Channeling smicha for the first time

Ruth Messinger on tikkun olam at OHALAH 2015

The theme of this year's OHALAH conference is "Integral Tikkun Olam." One of the keynote speakers is Ruth Messinger, the head of the American Jewish World Service. Here are some glimpses of the latter part of her Monday morning keynote.

As I enter the room -- having unfortunately missed the first hour of her address; apologies for not being able to blog her earlier remarks -- Ruth is talking about Burma. (Which is intriguing to me in part because Ethan was there relatively recently and it's a place in which I am personally interested, and also because I'm not sure I've ever heard Burma discussed in a Jewish communal setting.)

In Burma, she tells us, Muslims are in danger from fundamentalist Buddhists. (A ripple runs through the room when she says that. She notes tartly that Jewish groups often struggle with this one. Clearly our communities have some prejudices which we need to recognize and overcome.) While the current government is better than the previous, things are still not good for minorities in Burma.

The addition of a little bit of democracy, she says, can sometimes make it more possible for people to turn on each other. There are huge efforts to protect the Rohyinga Muslim population; there was a successful Twitter hashtag campaign called #justsaytheirname, designed to bring pressure on President Obama when he was there recently, to mention them and ask about their future.

(She also noted that oppression can take many forms; the Burmese government is taking a census, and has instructed their census-takers to ask what religion people are and if they say Muslim, not to count them.)

Then she shifts focus from Burma to violence against women. "A huge piece of our work," she says, "our biggest current campaign, is the #WeBelieve campaign, to address the global epidemic of violence against women and girls."

She tells a story about Teresa, in Nicaragua, who married at nineteen and had six children. "For thirty years, Teresa suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband," Ruth tells us. "She had no idea who to turn to or what possible help there could be for her. And then a few years ago her oldest daughter told her that her husband was molesting their daughters as they came of age. Teresa and that daughter then spent two years conspiring to never leave the younger girls alone with him, but she had no place to go."

"And then one day she listened to the radio, a powerful tool in the global South, and heard an ad from AMEWAS, one of AJWS' grantees, which is dedicated to educating women and girls about their rights and to expanding womens' access to the judicial system. Because of this one radio ad, Teresa went to her brother and decided to leave her home." She took her children, went to the AMEWAS shelter, and they supported her in pressing charges against her husband and in 2011 he was sentenced to years in prison. AMEWAS then worked in a precedent-setting case to transfer possession of their property to Teresa.

"We have many Teresas," Ruth says. "We have many partner organizations and many stories. And we share the stories so that people will see the human beings who are affected by our work, and understand that all of these are ways to make a difference."

"We are interested in debating with people the tensions that come up in our community -- the tensions between the local and the global, as if they were entirely disconnected; the tensions between the particular and the universal." People are often persuaded that they should do local, or that they should do global, but not that they should do both. But, Ruth argues, we live in an interdependent world. How we act locally can impact people elsewhere. What we do in Washington can make a dramatic difference for people tens of thousands of miles away.

ResizeRuth mentions the International Violence Against Women Act, which will promote the dignity of millions of women and girls around the world; it has been introduced to Congress four times since 2005, and represents an unprecedented commitment by the US government to support the needs of women and girls... if Congress will pass it. (This has become one of AJWS' major campaigns - see We Believe.)

She praises grassroots groups like AMEWAS who are doing work on the ground around the world, and notes that the IVAWA would make it more possible for women and girls to earn an income, to collect food and water without fear of harassment, to live without fear of rape and violence. If the IVAWA were passed, she says, "organizations like AMEWAS, of which there are thousands in the developing world, would finally get some of the funding and recognition that they deserve."

This act would provide public education campaigns. It would allow the US government to raise the question of the prevalence of gender-based violence in all of its negotiations with any country, and would require us to raise it in our dealings with countries where the problem is most significant. "It would move this crisis of violence against women and girls from being an invisible source of shame to being a public issue which governments are working to solve."

"Don't laugh," she says, "but we have a new Congress." Rueful laughter runs around the room; how many of us believe that Congress is actually capable of creating positive meaningful change? "At this moment in time, any piece of legislation which mentions women is assumed by some in Congress to have something to do with abortion," she notes, "so even though IVAWA absolutely does not, that poses a challenge... But there are members of Congress who are supporting this work, including many female Jewish members of Congress." (That draws a cheer from the crowd.) Working on IVAWA is an uphill climb, but it matters.

Ruth urges us as Jewish Renewal clergy to think, speak, and act globally; to care about people far beyond our borders, whatever our borders may be; to learn about the needs and struggles of people around the world, to share their stories; to help AJWS not only identify the policies which need change but also the legislators who need help relating to parts of the world to which they have been persistently blind. And she urges us to think about getting engaged in the IVAWA effort and the WeBelieve effort and in the ongoing work they are doing with the support of the American Jewish community.

She closes with a quote from Grace Paley: "the only recognizable feature of hope is action." Let's act for women and girls, for indigenous people, for those around the world who are suffering the worst ravages of oppression and injustice. It's our mandate as Jews, and it's the legacy we can carry forward into the future together.