HIRO MIYAZAKI: Good afternoon, It is very nice to see you all. Welcome to the fourth public event of Faith, Hope, and Knowledge Initiative. I am Hiro Miyazaki, director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. I'm also a professor of anthropology here at Cornell. [INAUDIBLE] and I are leading this effort.
I'd just like to say a few words about this initiative. We launched this initiative at the beginning of last semester. And we have two goals in mind. One goal is to reaffirm and extend Cornell's really deep commitment to inclusiveness, openness, and social justice in order to combat all acts of exclusion, divisiveness, and injustice internationally as well as domestically. So as you can see from the first goal that this initiative is a direct response to the current situation surrounding us domestically and also internationally.
And the second goal is to really create a new space for administrators, faculty, staff, and students to explore together thoughtfully and safely the delicate relationship between academic and religious and spiritual pursuits in this environment of a secular university institution.
And our hope has been that in pursuing these goals, we'll be able to create conditions for us to be whole persons, which is kind of a difficult thing to do these days. We are all very busy and our life is compartmentalized into all kinds of boxes. Our goal is to create a space for us to become whole persons.
And we have organized three events this year. Our first one was a lecture by Father Anthoni Ucerler who is a Jesuit historian of a history of Jesuit activities in East Asia. And that was followed by a very well-attended lecture by Mr. Toyokazu Ihara, atomic bomb survivor from Nagasaki who is also deeply involved in Nagasaki's interfaith initiative related to the abolition of nuclear weapons. And most recently, earlier this semester, we hosted a roundtable discussion with zen priests from Japan, focusing on various social justice issues and environmental issues.
And today's event is sponsored by Einaudi Center and Cornell United Religious Work as well as Cornell Hillel and our Jewish studies program. And this whole initiative is also, I should note, sponsored by the Office of Vice Provost for International Affairs and particularly our former Vice Provost for International Affairs Laura Spitz generously supported this initiative from the outset. And I'd like to extend thanks to her for her special attention to this initiative and issues we've been addressing through this initiative.
So without further ado, I would like to invite Rabbi Ari Weiss to introduce today's distinguished speaker.
ARI WEISS: Thank you. A little more than 11 years ago, I was in a small town in El Salvador called Ciudad de Romero with 25 other rabbinic students experiencing the global south and the developing world for the first time. Over the course of 10 days, my group did service work, learned about issues in development, and studied Jewish texts related to poverty and social justice. But what really had an impact on me was that every night our group met with the same Salvadorean family to learn their stories, share our own, and really encounter them as individuals, as people. As [INAUDIBLE] said, we saw the face of the other.
This experience was pivotal in my decision to join a social justice organization after rabbinical school and changed the way that I live my life. The organization that organized this trip was American Jewish World Service, headed for many years by our speaker Ruth Messinger. I'm just one of thousands of people that benefited from Ruth's leadership in activism over the years.
She served on New York City's council and as Manhattan Borough president for close to 20 years before coming to AJWS. And at AJWS, she helped mobilize efforts to call out and end the genocide in Darfur and more recently to fight for women's equality and LGBTQ rights across the world.
The intersection of faith and activism is one that I think is deeply important to the Jewish community and all faith communities, now more than ever. It's my honor to introduce Ruth to share her thoughts on "What's Jewish about Social Justice?"
RUTH MESSINGER: Thank you. I think I'm mic'd, so you can hear me, right? And I don't bite, so if the people who feel like I'm on some trajectory wanted to move over here, that would be fine. I'll leave it to you.
Thank you very much, Rabbi Weiss. We, as you heard, go back a long way and he has been part of basically what we hope will happen when we take people to visit in the developing world. And that is to incorporate their lives and their experiences into the work that they go on to do. And in this case, to bring some of that to Hillel students at Cornell who attend Hillel.
Thank you very much, Professor Miyazaki for the introduction, but also for the work of the center. I've actually read about the center, about the global program, and I hope that some of you who are here working on various pieces of international, interfaith, social justice work will get ready with your questions, because this is always and inevitably best done as a dialogue.
Let me start, though, with first of all asking all of you-- this is not a test, but if you would jot down in your brain or on your computer or on a note in front of you for discussion later, the issue in the world right now-- March 27, 2018-- that you think you care the most about. And maybe one other note as to what it is you are doing about that issue. And we'll get back to that question much later.
So next, I want to do some disclaimers. I listened to who the past presenters have been, I see the shape of the program. So I always find myself being a fish half out of water. I'm not an academic, with great respect for academia and the ways of the academic institution and particularly this university. Nor am I an ordained faith leader. I am a person of faith. That is only a part of who I am, but I am a person of faith and an activist and an advocate for social change who has been involved in secular work for social change, faith-based work for social change, and interfaith work for social change. Which you might derive from that that I am something of a pragmatist. And I will try whatever it is that works with whomever else wants to work on it. That's somewhat true.
But I do come here today having done substantial work for social justice in New York City and having done substantial work for international human rights development and social justice overseas, during my time at American Jewish World Service. And I'm going to say a little bit more about each of those experiences. I'm going to tell you some of my own story.
And we'll get back to that later, but I was asked, or the title of this talk is, "What's Jewish about Social Justice?" And I want to just start by saying, from my point of view, the commandment to social justice is inherently a part of Judaism as I was raised in that faith and as I live that faith, but that does not mean, obviously, that it has some exclusive claim on work for social justice or on advocacy and activism. People in this audience and other people who have different faith backgrounds and who profess to have no faith background are also people who may be committed to and working for change.
But when I look for Jewish roots, I start with some pretty basic texts. The prophet Micah asks, what are we commanded to do? And the answer is pretty straightforward. It's to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. On Saturday at the gun responsibility protests in New York City, the buttons from the Jewish community played with that text. And they all said, do justice, love mercy, and march proudly. That wasn't a bad substitute.
And then the other text-- and some of you may be very familiar with these texts, some of you may not, but the other biblical text that has motivated me is three words in Hebrew, [SPEAKING HEBREW]. Which is translated as "justice, justice, you shall pursue."
