Ruth Messinger and Marilyn Sneiderman Are Odd Couple of Jewish Social Justice

Roommates as Well as Non-Profit Powerhouse Leaders

In the Field: American Jewish World Service chief Ruth Messinger traveled to Ethiopia in 2011;
Courtesy of AJWS
In the Field: American Jewish World Service chief Ruth Messinger traveled to Ethiopia in 2011;

By Sarah Seltzer

Published November 05, 2013.
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Messinger remains in that role even as her home functions as Sneiderman’s part-time pied-à-terre. She is visibly eager to talk up Sneiderman’s accomplishments as the first director to take the helm after Avodah’s founder, Rabbi David Rosenn, stepped down. “Avodah has grown its budget 50 percent over past three years — that’s pretty exciting!” Messinger tells me, emphasizing how hard it is to steer a nonprofit in the first years after its founder departs.

Sneiderman commutes up from her home in Washington, D.C. and stays in the city from Monday night to Thursday, splitting her weekdays between the D.C. and New York offices of Avodah. This arrangement enables her to put down some roots on the Upper West Side while also staying firmly anchored in the D.C. community she considers her own.

She says she feels “so blessed” to have the best of both worlds. She can, for instance, host her fabled Yom Kippur break-fast meal at her home in D.C.’s Shepherd Park neighborhood, a festive potluck attended by Jews, progressives and neighbors alike. But she can also discover New York’s surprisingly intimate side: She is amazed by how often she bumps into friends while walking down Amsterdam Avenue, and how readily people on the subway offer her directions when she needs them.

This year, both Messinger and Sneiderman’s organizations are embarking on ambitious new projects. Avodah is launching an early-career fellowship that will offer skill-building, mentorship and leadership development opportunities for young people already working in anti-poverty efforts. Meanwhile, AJWS is preparing a campaign to combat gender- and sexual orientation-based violence around the globe, focusing its work on the many countries where being gay, or engaging in gay activity, carry criminal penalties and social stigma.

Both leaders say that they have found that the passage into new frontiers at work is eased when they can come home and talk shop. But as tempting as it is to picture them settling down together for hours of Seinfeld reruns over a platter of bagels and discussion of ending oppression everywhere, their time together typically entails snatches of collaboration and idea sharing late at night after they’ve both been working for hours.

“We’re not the kind of people who ever have a coherent schedule,” jokes Messinger. “But it’s useful to share ideas and advice. The burnout rate in this line of work is high so we talk about how do you sustain people, support them, nourish them, keep them involved?”


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