In September, 2006, the president of Sudan (Omar Hassan al-Bashir) appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and claimed that “Zionist organizations” were responsible for cooking up an international outcry against his government for alleged massacres. He probably was referring to Ruth Messinger, a Jewish woman who has been the central figure in mobilizing public protest over the genocide in Darfur.
Ruth Wyler Messinger was born in 1940 in New York. She is a third generation New Yorker, the daughter of Wilfred and Majorie Goldwasser Wyler. She attended the Brearley School, graduated from Radcliffe College, and received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma in 1962. Subsequently, she worked as a teacher, school and college administrator, and social worker. Currently, Ruth is a visiting professor at Hunter College, teaching urban policy and politics.
A liberal Democrat, she had an extensive career in New York City politics. She served on the New York City Council from 1978-1990 and as Manhattan borough president from 1990-1998. During her years in elected office, the percent of women in the U.S. holding such positions increased from 4% to 20%. However, the process could be a painful one. Ruth found that experienced political donors contribute less to women than men, that male colleagues were easily threatened by women expecting to be treated equally, and that appearance was more critical to a woman than a man for wooing prospective voters.
In 1997, she ran for New York City mayor against incumbent Rudolph Giuliani and was badly beaten. Everyone thought Ruth would slip quietly into obscurity, but nine years later, she is more visible than ever on the world stage.
Ruth became President and CEO of the American Jewish World Service, and transformed the organization from a small Jewish charity to one of America’s most respected overseas development organizations. American Jewish World Service now runs a worldwide network of over 250 economic and social programs in over 40 countries.
Ruth has been a tireless advocate for action concerning the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. In the remote region of Darfur, Sudan, almost two million African tribal farmers have been violently driven from their homes by the government of Sudan and the militias they armed, called Janjaweed (men with guns on horseback). Despite repeated calls from humanitarian organizations and United Nations agencies warning of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, there continues to be a systematic program of expulsion, rape and murderous violence that has taken at least 450,000 lives since the crisis began in February 2003. Over 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes and live in refuge camps. Numerous ceasefires have been broken, and countless U.N. resolutions have gone unheeded as the violence in Darfur continues.
Ruth launched the American Jewish World Service’s Sudan Relief and Advocacy Fund in 2006 to provide humanitarian aid to the refuge camps, and to advocate for political action. The American Jewish World Service’s website at www.ajws.org lists concrete actions we can take to increase awareness of the crisis in Darfur and promote international intervention.
Ruth Messinger is an active member of her synagogue and serves on the board of directors of several non-profit organizations. Her dedication to philanthropic work has been recognized with many honors and awards. In 2006, she received the prestigious Albert D. Chernin Award from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs for her tireless work to end the genocide in Darfur. In tribute to her life’s work, she was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the Hebrew Union College in May, 2005. For the past four years, she has been named by the Forward newspaper as one of the 50 most influential Jews of the year, in the top spot in 2005.
Ruth is married to Andrew Lachman, her second husband, and has three children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. In her spare time, she bikes, rollerblades, skis, reads, and, by her own account, “bakes the best chocolate desserts in New York.”
Ruth Messinger strongly believes in the statement by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that “when terrible things happen in a democracy, some are guilty and all are responsible.” “The expression ‘Never again’,” Messinger says, “cannot be reserved only for Jews.”
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