So what does it mean? What is justice? It's the headline of your flier, it's a part of what your institute is committed to, but I'm not going to offer you a pat definition. I don't think there is a single pat definition of what justice is, but basically I'm talking about the ways in which, as individuals, as a society, as a country, as a world, we are directed to treat people equitably and to create situations that fully respect each person's dignity. And I'll come back to that notion of treating people with dignity and approaching people with humility several times during my presentation.
And when we talk about justice, we have to look also at the ways in which each of us, everyone in this auditorium, benefits in some ways from injustice-- some benefits from inequities, in policy, or law or practice that discriminate, that oppress, and that deny other people their basic human rights.
But first of all, why does it say justice twice? Some of the wise people in the Jewish tradition say that it says justice twice because justice must not only be the end goal, but it also must be the means by which the work is done. And again for me that's very, very important because we are, all of us-- me too-- too ready to do for others not with them, to try to make change in the world without engaging the people most involved. To fail to really make a connection and find out, what is on the mind of that other individual who is in some ways different from me? What is on the mind of that community in El Salvador? Or that family you heard Ari say, in some ways, the most powerful moment was going back to that family every night, because that's where you got a sense of the real live human story.
For those of you who end up being interested in some of what I'm talking about, you'll see in some of what I say and on the AJWS website, there are lots of short videos stories because it's what actually happens to an individual that is a piece of the story. But before I get to my story, please note that it not only says justice twice, but it doesn't say justice, justice is our goal. It doesn't even say justice, justice you shall create. But justice, justice you shall pursue.
And I want you to sort of sit with that word in your mind. It's a very fierce directive. It reminds us that we need to take action. That we need to do the work ourselves. That we can't just note down what's the issue that we're concerned about. The question is, what are we doing about it?
And the awareness, the use of the word pursue, is to stimulate the awareness that it's often not going to be easy. That we're going to find ourselves having to pause, having to strategize, having to regroup, having to organize with other people to figure out what is really going to change the way things are. What are the resources I'm going to need? And who are the resources that I'm going to need to make that change? And what's going to see me through the challenges that I know I'm going to face?
So that's the notion of justice as a goal out there in the distance, something you have to pursue, and something that's going to take time and work and resources.
I said something about stories. So there are in this room, since we're in a distinguished university, some people who know the work of the sociologist Marshall Ganz. And Marshall Ganz, who basically teaches organizing, suggests that the world can basically be divided up in the story of me, the story of us, and the story of now.
In other words, each of us has our own story-- how we are who we are, what are the resources that we drew from that make us who we are. And then, wherever we find ourselves, what is the story of us? What is it we can do together? And what is it we can do now? And as you said, professor, this is a time in which the now seems pretty pressing. And as if all of us need to figure out some of the answers to those questions.
So a very, very short story about me. Unlike some people who, as it were, set out a totally new path from their family of home or origin and become great at something for which they can hardly tell where it came from, I'm very much a product of my upbringing. I was raised in a Jewish family that basically taught the concepts that I'm speaking to today. The notion that our family had been in the United States for a couple of generations which was already unusual, but that we owed something to this country and that we owed something particularly to New York City.
My grandfather, for those of you who know the history of academia, my grandfather is a graduate of the College of the City of New York-- City College-- before the turn of the 19th century, our free public higher education when it was totally free. So the influences on me in some ways were Jewish, in some ways they were American, and in some ways, they were personal.
My family basically said, your job is to give charity, to do service, and to pursue justice. You can be whomever you want, you can do whatever you want, but you have an obligation. You have to do your part to help heal the world. And that is really what defined my set of endless career choices after that.
I'm a social worker by professional training. I'm a 1960s activist by inclination. There isn't a movement I didn't work in. And for those of you who would like a little piece of a Jewish story, I received a bat mitzvah, an entry into the covenant. In my synagogue, I was the first girl to be so honored. And in the way in which some divine being has it in for all of us, the portion that I had to read is from the prophet Amos that says, let justice roll down like the waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. So at least since I was 13, this seems to have all been shaped for me.
I also had an amazing experience with one of the great Jewish thinkers and activists of the 20th century, a man named Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He actually studied and taught at the place that my mother worked. So in addition to his formal teaching, I was sort of the beneficiary of take our daughters to work before anybody took their daughters to work. On any school holiday I was there with my mother. And he was the person who was asking me, what did I know? What I had learned?
So understand that these people have huge influences on you, that you have huge influences, or the opportunity to be a huge influence in someone else's life. In fact, I now have a colleague who I worked with also 20 years ago. And I'm very fond of her, but the thing she told me that I've never forgotten is that, every day of her life when she came home from school, her father said to her, what questions did you ask today? So there's a way you can start influencing the minds of any young person in your life.
So I mentioned Rabbi Heschel because at a much earlier point in the history of America, American Jewry, and certainly in the history of social change, he was somebody who put into practice the notion and the teaching that we have to take care of the other and the stranger, because we were once the other. He became, for those of you who don't know anything about him, he became a fighter for civil rights when he was asked by reporters why he was marching with Dr. King in Selma instead of being at home in the synagogue praying. He said to the reporters, I am praying. I'm praying with my feet.
What I actually want to say right now about both Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, because this is the 50th anniversary-- makes me clear how old I am. I'm actually from generation A. 50 years later, I think it's important for you to know that in 1968, both Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel, clearly influencing and talking to each other-- although I wasn't part of that discussion-- each came out against the Vietnam War.
And either you barely know what the Vietnam War was or you know that there were a lot of people who organized against it. What I want you to know, though, is that for each of those leaders, that was a hugely unpopular move. Dr. King was attacked by the African-American leaders of the civil rights community. Rabbi Heschel was attacked by the Jewish community. And in both instances, it was like, why are you messing with American foreign policy? You have some other things to do. We like what you're doing. What you're doing is less controversial than coming out against the war that the government is waging. Don't do it.
