The mission: Fixing the world's forsaken lands

American Jewish World Service gives grants to 224 grassroots programs.

Donkey Mobile Library 248.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Donkey Mobile Library 248.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK - Somewhere in the Ethiopian hinterland, a donkey loaded with a lending library in Amharic and other local languages is making its way from one rural village to another, delivering books for a program called Ethiopia Reads. The Donkey Mobile Library, as it's called, may not look like a typically Jewish initiative, but it's among 224 programs that were recently awarded grants by the American Jewish World Service, a New York-based group that funds grassroots programs in developing and conflict-ridden countries in accordance with the principles of tikkun olam and tzedaka. None of the programs is expressly Jewish-focused, and many are done in cooperation with local NGOs or with larger global organizations such as the Clinton Global Initiative, a foundation launched by former US president Bill Clinton. But the organization's leaders say their focus is on making sure that Jews have a avenue for supporting grassroots work in the same way that Christians do via missionary groups. "We operate in a world that has a lot of people who don't know Jews and don't know Jews as people who do this kind of work, so it's important that we do this work as Jews," said former Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger, now president of AJWS. Along with the donkey, the AJWS announced this week it had awarded $5.7 million to rehabilitation programs for disabled children in Sri Lanka, leadership training programs for HIV/AIDS activists in India, and counseling for victims of sexual abuse in the war-torn Congo. Another program in Peru helps indigenous Amazonians harvest food for export from the rain forest. AJWS, which was founded in 1985, has responded over the years to an array of crises, from volcano eruptions in Colombia to floods in Mozambique, and underwrites programs in Zimbabwe as well as Congo and Sudan. Grants are typically capped at $30,000 - pocket change to most Western-based groups, but enough to keep a whole team going for a year in India or elsewhere, Messinger said. The organization has also made more concrete micro-economic investments - including the purchase of a $400 butter churner for women in Ethiopia who had cows but no way to make butter for sale at local markets. Messinger said the organization has remained relatively insulated from the Bernard Madoff financial scandal that has bankrupted a number of American Jewish nonprofits - but faces a $500,000 hole in next year's budget from the hard-hit Picower Foundation, which had underwritten programs that take Jewish high school students abroad to do volunteer work with grant recipients. Messinger said she hoped to be able to plug the holes from other sources in the Jewish world. "This is the role of Jews in the 21st century, of course to meet the needs of the Jewish community but also to address these needs elsewhere," Messinger told The Jerusalem Post.•