Ruth Messinger and Joshua Fried

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A Must-See Movie: “Finding Fela”

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

If you’re looking for a powerful, thought-provoking film to see this summer, look no further than Finding Fela—a new documentary that opened this past Friday in New York City at IFC and has bookings throughout the country opening on various dates this month.

Fela Kuti was the brilliant Nigerian performer who became a human rights activist challenging the corrupt government in his country. He used his music as a mobilizing force, galvanizing others to join him in the battle for social and political change. During his lifetime, he became a beacon for oppressed peoples in Nigeria, in Africa and elsewhere in the world. He also became a target for his government, which was eager to silence him and stop his organizing. Read More »

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An AIDS-Free Future Requires More Than Medicine

Originally published in The Health Care Blog.

In 1985, during the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, I was elected to the New York City Council. Time and again, I felt heartbroken as my friends and constituents lost their lives to a deadly disease without a cure. Too frequently, they suffered the effects of ignorance, fear and hate.

Now, nearly 30 years later, advances in biomedical treatment have been stunning in their power to achieve an AIDS-free future. But the truth is that prejudice and fear are as persistent as HIV. Medicine alone cannot deliver the future we seek. Even as we celebrate the scientific discoveries and treatments that dramatically reduce HIV transmission and death, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a biomedical solution can overcome the devastating effects of bigotry. If, as the United Nations agency UNAIDS urges, we wish to get to zero—zero discrimination, zero new infections, and zero deaths—we must take an integrated approach that combines biomedical treatment and an enduring commitment to human rights.

Without a doubt, medicine is working. As of September 30, 2013, the United States’ program, PEPFAR, is currently supporting life-saving antiretroviral treatment for 6.7 million men, women, and children worldwide. This exceeds President Obama’s 2011 World AIDS Day goal of 6 million people on treatment—a four-fold increase (from 1.7 million in 2008) since he took office. But, unfortunately, the World Health Organization predicts that 50 million people will need treatment for HIV by 2030. This means we face a tremendous uphill climb and must somehow identify between $22 and $24 billion—a truly ambitious financial target.

As a frequent traveler to Africa and Asia, I meet with courageous activists supported by American Jewish World Service who are pioneering innovative approaches to stemming HIV in their communities. Over time, I’ve learned from them that eradicating the AIDS pandemic requires two additional strategies to complement treatment:

First, we must strengthen community-organizing efforts to keep HIV funding a priority not only for high-income and middle-income countries, but especially for low-income countries that often have the highest rates of infection.

Second, we must address the violations of human rights—particularly in the developing world—that exacerbate HIV transmission and severely diminish the quality of life for people who are infected or at risk.

If people are afraid to be tested or receive treatment for HIV, if they experience discrimination from healthcare providers, or if they simply don’t have access to health services, prevention efforts can’t succeed. The World Health Organization, the UN Development Program and UNAIDS have argued that increased stigma and fear of criminalization prevents people from accessing treatment and obtaining information they need to engage in safer sex practices. This has been true in the case of Botswana, a country that made commendable efforts to maximize access to HIV treatment. In the early 2000s, Botswana rolled out an ambitious plan to test and treat all Botswanans for HIV. But the number of people without access to treatment remained high. This was the result of a number of issues, including stigma. Former President Mogae said, “I’m very frustrated. Because of the stigma attached to this sexually transmitted virus, and because some religious people have said this is a curse or that those who have HIV are sinners, many are afraid to get tested.”

More recently in Uganda, efforts to slow the spread of HIV and AIDS have been obstructed by the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Law—a piece of legislation that Ugandan President Museveni signed in February 2014 to further criminalize Uganda’s LGBT community. Even before the bill was signed into law, LGBT people in Uganda faced enormous hurdles in accessing health care. Many service providers discriminated against sexual minorities, refused to treat them, or simply lacked basic information on how to provide care. Today, state-sanctioned hate against LGBT Ugandans is making it harder to stem HIV transmission and is contributing to a national public health crisis.

Bottom line: The medical treatment of HIV must not exist in a vacuum. It must be integrated with broader global health strategies and policy. Most importantly, we must ensure that our efforts to expand treatment and prevention work in tandem with our efforts to advance human rights worldwide—especially for people whose access to health services and information is severely limited. The people who need HIV and AIDS treatment most are those who are marginalized and are often difficult to reach.

When I think back to the 1980s in New York City, a time of incalculable loss and suffering, I am grateful for the medical innovations that have prolonged the lives of millions of HIV-positive people today. Yet if we wish to usher in an AIDS-free future, we need more than medicine. We must fight for the human rights of every infected person and every person at risk around the globe. Only when bigotry is vanquished will we reach a day when AIDS is a distant memory.

Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service.

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How Beverly Bell’s Book “Fault Lines” Offers a Portrait of Haiti Through the Lens of Haitian People

Fault LinesThe fourth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone. There were the usual speeches, press conferences, updates and flurries of attention. There was also, at least in some quarters, an expressed concern that it is “taking too long” to make a difference on the ground, that the problems of weak government, corruption, misdirected aid, and missing land titles are inhibiting efforts to put the country back together.

Yes, it is all taking a long time. We at AJWS are not surprised because we know the people who know Haiti well, and they predicted that the recovery process would not go smoothly. They warned those of us who were ready to listen. Haitian people understand the incredibly complex 210-year story of their country better than Americans because they live the complexity—day in and day out. They also know that too often, and in too many ways, the U.S. government has been complicit in creating problems for Haiti and in Haiti and that, in some ways, this is still the case.