So I'm telling you that, because so much of our history, of our history on civil rights, of our history on social change-- quite frankly, I guess the best way to put it is, we're living in a certain number of fables. As if we've solved all these problems and as if they didn't trouble the waters when they were happening. And this is just a dramatic example of two people taking an extremely important stand that contributed to the time and the pressure on the United States to get out of the war. Was very unpopular and was for me, growing up during that time, I was already a young adult, but a dramatic example of moral courage.
OK so we'll fast forward my life very quickly. For reasons that we are certainly not going to go into, I ended up living outside of New York City for two years. I would love to tell you that it was a dramatic stint in the Peace Corps, but it wasn't. The Peace Corps was barely created at this moment. And for family reasons, I ended up living for two years in rural Western Oklahoma.
There might be someone in this audience from Oklahoma, but the odds are probably against it. Why do I tell you that story? Because for me, it was extremely important. I think this is probably true for everybody. It was extremely important to get entirely outside of the world that I had known. There is no similarity between rural Western Oklahoma and New York City that I can possibly come up with, except they're both in the same country-- I think.
I learned a tremendous amount living in a very different place with very different people. Living in a place with no Jews and some anti-Semitism, figuring out for myself who I was, what I cared about, and what I believed in. And that strengthened all of my commitments, but I'm telling you the Oklahoma story particularly because it was the place-- I would love to say that this happened earlier, in New York, but it certainly didn't. I knew people in New York City, as I was growing up, of other faiths. I was friendly with some of them, but our connection was not about interfaith connection-- what do people of faith have in common, regardless of their separate faiths?
So in Oklahoma, I had this totally amazing experience which went like this. I'll do it very fast. First of all, I graduated from the University of Oklahoma School of Social Work. And I got a call from the division of child welfare, which was located in Oklahoma City, where I had met a few people. And they said, we're offering you a job as director of Child Welfare Services for two counties in Western Oklahoma.
And I said, well, that's very nice. I have absolutely no idea what that means or what that entails. There's absolutely no reason why I should have such a job. Why are you offering it to me? And they said, because the Congress of the United States just passed the Child Welfare Reform Act of 1964 and if we don't have a social worker running our accountings, we don't get reimbursed. And you're the only social worker west of Oklahoma City. So that brought me down a little bit.
I ended up taking the job. And then I had, literally, as my first experience after I got a little bit of the lay of the land, I had to arrange a diner breakfast over coffee with three gentleman-- the county judge, the county attorney, and the county sheriff. Suffice it to say that they had coffee together every morning and planned the life of the county.
And when it came to children, they only identified two groups of children as being in trouble. One were children of Native Americans-- didn't have to have much other status than to have Native American parents and you were probably being abused and neglected. Obviously not the case, but they took many of these children away from their parents and they sent them to a local-- what we would all call some sort of combination of a group home and an orphanage-- where it was absolutely clear that the woman in charge got money from the state and gave them a kickback.
And the other was we lived-- I know this is funny to some of you, but we lived on route 66. And so the other group that interested these gentlemen were Native American teenagers who were hitchhiking, almost all of whom basically got picked up and thrown in jail for the night and sexually abused.
So there I was. They actually said, after I made my presentation, we know no woman in a position of power. We know nobody else from New York City, except you. We know no Jews. And you talk too fast. So I said, well, I could change one of those things.
But anyway, I said to them, you can't do what you're doing. It's against the law. And they said, well, fine, what are we going to do with these children? And I said, we're going to put them in foster homes. If they really need to be taken away from their parents or they really need to be kept over overnight, we're going to put them in foster homes.
And they said, we don't have any foster homes. And I said, don't worry, we will. As I told you, I wasn't ready to do this job.
So I took what all of you may know is like the basics-- it's 101 of community organizing. I put my baby son in a stroller and I walked the town, which I think was all of 9 blocks. And the only thing that I saw, once I got off the main street was that, on almost every block, there was a sign in somebody's front yard that said something like, the Church of the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in Something. And the titles were always 12 words long. They were clearly evangelical churches. And it would seem pretty clear that the church service was going to be held right in that person's house.
So I boldly rang the bells of some of these buildings and said, I'd like to talk to the pastor of this church. And the gentleman always said, that's me. And I said, I'm the child welfare worker and I'm looking for foster homes. And I explained what that was. And in every instance, the pastor said, please come by on Wednesday night or Saturday morning.
And in every instance, I only did this had to do this five times, I went to the service, and the pastor said, the new county child welfare director would like a few minutes of your time. And I stood up and explained what it took to be a foster parent. And you can imagine at least the first time that I did this with great trepidation. And when I finished, the pastor said, we are looking for two families to step forward and do the Lord's work in this way. It took me two weeks, and I had all the foster homes I needed.
And I had a whole different view of not only the interfaith connection that I happened to have made, but I think rather more particularly, the power in some faith communities in which a faith leader helps people understand how they might proceed to do the Lord's work. So by the way, the best book about interfaith workers called Interfaith Leadership. It's by Eboo Patel, who runs the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. And the story I just told you happens to be the first story in the book, but that's not why I'm pushing the book. It's a very good book.
So I did this work for several years. I went back to New York City. I did a variety of what we would now call community organizing work. I was so happy when Barack Obama became president, because then I could say that I used to be a community organizer. When I said that before, nobody had any idea what it was.
And at some point, I ran for a local office. And I don't need to tell you all of these stories, but in local government, I would say I discovered several things. One was that sexism was alive and well in government then as it still is. And that it was difficult, much more difficult, to be a woman in government, in elected office, even in New York City in the 1980s. And we now have more and more evidence that those divisions have continued.
Two was, I learned the power of listening. So I want to take that and go back to what I talked about earlier. You cannot do good organizing work, you cannot do good social change work, if you don't learn to listen to the other person. So if you will reflect for a minute on the last heated discussion you had with your partner, with a parent, with a child, with a colleague-- in which you had different points of view and you were having a healthy discussion with each other. I believe that I am right in saying that most of the time that the other person was talking, you were figuring out what you were going to say as soon as that person stopped for breath.
