When President Bush publicly thanked hundreds of government workers and international charity leaders for their tsunami relief efforts Monday, he singled out Ruth Messinger, a life-long liberal Democrat from New York and president of the American Jewish World Service.
Addressing an audience at the U.S. Agency for International Development headquarters near the White House, Bush announced that the American relief effort is “beginning to help rebuild lives and help people get back on their feet” — citing information provided to him by Messinger at an earlier, smaller meeting with the heads of 19 top relief agencies.
“I think Ruth mentioned the fact that her agency has now provided a fishing boat,” Bush announced, using only Messinger’s first name.
The comment might have left some in the audience wondering whom he was talking about. But in the weeks since the tsunami devastated several countries in South Asia, Messinger and her organization have become household names in the Jewish philanthropic world.
Messinger’s turn in the presidential spotlight was an apt symbol of AJWS’s sudden rise to prominence in the wake of the Indian Ocean disaster. An international development and emergency relief organization with a liberal Jewish spin, the group is gaining wide publicity, featured prominently on many media lists advising the public where to make tsunami relief donations.
The organization has raised $6 million since the December 26 catastrophe — almost as much as the combined $6.4 million raised by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the vast network of Jewish welfare federations that support it. Messinger, a former New York City politician who tried unsuccessfully in 1997 to unseat Rudolph Giuliani as the Big Apple’s mayor, was the only Jewish organizational leader in the room Monday when the president met with the heads of 19 nongovernmental organizations.
Coincidentally, Messinger’s White House visit came the same day as a policy initiative that put her group into the middle of an international debate over economic relations between rich and poor nations. AJWS released a letter Monday with Jubilee USA Network, co-signed by some 40 religious groups, calling on the administration to press other wealthy nations for a moratorium on the international debt of tsunami-stricken nations. Third World debt relief, a cause favored by liberals and pushed by some European governments, has assumed new urgency since the tsunami and is now favored by Washington for the stricken region, though on a more limited basis than Messinger’s group advocated.
The debt initiative had been in the works before Messinger’s White House invitation, and the timing was a coincidence, but the combination of insider savvy and liberal brashness is typical of Messinger and her organization.
The ascent of AJWS, founded two decades ago, represents a rare case of an organization founded by liberal activists outside the Jewish federated system successfully competing with the communal establishment for influence and fund-raising dollars. “I think its fits into the larger long term trend of younger people turning away from establishment Jewish institutions and organizations” toward newer Jewish organizations, said Gerald Bubis, professor emeritus of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Bubis was quick to credit JDC, the 90-year-old international relief agency funded by the federations and charged primarily, though not exclusively, with aiding disadvantaged and endangered Jews around the world. But, he added, Messinger is “doing a magnificent job in publicizing [AJWS] on National Public Radio and reaching out to nonstandard Jewish venues.”
The assistant executive vice president of JDC, Will Recant, acknowledged that “some people feel they don’t want to give through the establishment organizations and the federation world.” But, he said, JDC and AJWS have been working closely together for the last decade, each with a different focus. “We look to partner with local Jewish community groups,” while AJWS partners with local NGOs, Recant said.
For her part, Messinger seems bent on having her organization assume an equal place alongside the Jewish communal establishment. In a letter to the Forward (see Page 8), she questioned the characterization last week of her organization by the newspaper’s editorial page as an “upstart,” and encouraged federations to raise relief funds and to “partner with American Jewish World Service, which has the connections and the groups on the ground.”
Messinger said her agency, whose motto is “pursuing global justice through grass-roots change,” is no overnight sensation. The sudden recognition, she said, is a reflection of years of hard work on a number of vital global issues that have failed to capture the same level of world attention and financial support as the tsunami crisis. For example, she noted, her organization took the lead last year in rallying Jewish organizations to fight genocide in Sudan.
The organization says it promotes social change in the developing world by empowering individuals and communities to advocate for their basic human rights and to improve the quality of life for themselves and their families. It supports 200 grass-roots organizational partners in more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas, Russia and Ukraine through grant making, technical assistance, professional volunteer placements, emergency relief and advocacy, and it “engages American Jews as global citizens, working for the betterment of humanity and responding to the Jewish mandate to help heal the world.”
“I think the board and staff of AJWS have been working really hard during the last several years to do good work, to build connections overseas and do outreach in the Jewish community,” Messinger told the Forward shortly after her meeting with Bush on Monday. “This gave us all a chance to see that hard work like that pays off.”
Messinger also cited the high rating for her organization has been given by such charitable ratings organizations as the American Institute of Philanthropy, and Charity Navigators.
Messinger became the organization’s chief executive in 1998, and under her leadership the agency has grown significantly. The overall budget has quadrupled since 1997, from $2.5 million to more than $10 million, not including emergency relief funds, spokeswoman Ronni Strongin said. Distribution of grants has tripled from $2 million to $6 million during the same period, Strongin said. In addition to the $6 million in tsunami aid the group has already counted, “we still have bags of mail that haven’t been sorted through,” she said.
Messinger said she was surprised to learn about the White House invitation, which came late last Friday afternoon. She said the White House seemed to want to acknowledge groups that already had ongoing projects in the region before the tsunami hit. For several years, AJWS has partnered with 24 nongovernmental community-based organizations in South Asia on sustainable community development projects.
To date, the Asian tsunami has claimed 160,000 lives and left millions homeless. AJWS is focusing on providing direct material relief to the poorest families, supplying food, water storage containers, cooking supplies, blankets, temporary shelters, bedding, and school supplies. It has also begun long-term development, rehabilitation and reconstruction support.
Messinger said that Usaid administrator Andrew S. Natsios ran the private meeting and called on various charity officials to tell Bush what they were doing.
“The president was very serious,” she said. “He said everyone needs to understand that it’s not just about relief, but reconstruction. He stressed he wants the money to be spent responsibly.”
When it was her turn to speak, Messinger told Bush that AJWS was funding 34 partners on the ground this week — mostly small groups focusing on reconstruction. “I told him two grants were going to help people buy new boats and fishing nets” — to help the area’s devastated fishing industry, she said.
“He said, ‘I love that,’” Messinger recalled.
Bush told the private group that an intended consequence of the American tsunami relief effort is “breaking down some rifts between Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
To help that along, Bush suggested to Messinger that her organization place its name on the side of the donated fishing boats, so the recipients, likely to be Muslims, will know where the help came from.
“It’s a good idea, he’s right,” Messinger said, and although the organization often makes sure people know the aid came from a Jewish group — “We have all kinds of anecdotal evidence that it builds relationships and understanding” — she could not say whether that would be done in this case.
After the immediate needs are met, Messinger said, the group will continue to support longtime partners in the region and acquire new ones to provide rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance, including trauma counseling for children and surviving parents and family members. “We’re there for the long haul,” she said.
On Tuesday, AJWS joined with 34 Jewish organizations to activate the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, a coordinating umbrella group. A subcommittee called the Jewish Coalition for Asia Tsunami Relief was formed to share information and to avoid duplication. About $500,000 was granted to the coalition, $250,000 each from JDC and AJWS.