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Messinger: Jewish Service Must Be Real Service

Focus on needs, not college applications, says former NYC pol

Allison Hoffman
November 12, 2009

Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and Democratic mayoral challenger to Rudy Giuliani, had the good fortune of going to an elite private school (Brearley) and an even more elite college (Radcliffe) but she credits a much humbler venue with giving her the earthy edge she needed to become a New York City pol: the back of a garbage truck. “I was the only girl willing to go on the garbage run every day,” Messinger recalled last night at the Woolworth Building, where she was speaking at a ceremony celebrating the opening of the new Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU’s Wagner School, of her experience volunteering as a teenager at a settlement house in Beacon, New York. “It was really good training for my career in politics.”

Messinger, who now heads the American Jewish World Service—a kind of Jewish peace corps that runs humanitarian projects in developing countries—went on to argue that the ever-expanding array of volunteer programs designed to build Jewish identity through community service can only succeed if they provide concrete benefits to needy people. In other words, they have to be authentic service programs, and not make-work designed to foster a fuzzy tikkun olam experience. “I want, as Jewish service grows, to be sure that it pays respect to the Jewish notion that we have responsibility to others,” Messinger told the audience. “We have to focus on beneficiaries’ needs, not on the need of the volunteers to feel Jewish, or to get something on their college applications.”

Allison Hoffman is the executive editor of CNN Politics.