That actually is not listening. That is the way I was raised. That is, I was raised in a family that loved discussion and disputation. And whenever somebody stopped talking, somebody else started talking. And we enjoyed our differences. And they were relatively amicable, but we were not listening to each other. We were very pleased with what we had to say. And I would say, to some extent, showing off. That's very different from listening.
So I really learned to listen and to understand that, in several instances-- not lots, but in several instances, particularly on a city issue in which the population in question was a different class, a different race, a group with different problems, that my first assumptions as to what they needed or what their lives were like were totally wrong. And I could act on them and of course in a couple of instances, it might have been terribly damaging, but that's not really the focus here. It just would not have been really pertinent to the way in which I could most help to change their lives.
So I learned something about listening. And I learned something which I was just discussing with the people in the city planning department where we had an excellent meeting earlier, about faith leaders. So I took my experience from Oklahoma and I appealed to lots of faith leaders in the city.
And without getting too enmeshed in this, I want to say that, although things have gotten a little better since the 1980s, at that point, it was infinitely easier for me to connect with, make common cause with, do press conferences with, Christian faith leaders of a variety of denominations and a variety of races, than it was to find faith leaders in my own faith community who were willing to show up. Because they were challenging power. They were challenging power on behalf of people in the city who really needed their help, but who were not their congregants.
And so I would have these long discussions and they would tell me that they knew I was right. That we needed more affordable housing that there was something the matter with the way we were running our homeless shelters that we had a city in which there were endless numbers of badly segregated and deteriorating quality schools. But you could see in their heads, unfortunately, that at some point, it was like, OK, that's true but it doesn't really involve me and my congregants. And so I don't need to stick my neck out.
So that, I think, has probably influenced me. And as I say, this situation has gotten progressively better, but that is probably something that influenced me 20 years into my time in elected office when I lost an election and was looking for something else, to find it appealing to go to work in the Jewish community in an organization defined and influenced by Jewish values and Jewish obligation that worked with non-Jews to make a difference in their lives. That's the essence of what American Jewish World Service is.
So just a few words about American Jewish World Service. It is an international human rights organization. Does development work, it does relief work after world crises, but it is different than most of the international development organizations that you know, because it does not hire Western staff and send them to Ciudad Romero in El Salvador. Because it goes to Ciudad Romero and it goes to Sri Lanka and it goes to the mountains of Guatemala and it says, who here is working for social change? What are the issues that are most important to them? How could we help?
And by the way, how can we help? Can really mean a grant as small as $6,000 up to maybe $50,000. But what is it we can do that will not only help you directly address the most critical problems in your community as you see them, but will also help you become yourselves advocates for further social change?
So we support indigenous grassroots organizations and leaders, but we have a preference for supporting those whose work is based on a commitment to human rights and an interest in building social movements, taking issues to court, and making change.
And I'm happy to say that we have more groups and more wonderful stories than I could possibly share with you now. I may do some as I talk, but I thought I might do one that is highly interfaith because it speaks to the issues of the Einaudi Center and the global work that some of you are doing.
We were early funders of Leymah Gbowee. Some people may know who Leymah Gbowee is. She is the woman who stopped the civil war in Liberia. She stopped the civil war in Liberia-- this is not an exaggeration-- by appealing to Christian and Muslim women to work together in a country that's religiously pretty evenly divided. And saying, first of all, we have to work together because these men don't know how to work together on anything. And second of all, we have to figure out a way to make our issue sufficiently dramatic so they will pay attention.
So hopefully there are some classics scholars in the room, but basically in Liberia, they organized a sex strike. Just like Lysistrada, it's not an exaggeration. I've actually been in villages in Liberia where they would say, oh, we were so happy when they signed the peace agreement because then our wives would sleep with us again. So I think that was quite real.
But from my point of view, Leymah Gbowee was told after the civil war, after the agreement was negotiated, that she had done an amazing job. And she should go back to her family. And she said, no, I'm interested in teaching women and girls how to be peacemakers all over the world. And that's the work we've supported her to do.
She is now half time running an institute like some of the institutes here. An institute at Columbia called Women, Peace and Security. And she's making the connection that's not only the interfaith connection and the crossfaith connection, but she's making a connection between women doing social change work in inner cities in the United States and women doing social change work in countries around the world.
So I think one other story. And this is a story targeted to this notion that you can only make change if you really understand the situation in which people find themselves. This has to do with Ebola crisis from two years ago in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Liberia was the only one of those three countries where American Jewish World Service had a set of partners on the ground. Some of them we'd met through Leymah, but some of them we had met elsewhere.
And basically they were not doing community organizing for public health. They were doing community organizing over land rights-- who has title to the land? How do we help indigenous farmers get title to their land? But they were hit with this virus. And there was pretty good coverage of the virus, what was happening, in the states, but I think it's really almost impossible for any of us to imagine in which people literally dropped dead on their way to the hospital.
That is, they would throw up, the family would call a taxi. A taxi in rural communities in Africa is not exactly Ithaca, but four or five people would cram into this taxi to take, let's say, the father to the hospital. By the time they got to the hospital, the father was dead. And two of the five people in the car had begun to vomit. It's unbelievably contagious.
So here are two solutions to this problem. One was the United States government, totally well-meaning, commandeered 3,000 marines, put them in moon suits, because they didn't want to die. So they looked pretty weird. And told them to go to Liberia and build some open-air clinics and start treating people. And telling people how to avoid the spread of the virus.
And the marines did that. They never talked to anybody. They never asked people where they might put up the clinic. And although this may sound odd to all of you, it became a very fast rumor in Liberia that they were the ones spreading the virus, because they looked weird. They were white Westerners. People didn't know what was going on.
We understood from the groups we work with that not only did people need to know what was going on and to know how to prevent the spread of the virus. And not only, I think you can figure out where I'm going with this, did they need to hear that from their friends and neighbors and not the US marines, but what people had to tell people-- just imagine this in your own faith community. Sorry, all your burial practices must cease and desist. You can't touch the body after it dies. You can't have people come and pay homage to the body. You can't wash the body. Every single person who does that is going to die.
