Ruth W. Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the world’s leading Jewish organization working to end poverty and realize human rights in the developing world.
I first discovered American Jewish World Service during a talk on Shabbat at Congregation Bonai Shalom in Boulder (immediately after, I applied to be a volunteer and was accepted and served in Chennai, India!).
The thing I most admire about Ruth is the way she has taken her social justice values into public service to help so many people. Let’s get to know Ruth and learn from her.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I live on the west side of Manhattan where I grew up and where I raised my children, although I have from time to time lived elsewhere. I’m a member of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism which is a Reconstructionist synagogue (the original one) and have been a member there for more than 45 years (though I was actually raised in the conservative movement at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York where I was the very first bat mitzvah).
How do you connect to Judaism?
I was raised in a Jewish home. My mother worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and she and my dad worked to create a home more Jewish than the one either of them grew up in. That included an emphasis on holiday celebrations, on the development of some family rituals and family foods.
So my connections to Judaism are rooted in my family, my synagogue, and now through AJWS where I’ve had the additional opportunity for 17 years to work with Jewish educators, to learn a lot more Jewish text, and become familiar enough to be able to speak to Jewish history, values, and text when I meet with people on behalf of AJWS.
How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?
I plan meals in advance, some with traditional food and some with brand-new recipes I am trying. More of my meals now include a vegetarian component to satisfy various family members and friends.
I cook at all odd hours of the night because I am working during the day and develop my game plan as I go. I essentially do not have help in the kitchen, although people have learned when and how to be helpful, and I could not do any of this entertaining without a husband who sets the table with care, oversees the table clearing, and is a dish washer par excellence.
So for me the celebration includes most particularly enjoying the people who are gathered there, but I would also say that I love holiday smells, good food, and a beautiful looking table.
How does the ideal holiday celebration look and feel to you?
I adore holidays in general and holiday meals in particular. Over many years I have ended up as the host for erev Rosh Hashanah dinner after services, for a pre Kol Nidre filling meal, and for two Seders. Attendance at these various events for many, many years were originally my parents and children, then at various times my children and their families and some other relatives, including some members of my husband’s family who are less committed to holiday celebration.
In the last ten years, I’ve developed perhaps something of a specialty in feeding various groups of friends who otherwise would not have a place to go but have come to particularly enjoy our celebrations.
We create additional focused meaning for our Seders with a haggadah that I wrote many years ago and that I update every few years so that it reflects my and my family’s and my friends’ focused interest in matters of social justice.
Leading up to, during, and after the holidays, how do you reconnect with yourself?
I love this question, and would say I do so in a variety of ways: I do it in synagogue, I do it at the table enjoying the company that collects, and I also do it when I cook.
What is one of your most memorable holiday experiences?
I have holiday memories and experiences that are much too many to mention and much too hard to pick among. I would note here that because my mother worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary, when we were young we went there every year to eat in the sukkah. The particular memory is not the food, but the incredible aroma of pine branches which were used to set up and decorate that very large sukkah. Interestingly, years later when I asked my children for a memory of their grandmother, two of the three of them mentioned the time in the sukkah, again really because of the power of the fresh pine smell.
What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?
I do not have any one holiday dish that I particularly love, but I do love constantly finding different and new recipes for brisket, for honey cake, and for charoset. Most dramatically, I have followed the tradition of my mother and my great aunt in making my own gefilte fish, and sometimes think I may be the last person in the world who does that. My gefilte fish recipe has appeared in the New York Times and it is not uncommon once or twice a year for someone to tell me that they were at a Seder where my gefilte fish recipe was used–to very good effect I might add! Also, I’m actually a person who likes matzo: I like matzo with butter, I like matzo with salt, I like cinnamon matzo, and I like matzo with charoset, all of which also makes me (I think) quite unusual.
I would close by saying that doing the holiday cooking and hosting the holiday meals has the additional benefit of reminding me of my mom and of the ways in which we did some of this work together.
Ruth, thank you for sharing. I loved what you shared about reconnecting to yourself through cooking, and inviting and feeding various groups of friends who would otherwise have nowhere to celebrate.
This post is part of our Chag Notebook series where we interview inspiring women and men about their approach to the holidays. What did you enjoy most about Ruth’s approach to the holidays? Share with us in the comments.