Hurwitz and Messinger talk social justice

From left: Ruth Messinger, Sarah Hurwitz and Erica Brown at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Photo by Bruce Guthrie.

If you want to change the world, be prepared for losses. That was the message from former American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger and former speechwriter for the Obamas Sarah Hurwitz.

The two were at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington on March 26 for a discussion with Erica Brown, associate professor at George Washington University. The event was organized as part of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership’s “Conversations that Matter” series.

The theme was social justice activism: what it means to fight for social justice and what a life in social justice can look like. But just as much as achievements and positive change, loss was discussed by both, in elections and personal life.

Messenger represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side on New York’s City Council from 1978 to 1979
before being elected borough president. In 1997, though, she lost her bid for New York City mayor to incumbent Rudy Giuliani. It was her last election and the loss prompted her to enter the nonprofit world with American Jewish World Service.

“It feels pretty bad,” Messinger said on stage in the synagogue’s sanctuary. “It was taking on a really tough challenge, which I felt ready to do after 20 years. I was ready to move up or move out. I wasn’t ready to lose.”

Hurwitz shared similar experiences. She said her first political speechwriting job didn’t pan out, her boss actually encouraged her to go to law school, which she did. Then, after deciding to take another crack at speechwriting, she worked on three losing campaigns before joining the Obama campaign in 2008. She later became head speechwriter for First Lady Michelle Obama and collaborated with her on the 2016 speech in which she said of the Donald Trump campaign and Republicans, “When they go low, we go high.” Hurwitz insisted that line was all Obama’s.

But the losses still stick with her, Hurtwitz said. Not just in terms ofelections but policy.

“There were plenty of speeches in my career about issues that I really cared about that just didn’t work,” Hurwitz said. “It’s kind of painful to see someone trying so hard to give the speech you’ve written for them you’ve kind of failed them. Fortunately there are so many speeches it’s like, ‘On to the next one.’ You can’t really dwell on it.”

Messinger said that in this age of protest and activism, finding a passion is crucial when it comes to deciding how to use your time. She said that many people will try to become active on issues that are popular and particularly relevant at the moment, rather than what they themselves care most about.

“The world is broken in a lot of places and if you try to do a little of everything you’ll collapse,” Messinger said. “The focus is identifying your passion. It might be local politics, it might be the dreadful state of immigration policy in this country … But don’t try to do everything and don’t try to do something just because someone else told you it was important.”

Hurwitz has an upcoming book called “Here All Along: A Reintroduction to Judaism” that’s set to be published in September.

In it, she’ll recount her recent rediscovery of Jewish learning and the way Judaism has a unique interpretation of social justice and charity.

“We have a very specific approach to social justice,” Hurwitz said. “We’re very concerned about the dignity of people. We aren’t humiliating people, we’re empowering people. … No one should feel like just a taker, people should be empowered as agents.”

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