So just imagine, in a community in which there's not huge flow of trustworthy information, being told by outsiders to stop what you're doing. So we went to the groups we knew and asked them if they wanted a short course in public health. And if they would be willing to take these messages door to door, which they did, which was extremely effective. And the grant that I'm the proudest of in my 18 year history at American Jewish World Service is, we said, who will have the most influence on an average Liberian? Answers.
AUDIENCE: Someone has certain relationship to the people?
RUTH MESSINGER: Someone who has a relationship. Who has a power relationship with people?
AUDIENCE: A matriarch or patriarch.
RUTH MESSINGER: It could be either one. Actually, in this society, not particularly matriarchal. Who do people listen to?
AUDIENCE: Religious leaders.
RUTH MESSINGER: Yes, their religious leaders. So American Jewish World Service made a grant to the National Imam Council of Liberia. And we trained imams in the cause of the virus, the cause of the spread of the virus. And those were the people who were most influential in telling their parishioners what not to do. And that's just, for me, one example.
Now, I know some of you, I'm delighted to say and you'll talk to me about it in a few minutes, do global work-- but I want to say, that example comes right back home. When there's a hurricane in Houston, with all due respect, the message that some of you get-- which is, oh, thank God. It's time to clean my closet-- is wrong.
The question is, who's working on the ground in Houston? What do people need? Do I actually have a friend in Houston or in Puerto Rico? Can I find out what's working and what isn't? Can I figure out some ways, which we do quite well, but we do it globally, to kind of bypass the government and go directly to people and see what's on their mind?
So for me, that's yet another example of the power of listening. The shorthand way that we talk about it at American Jewish World Service is, nothing about us without us. So ask the people who are involved what will work.
But now I want to talk a little bit-- and then, I'm watching the clock, in about 8 minutes, I'm just going to throw this open to all of you-- is the power and the importance of advocacy. So I want to start really clearly by being heard to say that many faith organizations, including my own faith, many secular organizations, believe in the power of service.
It's a religious tenant. And it's practiced. And if you're a member of a faith community, there are days and weeks and places where you can show up to be of service to others. I'm not attacking that. Service is great. Service is obviously better if it follows the principle that I just spoke to. If you actually ask people how you can help them before you decide helping them.
One of the terrible things that the US has a history of doing-- side note-- is doing food drops in places where there is not enough food. And we drop, not surprisingly, because it's what we grow, wheat products in countries where people only eat corn products. And the fact that we drop them in areas that very often are still land mined, means that people are risking life and limb to go get something that's not what they eat. But forget that.
You know that the homeless shelter downtown needs people to come on Tuesday and Saturday evenings to serve soup. I made that up. I hope many of you go and do it and serve the soup. It's important for the people who are getting the soup. It's important for you to be doing something for somebody else. It's better if you talk to them, which many people don't do, but its service is valuable.
However, I think you all know where I'm coming from. Service doesn't change the way things are. So I referenced Dr. King before. I'm sort of on a passionate kick right now in my life for people to actually remember what Martin Luther King stood for, which is not what any of us were taught in school that he stood for. But the single best quote that sums up what I'm talking about is from Dr. King and it is, "True compassion means more than flinging a coin at a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."
So the question in this country, even before this current dystopia, is why are so many people hungry? Why are so many schools so bad? What is wrong with our system, both because some people profit too much from it and other people don't profit enough? And because in some cases it's intentional. School lines, residential lines-- there are all kinds of reasons.
You're not going to get to all of them. I do not wish to overwhelm you with this presentation. But for any piece of service you do that you feel strongly about, you should be identifying the related piece of advocacy. Because otherwise you are really saying, this situation is fine as long as I can feed these 22 people every Tuesday night and make them happy. I'm doing good work in the world. They're getting fed. That's my responsibility.
And I would suggest to you, whether you come at it secularly, from a fierce belief in human rights, from a faith base, or as a citizen of this democracy, that's not doing enough, because there are things that need to be changed. So we're living in a wise and beautiful example of this. I have no idea, maybe some of you can enlighten me, what enabled these students at Parkland to turn on a dime and to get immediately that the issue was advocacy.
That the issue was legislative change. That the issue was that if there was going to be legislative change, they didn't follow any of the principles of organizing, which would have taken them a year to get to that demonstration on Saturday. But they produced well over a million people around the country. With some knowledge of some laws that they wanted passed. With a lot of knowledge of the fact that cohort of people 18- to 25-year-olds do not show up at the polls. And started registering people and getting people to commit to vote.
If you didn't see Emma Gonzales's presentation, you should watch it. It might be the best moment of political theater that I have ever seen in my entire life. But that it is an example. We don't want to ruin our evening-- we've lived through so many of these shootings, it's impossible to imagine why there hasn't been that particular advocacy energy before. We can beat ourselves up about not having done it in response to shootings in communities of color. We can beat ourselves up about not having done it around Newtown, Connecticut, when the five-year-olds weren't going to do it.
But these kids at Parkland were like, OK, we are traumatized. And if you saw some of them speak, we are crying, literally, but we know that something needs to be done more than just making ourselves feel better. And they turned around and did it.
So I'm happy to entertain questions about this later, but when you wrote down an issue-- which you all did in your minds or on your tablets, before. Then, part of my question to you, and you can put it back to me is, how did you become an upstander on your issue? Not a bystander, not just a service provider, but a real social change agent who steps out, who shows some leadership, who organizes other people, and who takes risks. Which is, for me, the definition of exercising moral courage.
Heschel, who I talked about at some length before, said, in a free society where terrible wrongs exist, some are guilty but all are responsible. And so for me, that is a faith-based teaching. I didn't cause gun shows. I didn't cause the theft of land by mining companies in Oaxaca. I didn't cause 1,000 other issues that I've been privileged to work on. I certainly didn't cause the genocide-- I'm using this word now-- of the Rohingya in Burma. Everybody calls it a genocide now except the US government. I think we'll get there soon.
