Messinger, West Side’s favorite daughter, isn’t slowing down
By Sara Dover
Ruth Messinger just turned 70, but it’s impossible to tell. The long-time activist, former politician and loyal West Sider continues to be as hard-working and ambitious as ever, and she made it clear that she has “no intention of going anywhere.”
“I have two children and eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren,” said Messinger, the president of the American Jewish World Service, “and I’m sorry that I’m not leaving them a world in better shape, but I am very proud of work I know they will keep doing to try to improve the world.”
Since she began leading the faith-based international human rights group in 1998, she has facilitated the grant-making of 400 grassroots projects in 34 countries from Haiti to Indonesia, expanding the organization from a team of 14 to 180 people.
When reflecting on her work at the non-profit, Messinger said, “the uniting theme” is helping people doing good things across the globe “get their message to people on our side of the world.”
But the African masks from Uganda, the tapestry from Peru and the photographs of travels to South Africa that decorate her walls, give insight into the specific education programs she’s helped fund and the aid she’s brought after natural disasters. In February, President Obama said the Jewish World Service was among organizations that exemplify “God’s grace, and compassion and decency of the American people.”
“When I first met Ruth, it was wonderful because of that smile on her face and the way that she welcomed me,” Dr. Saena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute for Learning said in a video tribute for Messinger’s 70th birthday.
Before she poured her heart out to the world, Messinger dedicated herself to her neighborhood, working 12 years as a city councilwoman and eight as Manhattan borough president in the ’80s and ’90s. If there are wrinkles from the tough ’97 mayoral race against Giuliani as the city’s first female Democratic nominee, her face hides them well.
“I don’t know anyone who can analyze policy quicker and faster than Ruth,” said City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who served as Messinger’s chief of staff while Messinger was on the City Council, adding that walking down the street, there are two types of people who really love her: “One of them police officers, the other is the African-American community. They ask about her all the time.”
Messinger fought for better access to daycare, more efficient transportation, affordable housing, women’s rights and gay rights, just to name a few.
Messinger’s West Side roots are deep. She was born into a home on 73rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue and brought up by a conservative Jewish family on 93rd Street and Central Park West. Attending Brearley all-girls’ school, little Ruth took the two family dogs out for walks in Central Park and was the first bat mitzvah at the Park Avenue Synagogue.
“Both my parents and both my mother’s parents, who were still alive, moved in the general idea that giving something back, of finding places to volunteer, to make a difference [is important]… So there’s no question that the values come from them,” she said.
After graduating from Radcliffe College in 1962 and receiving her masters in social work in 1964, Messinger joined the Children’s Community Workshop School as the director’s assistant, which she called a “predecessor to charter schools.” There she met future husband Andrew Lachman—her daughter’s 1st-grade teacher—whom she would marry many years later.
But just community activism wasn’t enough. She soon saw her calling for politics, and went on to take a seat in the City Council and later succeeded David Dinkins as borough president.
“I never grew up thinking that I wanted to go into politics or run for Manhattan borough president… And then I got to a point where I thought, I need to have broader access to influence decisions that get made in New York City or develop into something else. So I ran for mayor,” she explained.
When the polls closed that night in November 1997, Messinger had lost to incumbent Rudy Giuliani, 43 percent to 55 percent. She said she loved running, but found the race frustrating and unfairly covered by the press.
“He is not a nice man,” she said. “It was an unpleasant campaign because he had the power of the incumbent, but he also threatened people who didn’t support him, very specifically. So there were people whose support I had hoped for, who ended up not being able to support me publicly. And it wasn’t because they imagined that there’d be a problem—then, I’d just say they were a little chicken. It was because they were told by the mayor’s people that they better not cross him.”
She doesn’t miss politics “because you get to keep all your fingers in all the time,” and she considers herself lucky to find another job she loves.
“I’ve always both taken my Judaism seriously and recognized that in the way in which I was raised Jewishly was a source of my commitment to social justice. So it felt comfortable,” Messinger said. “It was only after I took the job that I realized that there was a piece of this that was coming home and making connection with the values in which I’d been raised.”
And to this day, she loves every block of her colorful, concrete city.
“I am not sick of the West Side, and I never will be. I love it,” Messinger said. “I get to travel in lots of different places, but there isn’t any place quite like New York… I love the mix of people you encounter on the street, it can be quite dramatic.”
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