All of this is to say that to understand Haiti, I believe everyone should read one of the few books that really tells the story authentically: Beverly Bell’s Fault Lines. Read More »

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My Thanksgivukah Recipe

11.13_Thanksgivukah_Recipes_v1 (2)Lately, no matter where I am—conferences, meetings, board rooms—American Jews are buzzing about Thanksgivukah, the concurrent celebration of Thanksgiving and Chanukah on November 28, 2013.

These two holidays have overlapped only once before, in 1888. And, according to calculations by Jonathan Mizrahi, a quantum physicist at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, this Thanksgivukah miracle won’t happen again until 2070 and then again in 2165. After that, Chanukah and Thanksgiving aren’t set to coincide until 76,695!

Food and gratitude are at the center of my Thanksgiving and Chanukah celebrations. So, it will come as no surprise that I’m eagerly awaiting the convergence of two culinary traditions.

So, as you prepare your own Thanksgivukah menu, I wanted to share my recipe for cranberry-lathered latkes—a mash-up of two signature dishes that will be front and center at my holiday table. Read More »

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The Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

Originally published on the blog of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the power and possibility of social change. The climactic moment on August 28, 1963 came when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his quintessential “I Have a Dream” speech, which crystalized decades of tireless activism and ignited decades more. But a lesser-known speech delivered by Rabbi Yoachim Prinz—the President of the American Jewish Congress, who took the podium immediately before King—was stirring in a different way.

Prinz understood the plight of African Americans and other disenfranchised groups in the context of his own experience as the rabbi of a Jewish community in Berlin during Hitler’s regime. He devoted much of his life in the United States to the civil rights movement. And, in his speech at the March on Washington, he articulated a message that has always resonated with me: “Bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Read More »

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My 2013 Summer Reading List

When summer rolls around, I try to carve out some quiet moments to catch up on my reading. At AJWS, it’s become a tradition for me to share my summer reading list with the staff. This year, I wanted to share it with the whole AJWS family. And even though summer is winding down, I hope you’ll still find time to breeze through a few more books before Labor Day.

The list is in no particular order. Happy reading!

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin: Brilliant, detailed history of Lincoln, his rise to the Presidency and his shaping of his Cabinet.

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: A brilliant new novel weaving together several stories of and about Ireland, Frederick Douglass and George Mitchell. An amazing book!

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: First of a trilogy of historical novels, this one is about Sir Thomas More, Oliver Cromwell and that era of 16th century British history.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Second volume of the trilogy, which I found in a local bookstore after liking Wolf Hall so much. This one deals with the life of Henry the VIII and Cromwell in the years after Wolf Hall, starting about 1535. Read More »

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Facing a Food Crisis: The Ingenuity of Haitian Farmers

Originally posted on The Jew and the Carrot.

With Passover around the corner, many of us are poised to recite the words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” But when nearly 1 billion people around the world are hungry or malnourished, these words become acutely daunting—particularly for communities recovering from disasters.

More than three years after a major earthquake ravaged Haiti, the country is still struggling to recover. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of problems: homelessness, violence, political corruption and, perhaps most severe, a shortage of food—resulting in hunger. In November 2012, these crises were further exacerbated by Hurricane Sandy, which ripped through Haiti before wreaking havoc in New York and New Jersey. Read More »

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Why Is This Day Unlike Other Days?

Celebrate the women and girls creating change worldwide!

Celebrate the women and girls creating change worldwide!

Today is International Women’s Day—an important date on AJWS’s calendar! It doesn’t get a lot of fanfare here in the U.S. but it means a whole lot for women and girls around the world who are struggling against injustice.

In the communities AJWS supports, International Women’s Day is a day to honor brave women who are demanding equal rights and working to end poverty and oppression. It’s a day to celebrate determined girls who grow up to be leaders, against all odds. International Women’s Day is about empowering every young girl and every woman—no matter where she is born—to believe that she can make a difference.

To help AJWS spread this message, view our photo gallery on Facebook of extraordinary women and girls worldwide who are working to make the world a better place—and then share it with your friends! Read More »

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With Hillary gone, will State Department still prioritize women?

Originally published by Salon.

It’s no secret that when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously declared in 1995 that “women’s rights are human rights,” she cemented her status as a champion for women and girls around the world. And as secretary of state, Clinton made gender equality and women’s empowerment a pillar of American diplomacy. The question now is whether the departure of the leading advocate for women will signal the end of the State Department’s focus on these key issues.

Among her achievements in this area, Clinton launched the Equal Futures Partnership to increase women’s leadership in politics, and made the case that rights for women and girls are key ingredients for democracy, peace and economic growth in every country. Critically, she led the United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security as well as the United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, an initiative of USAID and the State Department. If that wasn’t enough, she also shaped the Secretarial Policy Directive on Gender, which has been instrumental in working to end child marriage. Read More »

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Ask Big Questions: Where Do You Give?

Ruth Messinger

Originally posted on the blog of Ask Big Questions

Like many people in my generation, I first associated tzedakah, the Hebrew word loosely understood to mean “charity,” with the pushke—the little metal box given out in Hebrew school, rusting on my parents’ windowsill.

I learned in the 1950s that Jews were supposed to collect pennies in the pushke to plant trees in Israel. There was no passion or intensity embedded in this ritual; no real understanding of the values or texts behind this seemingly strange act of generosity; and no opportunity to innovate. It was just something Jews did. Read More »

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