But I have a responsibility to ask my government why it's not doing more. Why, in this case, it's doing the wrong thing? And that's true for the state of the schools in New York City as well. I have a responsibility as a voter. Forget the fact that I used to be in government, just as a voter who's trying to make choices. To say, what are issues that I care about? What are issues that are operating in the society in which I live contrary to my values? And how in this particular arena do I do more? Not just through acts of charity, but by taking steps to pursue justice, to make a difference.
So for me, that's the essence of what my Judaism taught me. It is a faith which loves to wrestle with difficult questions. It's been doing that and writing down the disputes between the rabbis for several thousand years. I think that helps. It's not a single, prescribed canon of belief, but it's a living, breathing community of people who, in many cases, are called by their faith to do powerful social justice work. Of course, we don't all agree. And of course, for sure, sometimes when you wake up in the morning, the blanket should go over your head. It feels overwhelming. The Twitter universe makes that that much more so.
So what I would say to you is, I understand it. We all feel overwhelmed some of the time, but we don't have the luxury of simply retreating to being overwhelmed. Because we live in this country, because we are people of comparative privilege, because we are people with our own communal or secular or faith-based traditions, we have some power. We have some influence. And we need to figure out the ways to use it to make a difference.
So I have more I could say, but I'd actually like your questions. So I'm going to wrap up. I've tried to weave my story of self into this broader question of what my faith has to say about social justice, but I'm also interested in your doing your own stories of self. And not necessarily in this auditorium, but in the groups in which you live and work in Ithaca or elsewhere, you're looking at this sort of story of us and story of now. What can we be doing? What can we be doing in our mosque? What can we be doing in our class? What can we be doing where we live? And what can we be doing in our family?
For those of you who are Jewish, what are the issues we can raise next week at the Seder table that will probably irritate some people in our families because they're practical issues. And they're no longer about escaping from pharaoh, they're about actually helping people with their own pharaohs and their own oppressions today. But where are those places where we can step out and take a stand?
I'm only going to mention two. One, I've already mentioned, so I don't have to say anything more about it. And that is gun responsibility.
And the other one, which is such a powerful issue in my mind for the history of the Jewish community and for the history of some of the rest of us that I can't not mention it, and that's immigration. So we can trace our own history, but every single person in this auditorium, the only thing I know for sure, is that your family did not originate in America.
And my hope is that you actually know where your family originated. You know the stories of when your foremothers and forefathers came to America. And if you're really willing to do the investigative work, you know or you will find out how many of them came here in what we would today describe as undocumented fashion and made it here and chose to stay here. And that is a piece of why we owe something to this country. And to its desperate efforts to develop a democracy, but it is the one thing that we hold in common. And we don't live it often enough.
And right now, we're denying the right to come to this country. We're, first of all, denying the right to stay in this country to 800,000 dreamers who are here through no fault of their own. And are already contributing to our universities and to our economy. And we are denying the possibility of escaping to this country to people who are suffering today's version of the worst possible oppressions and disasters.
So those are among the issues on which we might work.
Let me just close with two other quotes from my tradition. One is the teaching of a book called [SPEAKING HEBREW], which means "the ethics of our fathers or our ancestors," which says, "We are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it." And the second is from Elie Wiesel, this was obviously always true, but in some ways I think it's true right now in the political universe in which we live. "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor and never the victim."
So I hope that on the issue you wrote down before, you will think about what side you want to take. You will be informed and strategic. You will help to build effective coalitions across the messy lines of race and class and faith and nationality and gender and sexual orientation. You will engage others in shared advocacy. And that what you do, most fundamentally, will be to pursue justice. Thank you.
Questions? In New York City, you have to say to people, a question is not a sentence in which your voice goes up at the end. It's actually a question, but of course in Ithaca, people are more polite, so go ahead.
AUDIENCE: Good afternoon and thank you. I'd like to put my question in a context. In the 1990s, after the Iran revolution and during the first Iraq war, the CRW leaders at that time, including myself as a Muslim, organized a conference on the concept of justice in the three monotheistic religions. We learned then that the three of them-- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have the same or similar concepts of justice. However, Muslims on the ground-- we have very, very strong and problematic problems internationally with regard to the relationship between these three religions.
One question is, would you reflect on how we can present social justice for strategize to overcome that? But let me put very clear example, because you talk about what's justice in Jewishness. And Jewishness, always for Jewish, brings the concept or the presence of Israel. And of course, when we talk about Israel, we are talking about Palestinian and their ethnicity and ethnic cleansing. So, would you please reflect of how we present a just solution to the issue? Thank you.
RUTH MESSINGER: OK, so I will respond to your questions. I won't answer the second one, first of all, because I'm not God. And I don't know what the solution is to the Mideast conflict, but also-- that was a joke, but also-- because for a variety of reasons, American Jewish World Service does not work in the Middle East, because it's an area in which there are many different Jewish organizations on many different sides of the dispute.
And our board chose 33 years ago to not work where there were lots of other Jewish organizations. So I would rather refer you to the Jewish organizations, the Palestinian organizations, the Christian and Muslim organizations that have a wide variety of views as to what the solutions are.
But on the first question, I think was really powerful. And the reason I waved this book around before was you describe something that I think is all too common and all of us are guilty of it. And that is, OK, there's a crisis. We think people of different backgrounds-- we know they all feel the same on that issue. So let's all get together and take and sign a document or do a shared press conference.
And the fact of the matter is that whatever the group-- a group of a different faith, a group of a different color, a group, as you say, with different views about the crises and the Middle East. We're not going to get together in five minutes and love each other and be able to speak with one voice to a member of congress or to a reporter.
So this is hard work. All the work I talked about is hard, but interfaith work is very hard. It requires building those bridges and those connections over periods of time. It requires sitting down, Jew and Muslim, and saying, let's talk about what our two faiths have in common. Actually a lot. What it's like for a Muslim in this country to suddenly have the travel ban go into effect. And what it's like for a Jew in this country to see Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville.
And unless we talk to each other, and I would say, and this is very much in this book, not just talk together but work together, we're not going to be able to come together in times of crisis to take a shared position. So take even the service description that I gave you. Yes, lots of people are needed to serve lots of soup to lots of people or to make sandwiches. Why aren't our faith institutions doing that across faith lines?
