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Ruth W. Messinger

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Ruth Messinger has made the Hebrew phrase, “Tikkun Olam”, repairing the world, the active force of her personal and professional life.

Messinger is, perhaps, best known in New York for the twelve years she spent on the City Council followed by her tenure as Manhattan Borough President from 1990 to 1997. She was a strong advocate for children, public education, campaign finance reform, gay rights, community policing, neighborhoods and small businesses. Today, as Director of the American Jewish World Service, she has extended her “tikkun olam” from metropolitan New York to the rest of the world.

A third generation New Yorker, Ms. Messinger grew up on the Upper West Side, went to the Brearley School, graduated from Radcliffe College and received a master's degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma. She began her social service at the age of 14 when she decided to work at the Settlement House Camp, instead of just putting some of her allowance in the “pushke” (charity box). She insists that her mother, Marjorie Wyler, was the first pioneer in the family. After receiving her B.A. and her M.A. in philosophy at Bryn Mawr College, her mother worked for fifty years at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where she created the Department of Public Information and became the executive director of “The Eternal Light” on radio and television. However, family service began with her grandfather who became the first executive director of Jewish Federation in 1915.

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) was founded by Larry Phillips in 1986. It offers financial support, advocacy and volunteer service to small, developing communities all over the world. Currently, AJWS supports 35 projects in Russia and the Ukraine, assisting Jewish communities reviving their Judaism, teaching the heritage to children so they, in turn, can teach their parents. In countries like Peru, India, Viet Nam, Cambodia, South Africa and Nicaraugua, 140 projects for social change are active, providing humanitarian aid, technical assistance and skilled volunteers to hundreds of tiny grassroots communities in projects involving health, education, agriculture, economic development, human rights and civil society. Messinger created the Women's Empowerment Fund to assist the scores of women who founded and run many of these community projects.

Messinger believes that hands-on experience as a volunteer is the best way to expand one's own horizons. So, aside from financial support and advocacy, she encourages both adults and college students to offer their skills in foreign countries to people who need them most. Many retirees have recounted their satisfying experiences using their years of professionalism to assist developing villages. Messinger developed summer and spring-break programs for college students where they travel to countries they would not ordinarily visit to work in construction, build water lines, and repair housing.

Daily discussion groups address “What is Jewish about what we're doing?” Volunteers who come from varied Jewish backgrounds, secular, orthodox, atheist, return to the United States with a renewed sense of being Jewish. Messinger reminds them of the part of the seder service which urges one to remember the stranger, because you were also once a stranger. Speaking of how much the world has changed, how one's “circle” is now global, she says, ”Your circle ought to include the people who picked the beans for your coffee.”

Seventy-five percent of the worlds AIDS cases exist in sub-Saharan Africa. The AJWS has 53 groups in 21 countries dealing with AIDS, providing advocacy, direct care, HIV education for teens, and programs for the thousands of orphans the disease has produced. It has also supported secret schools for Afghani girls when their education was prohibited by the Taliban.

Ruth Messinger's mother said, “We become more secure of our place in the scheme of things as we mend the world.” It is obvious that this message runs through the veins of her daughter.

Appearances on CUNY TV

Eldridge & Co.

Jewish Women in America

One to One

The Urban Agenda

Women to Women