A new leader to take over AJWS global activities

After 17 fruitful years serving as president of American Jewish World Service, Ruth Messinger will step down later this year. But she’s not retiring.

As she noted, “I’m not the retiring type.”

On July 1, Messinger will hand the reins to current executive vice president Robert Bank. Messinger will then take on the role of global ambassador for the venerable Jewish social justice nonprofit.

Ruth Messinger and Robert Bank on an AJWS mission to Cambodia photo/christine han

“We’re making this move because it’s absolutely clear this is the right thing for AJWS,” Messinger told J., “and Robert, who brought strategic thinking, management and structure that was desperately needed, will take up the opportunities that come from leadership.”

The national agency will celebrate its 30th anniversary and salute Messinger’s years of service at a March 15 gala in San Francisco.

Founded in 1985, AJWS, whose headquarters are in New York, is dedicated to ending poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world. Over the years it has raised more than $230 million to support scores of social justice organizations in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. It has dived in to provide aid when disasters strike, such as killer earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal, or the 2006 tsunami in South Asia.

The agency also has a San Francisco office, headed by former San Francisco Hillel director Alon Shalev.

Messinger, 75, a former New York City elected official, became AJWS president in 1998. Over her tenure, she led many campaigns, including the effort to draw world attention to the genocide in Darfur through the Save Darfur Coalition. 

Other achievements include playing a key role in outlawing female genital mutilation in Senegal and child marriage in India, launching the Global Justice Fellowship, and preserving land and water rights for indigenous peoples around the world.

As for a personal highlight, Messenger points to AJWS helping the Zapotec indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, Mexico, stop a Canadian mining company from polluting and diverting their water.

She also cherishes her collaboration with Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian mother of four who led a people-powered movement to end Liberia’s civil war.

“She organized women to demand an end to the war,” Messinger said. “It deserved world notice. She wanted to raise money to train girls on peace negotiation, so we stepped up to fund that effort. Two years later she won the [2011] Nobel Peace Prize.”

Bank was at Messinger’s side for many of these milestones. The 56-year-old South African native says his affinity for the work of the agency stems in part from the fact that he, too, grew up in the developing world.

“In a very complex environment, there was a small Jewish minority in a country that was a dictatorship with fake democracy,” he said. “Understanding what it meant to be a white person that discriminated legally against 45 million people, and who were denied the right to vote, had a huge impact.”

Moving to New York in 1977, he studied music and piano at Juilliard before earning a law degree from the City University of New York Law School. He devoted his career to the nonprofit sector, advocating for human rights, and joined AJWS in 2009.

Bank made an immediate impact by narrowing the agency’s scope of operations from 30 to 19 countries, where AJWS today funds some 500 social justice organizations.

“We decided to stay out of a number of countries,” he said. “We felt moving from 30 to 19 was right-sizing. By having a deeper presence, we’d have more impact. This enables us to better evaluate our work, and to learn with our grantee partners.”

Bank recently returned from an AJWS mission to Cambodia, a country still suffering from the aftershocks of the Khmer Rouge genocide of 30 years ago. Another member of the group was actor Mandy Patinkin.

“Mandy is a great example of the kind of person we want to take into the developing world,” Bank says. “We want them to be those ambassadors not just for AJWS but for American Jews, who care about those most vulnerable.”

The Jewish element remains central to the organization’s mission and creed, according to the two leaders.

“It’s absolutely the case that every place we go, people learn about Jews for the first time,” Bank said. “I would say through our presence, people come to see Jews as a people committed to social justice.”

Said Messinger, “We make a good name for Jews.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.