Why isn't a major synagogue in Ithaca calling a mosque in Ithaca and a church in Ithaca and saying, look, we all have teen groups. Let's get our teen groups together. I frankly don't care if they come together to play baseball. Or they come together and make sandwiches for the homeless, but the idea is probably to do something of service, but get them working together in ways in which they interact with each other. And encourage that-- it's not a one time event. And get so that at least some of them will say, this happens in schools all the time, oh my God, I heard that person being bullied. And I walked by.
And how do we raise our children? I mean, I'm taking this much more broadly, to understand that anybody being hurt, anybody being bullied, anybody who's just had the rug pulled out from under them by a law or practice or another person, needs us to be an upstander and to step in. And I think that's the same issue that is necessary on addressing the Middle East conflict.
Yes, in the back.
AUDIENCE: Chris, thank you so much. I've learned so much from you already. So I guess in my world, social justice seems to be on a spectrum, but to be on one hand, the traditional Jewish idea is that you have, first and foremost, obligation to your family and your immediate community and your Jewish community. And on the other hand, this sort of [INAUDIBLE] idea that you should do social justice where it will have the most impact. Saving a life in Africa's a lot cheaper than saving a life in America. So my question is, how do you approach that issue? And how does AJWS justify its international decisions?
RUTH MESSINGER: OK, so two answers to that great, great question. As Ari will tell you, we actually teach something, which he probably has someplace in a folder, called circles of obligation. In which we give you a picture with a lot of concentric circles. And we ask different people to fill it in. Most people don't fill in the inside. Most people put their family in a smallest circle. Which is actually not right. Actually, your smallest obligation is to yourself.
But then where do you put these other people? The Talmud thought that it had it all very clear. It gives some instructions. And it says, help your family before your non-family. Help the poor of your own city before the poor of another city. Help Jews before non-Jews. It sounds very clear. There are about four binary options, but when you look at them and think for three minutes, even at the time it was written, and certainly today, it doesn't answer any questions.
It's like, do you help Jews around the world before you help the people next door? I love your saying-- do you help where your dollar goes further? So part of my answer to this is, that's a choice that-- I'll talk about AJWS in a minute-- but that particular thing is a choice that everyone has to make for her or himself.
That's why I said, write down your issue, because maybe the issue most on your mind is a looming divorce in your family. Maybe your issue is that you actually know what's happening to the Rohingya, I hope, but maybe your issue is work you do in Ithaca.
Because social change takes a long time and involves thinking about all different kinds of strategic work, you have to pick the thing you're going to be most passionate about. If your friend gets you to come out, you can come out and do one bike ride for the environment, but if it's not your thing-- either the environment or the bike riding, you're not going to stop climate change. You're not even going to be part of that army of people trying to stop climate change. You might do much better to be thinking about changing gun laws.
So I was really asking you sort of as a joke, but think about the issue that matters the most to you. And start thinking about, what do I know about this? Do I know enough to go and be of service? Do I know enough to know where an advocacy hook is? And do I really feel that this is something I can devote a lot of energy to?
So I think people are going to make their own choices and I think that's good. And I think even in a community, if you're a congregation or a class doing some particular piece of work, you can't have 20 answers, but you can have three and divide up.
Now at AJWS, it's kind of different. Our founders were people who were already doing international development work. And they actually were working at Oxfam which is a very distinguished organization that has its roots in the British Anglican church. Ox for Oxford, fam for famine-- that's where it comes from. And they said, there should be a Jewish organization with Judaism in its name that does this work in the rest of the world and that interests Jews in doing this work.
So in a sense, they made the choice for us. So when I chose to take the job with AJWS, it was actually to leave behind my universe which at that point was defined by the Hudson River on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east. It's a little, pretty tiny, little area. And start learning about the rest of the world.
So we're pretty clear about where we work. And another answer to your question is our board said at the very beginning, we should target our work to countries that are in the-- the UN has a Human Development Index and it's divided in thirds. And our board said from the very beginning, we should target our work to countries that are in the bottom third. And Israel is a developed country by those standards, but all of the Middle East countries have resources in oil that take them out of the bottom third.
Other questions. Yes?
This is a very woke audience. The day before yesterday I spoke someplace where I could not get a single woman to raise her hand.
AUDIENCE: Thank you so much. You mentioned that a lot of the big organizations that are doing justice work abroad do not do this kind of relational finding the folks on the ground and empowering them to do what they want to do for themselves. And you also talked about how what you hope is that the groups that you work with-- not only do they help where they're at, but they then go and they teach others to do what they've done.
Has AJWS been engaged to teach other organizations how do you do what do so that more of them can be doing this kind of relational work?
RUTH MESSINGER: Good question-- I would say that it's not a top focus of ours, because we don't think we're big enough, but we are now big enough. So it's pretty visible that we're there and how we work differently. And I think many organizations, like many organizations that all of us know, doing any kind of work, just have a vested interest in doing it the way they've always done it.
I mean, I have colleague organizations. I like them, they're good people. They raise lots of money, but you know, they're employing like 500 people just in their Liberia program. Now, some of those are Liberians. That's good, but they're doing it on a very different scale. And they're also, in most cases-- not all, you have to investigate-- but in most cases, they're doing it with US money. Which can be great, but it also sometimes gets pulled out if our government decides that it's on a different geopolitical kick. So it's more complicated.
We do not-- here's a double negative for you-- we do not not take US money, but we take very little. And to be honest with you, we take it when we're begged. The Division of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which is part of the State Department-- or at least it was part of the State Department when we had a State Department. DRL has twice in the last five years asked us to take grants of about a couple of hundred thousand dollars to do our LGBTQ work in the developing world, because other people aren't doing that. And we've taken that money, but we're very careful.
The one place I want to be tough, because I like a lot of the big international relief and development organizations. I've collaborated with a lot of them. I'll tell you another interfaith story in a minute, but you said-- perfectly reasonable because you're trying to pick up from what I said, "those other organizations doing justice work." And I don't think are doing justice work.
