Quoting Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s statement that “when terrible things happen in a democracy, some are guilty and all are responsible,” Ruth Messinger said, “I take the responsibility of which he spoke very seriously.”
Born on November 6, 1940, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Ruth Messinger is a third-generation New Yorker. Her great-grandparents arrived from Poland and Germany in the nineteenth century; her parents were Wilfred and Marjorie (Goldwasser) Wyler. Ruth attended the Brearley School, graduated from Radcliffe College, and received a master’s degree in social work from the University of Oklahoma. She worked as a teacher, school and college administrator, and social worker. She married Eli C. Messinger (from whom she is divorced) and raised three children before entering politics as a candidate for the New York State Assembly in 1976. She lost, but won when she ran the following year for a City Council seat from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Reelected in 1982 and 1985 by large majorities, by 1988 she was being mentioned as a mayoral contender.
In 1990 Messinger became Manhattan borough president. She said of herself, “I am a New Yorker born and bred. I walk fast, talk fast, think fast and, most importantly, stand up fast when the best interests of my city are being sold down the river.” Elements of this self-description were evident in her advocacy of many liberal causes and her concerns for diverse groups in the community. She worked to restrain real estate developers from building projects that, in her view, would have had deleterious environmental or social impacts, and she protected city agency whistle-blowers. She cast the deciding vote on the 1986 City Council gay rights bill and opposed Columbia University’s original plans for a commercial biomedical center on the site of the old Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
In 1997, hoping to become New York City’s first woman mayor, she ran against incumbent Rudoph Giuliani. Giuliani won by a large margin.
Besides her commitment to the community at large, Messinger has always exhibited a dedication to her Jewish roots and to the role and place of women in American society. As a child, through her mother’s public relations work for the Jewish Theological Seminary, she was brought into close contact with the Jewish community. It was that dedication to Jewish causes that led Messinger to her next position: In 1998, she became president and executive director of the American Jewish World Service, an organization that aims to “fulfill Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice” by helping to alleviate poverty, hunger and disease throughout the world.
A visiting professor at Hunter College, Messinger is also president of the board of Surprise Lake Camp, a 102-year-old Jewish Camp in the Hudson Valley of New York State, an active member of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, an advisory committee member of the Jewish Fund for Justice, a board member of the Jewish Foundation for the Education of Women and the Jewish Funders Network, a former national chair of the advisory council of the National League of Cities, and president of Women in Municipal Government.
Messinger is married to Andrew J. Lachman, a public school administrator. Her three children from her first marriage have produced four grandchildren. An energetic worker and activist, Ruth Messinger is eclectic in her leisure activities. She rollerblades, reads, skis and, by her own account, “bake[s] the best chocolate desserts in New York.” But leisure time is limited, and first and foremost she keeps Rabbi Heschel’s dictum in mind as she strives to be a responsible member of the community in which she lives.