On May 1, 1985, the American Jewish World Service, a nongovernmental organization that runs and raises money for programs intended to relieve hunger, poverty and disease in the developing world, was established.
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The AJWS was founded by two men, Lawrence Phillips, the then-chairman and CEO of the giant clothing manufacturer Phillips-Van Heusen (his great-grandfather was the company’s founder), and Laurence Simon, an expert on international development who then was employed by Oxfam (today he is a professor at Brandeis University’s school for social policy and management). Larry Phillips later explained that he was concerned, as a member of Oxfam’s board, that the global antihunger organization did not have enough Jewish representation on its board. He and Simon, together with a small group of rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, dedicated AJWS to tikkun olam, a kabbalistic term that refers to socially beneficial acts that help “repair the world.”
The organization’s first emergency response action was taken in Armero, Colombia, where a volcanic eruption in November 1985 killed two-thirds of the town’s 29,000 residents. The AJWS provided aid to survivors. In 1986, it began a cooperative agriculture program with members of the exiled Tibetan community in India. Within several years, it was active in every part of the world.
Today, the Service’s activities include grant-making to small communities in the developing world, both urban and rural, with an emphasis on human rights, women’s empowerment, sustainable agricultural development, and health and education. The beneficiary communities also provide opportunities to participants in a variety of AJWS volunteer programs to do work in the field in India, Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia. (Needless to say, although the AJWS is a Jewish organization, it provides assistance wherever it feels it is needed, and because it has no formal connection to Israel it can work in countries that do not have ties with the Jewish state.) One of its volunteer programs is intended specifically for rabbinical students.
In the United States, the AJWS lobbies the federal government to adopt policies designed to reduce conflict in war zones and to respond effectively to disaster situations. It was the AJWS that in 2004, in concert with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, organized the Save Darfur Coalition, intended to provide relief in that province of Sudan and to apply pressure on the regime in Khartoum to halt its atrocities against Darfur’s non-Arab population.
The final component of the organization’s work is educational. In the United States, it prepares educational material, often Jewish-themed, to encourage members of the Jewish community to see it as a religious obligation to become involved in social-justice and relief projects. At the same time, the AJWS has not been above using the services of filmmaker Judd Apatow to make a short end-of-year fundraising film, as it did in 2010, featuring a number of well-known celebrities, both Jewish and non-Jewish, playing on every imaginable stereotype about Jews – all tongue-in-cheek, of course – to express their support for the organization.
Among those starring in the clip were comedian Sarah Silverman, who praises the AJWS for giving away $22 million the previous year. She notes that the figure “really throws a wrench in the ‘Jews are cheap’ premise. I mean, if you think that’s cheap, there’s no way you’re Asian, ’cause you’re really bad at math.” The short film drew more than 1.5 million viewers in the month and a half after it was posted to YouTube.
Ruth Messinger, a former Manhattan borough president, has been the president of the AJWS since 1998, the year after her unsuccessful bid for the mayoralty of New York. Under her leadership, the organization has grown to raise nearly $49 million in 2011, with more than 85 percent of that going to programming. It consistently gets top rankings from Charity Navigator, which looks at the transparency, efficiency and management of America’s largest charities.