I think they're doing very good relief work. I think they're sometimes doing very thoughtful economic development work. A group by Human Rights or Amnesty International-- they're doing human rights and justice work, but most of the aid-- we are sort of at that cross-hairs, in which we're giving money to make a difference in services and aid, but it's all with an advocacy bent. And most other people aren't connecting those in that way.
So here's another nice interfaith story. A time of a huge earthquake in Turkey, I think in 2000. We weren't new organization, but I was pretty new to the organization and we were pretty small. We started receiving a lot of money to respond to the earthquake in Turkey. So frankly, I was looking for wise ways to spend it. And I got a call from a colleague of mine who runs an excellent organization called Mercy Corps International, which has roots in the Lutheran church.
And he said, in the town of Adapzari, the housing is all gone. And we at Mercy Corps have access to, I don't know, I guess they were US surplus tents. They were tents that sleep 50 people. So he said, we'd like to put up-- whatever it was-- 10 tents in the town square. And we'd like you to contribute.
So I said, Neil, we're raising money for this. We'd be delighted to contribute, but your organization's about 10 times the size of mine. So why do you want me to contribute? And he said, sort of as if I was a little stupid and new to the game, if it says on the tent, brought to you by Mercy Corps International and American Jewish World Service, then no one will think we're proselytizing. So we did.
Other questions? Yes.
AUDIENCE: I'm going to try to describe a problem and then see. So in an academic environment, we tend to take issues and we policy analyze them and advocate for them in all sorts of highly intellectual ways. Your tying advocacy to persons is a different approach, but when you look at persons, they have different moral sensibilities. And the conflicts that they may be involved in may in some sense be intractable.
So when you advocate for issues that persons care deeply about in their specific ways, you oftentimes end up on multiple sides of an issue. How do you teach people to live with and through that kind of conflict? Because it is enormously productive, but how do you actually help people with that?
RUTH MESSINGER: So I think this probably sounds like a cop out, but I know exactly what you're talking about. And I would say that a lot of that is what I try to learn from the groups we fund, because I see them doing that. We're not in much of a position to do that, but they are like, OK, it didn't work just to do it that way. We need to rope other people in. We need to sort of figure out if they're over here and we're over here, what's the overlap that we could work on together?
So I see that happening.
AUDIENCE: Well, [INAUDIBLE] we can trust each other, we're working on our own stuff.
RUTH MESSINGER: Well, and I just see that develop and I think that's the genius of the people we find. I think the world is full of people like that. So my critique of my own speech is I tell you about Leymah Gbowee, I tell you about Rabbi Heschel, but so much of the work that we see and that we fund is really just done by ordinary people who are out there struggling with just those issues, but will come together on this.
And by the way, in the interfaith work that we do in Washington DC-- that place-- we do interfaith work with people that we don't agree with on a whole bunch of issues, from the Middle East to concepts of God to whatever, but we are all in favor of-- we did a huge piece of work. I forget, Ari, five years? Four years ago? On the US farm bill. This was a lot of fun, because I would call congressional offices and say, I have four rabbis who would like to come talk to the congressperson about the farm bill.
And they would say, yes, yes the foreign aid bill. We'll have our Middle East person there. And I was like, no, I actually can speak English. I didn't say that. I was like, the farm bill. And they were like, what? Rabbis want to talk about the farm bill? And I said, yes.
But anyway, on that bill, we made common cause with three or four of these other large international relief and development organizations where we don't have exactly the same approach to our work, but we were absolutely shared in our belief that the US policy-- and this should tell you a lot. This is the policy for foreign aid, food aid to people in distress. It's in the farm bill. It's not in the foreign aid bill. It's in the farm bill.
And the farmers won, in the 1950s, a commitment that all food shipped overseas would be American surplus food. So there you get into the wheat versus corn thing. And would be carried on American ships, which take much longer to get places than buying food locally. And this is our most successful piece of lobbying.
And it was because we work with people with lots of different perspectives even in the international organization community. But we ended up passing a farm bill in whatever year, 2014, 15-- that specifies that in any food disaster, the United States can spend up to 45% of the money it allocates to buy food locally from local farmers. And that was a victory of a lot of people.
I'll tell you one other interfaith example. We do a huge amount of work around the world helping indigenous farmers hang onto their land. I will tell you that all of us are complicit here. If you own this-- me too-- you own any stock, any whatever, some of our stock is in mining companies and hydroelectric power dam companies. Not that you go and buy it directly, but you know the way it is. And these companies are just stripping the land out from under indigenous farmers all over the world.
And by the way, sorry to say, I don't want to end on this note, but killing some of the local organizers who are protesting. We lost a lead worker in Honduras two years ago.
Anyway, in El Salvador, we support a bunch of grassroots groups that are fighting for land rights, taking cases to court, saying the mining companies should not be allowed to come in. Basically what they do is a form of fracking. And it poisons the water. And it destroys the environment. And destroys the farmland.
So here's what happened. Our groups-- not all of them our groups, but lots of groups like the ones we were funding-- began building bigger and bigger coalitions in El Salvador. And they took their case to the church. And I promise you, the church-- the Catholic church in El Salvador is a lot more powerful than I'm ever going to be, but in this case, the church listened. And the church took the peasants issue to the government. And three months ago, the government in El Salvador banned all mining.
Now we consider that a huge victory, but there was an intermediary player there that probably, possibly-- if American Jewish World Service in New York had contacted the Catholic church in El Salvador, maybe we could have made common cause, but I doubt it. It's the groups we funded that took it to their local priests that took it to the bishop, who took it to the cardinal, or whichever one comes first.
OK, thank you all very much.
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Ruth Messinger, global ambassador and former president of American Jewish World Service, posed the question of how Judaism and social justice movements are connected in a lecture on March 27, 2018. The event was part of the Einaudi Center’s and Cornell United Religious Work’s series, Faith, Hope, and Knowledge: Interfaith Dialogues for Global Justice and Peace.