. The resurgence is both Jews being involved Jewishly, and it’s Jews responding to all these opportunities to do service with a Jewish organization in a non-Jewish community. Why now? What has changed? The broader community went into a funk, the “Me Generation”. There was not a huge cause that was captivating people. During all that time Jews showed up in higher percentages as voters, as progressive voters. I’ll bet that Jews consistently since the 1960s have been a higher percentage of Peace Corps volunteers than their percentage in the population. Now there’s been a general American change, people starting to think about other people, more activism on campuses. We saw interest in service growing when I came here in 1998. Another factor in this decade was 9/11. Within four months after 9/11 people were starting to call here – Jews – and ask about our volunteer programs and express some interest in what’s happening in the rest of the world. Now Jewish service has become a beacon attracting more and more people and more and more interest. Major Jewish funders and major Jewish organizations are seeing this as something that motivates young people and motivates them to put their Judaism into practice. I talk to donors about the core of our work — we believe that today’s victims of poverty are also made in the image of God, and that it’s a Jewish mandate to work with “the Other.” You’re appealing to Generation X, Generation Y,  people who don’t necessarily have the same Jewish background and Jewish memories the Baby Boomers did. How do you appeal to them? We’re not lacking for volunteers. Sixty percent of the people who come into our programs — it’s a wild guess — have absorbed some of that [activist feeling] from their families. They’re the children of Baby Boomers — they know they’re supposed to go out and do something in the world. There’s another percentage — let’s say it’s 40 percent — who aren’t coming to an AJWS service program because they want to put their Judaism into practice. They’re coming here because they like the idea of spending a Spring Break working in Mexico with a bunch of like-minded other people.  They come here because they are dying to go to Africa for the summer. And they come to us because the fact that “Jewish” is in the name of the organization makes them imagine, correctly, that their parents are more willing to pay. We know that those people will get a new sense of Jewish history, Jewish values, a Jewish way to live in the world, from being part of a Jewish group with Jewish teachers and serious Jewish education going on. People on campus tell me that if there are five signs in the Student Union [building] about ways you can spend your Spring Break and ways you can spend your summer, and they are all either secular- or Christian-faith based, there’s a certain cohort of students whose enthusiasm will be sparked. What we do is not only spark their enthusiasm, but we do it in a Jewish context. People come back saying, “This is a Jewish thing to do.” AJWS made its name after Thailand. What about Thailand or Darfur is such a drawing card for so many young Jews? The tsunami was on people’s television screens, it was on the front page of newspapers for 21 days. There was a huge response in the Jewish community. Many people responded to the tsunami because of Thailand, because huge numbers of Americans, including American Jews, have visited Thailand. It sparked a lot of interest. My own private biblical theory — every religion has a water story. Religious mythology is full of  “the wave came, the floods came, people were drowned, only the ark rescued people.” The Darfur genocide is a totally different story. The fact that the U.S. government called this a genocide 16 months after it started was dramatic. This is the first time that anything has been identified as a genocide while it was happening. The Holocaust was not, Rwanda was not. For the Jewish community, it was galvanizing ... a huge and impressive response from long-time, comparatively more-mainstream Jewish organizations. As the Darfur genocide has become more visible in the Jewish community, it has dramatically re-engaged the [Holocaust] survivors’ population. They couldn’t be clearer. Exactly why did this catch on on campuses? Darfur is more of an issue on campuses than anything else in the last four years, including the war in Iraq. Some students did [the initial activism], and students have a huge capacity to respond to a student-led effort. Who’s better and faster at making use of new technology? Me or a bunch of 25-year-olds? The students have really mobilized this movement. What is Jewish activism going to look like in the next generation? These [activist] movements are very serious and growing. They will beget each other. This is a trend that will continue and grow, barring some world disasters that will turn all of America inward and isolationist or that leaves the Jewish community to feel it simply has no energy for broader problems.

Last Update:

12/22/2009 - 09:27

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