Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Gay man takes reins of Jewish group


Robert Bank takes over as president of American Jewish World Service Friday. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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It will be a new era for the American Jewish World Service when Robert Bank, a gay man, takes over at the global Jewish organization starting July 1.

Bank, 56, succeeds Ruth Messinger as president and CEO of the progressive organization and he plans to continue Messinger's legacy as well as make his own imprint to secure the organization's future and continue to strengthen its mission. He previously served as executive vice president at the organization.

Messinger announced her retirement from AJWS at Keshet's Glimmer gala in San Francisco in December 2015. Bank has worked alongside Messinger for the past seven years.

"We are very aligned leaders and we work[ed] together on a strategy for AJWS going forward that allows the organization to have both continuity and exciting cutting edge vision for the future," said Bank.

"I'm extremely proud to be a gay man running an international American Jewish organization that is working on advancing the human rights of some of the most oppressed and some of the most courageous human rights activists in the world," he added. "It's an enormous privilege and I'm looking forward to learning over the years together with my team in how to make the biggest impact in the areas in which we work."

The organization, which has offices in New York and San Francisco, supports and empowers LGBT people and women and girls, especially combating violence; climate justice; and civil and political rights in 19 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. In 14 of the countries AJWS is working with local LGBT rights activists and groups, said Bank.

The Bay Area Reporter met with Bank at AJWS's San Francisco office in March to discuss what it means that a gay man will head the organization, particularly for its LGBT rights work, and his vision for the future of AJWS.


A lifetime of social justice

To understand Bank's vision of social justice it is best to know his personal history.

Bank grew up in apartheid South Africa until his family immigrated to the United States when he was 17 in 1977. It was a political move, given that his progressive Jewish family stood against apartheid and didn't want their son to be forced to serve in the military, as much as he didn't want to fight for a country whose values they didn't share, he said.

"Morally, I felt that I would not serve in fighting a war that I didn't believe in, a war of racism," said Bank about the required two-year service military conscription for white males.

However, the 1960s and 1970s were turbulent, with violent clashes between the South African government and the people, even after many of the movement's leaders were sentenced to long prison terms in the early 1960s. Later, the emerging gay liberation movement around the world provided the framework for how Bank was going to spend his life.

"I observed serious violence by police officers against black people so I grew up in the context of seeing discrimination," said Bank, whose grandparents fled the pogroms that violently attacked the Jewish community in Lithuania following World War I.

Bank acknowledged his privilege as a white Jewish man, but he pointed out that discrimination touched him, too, as a young gay boy growing up during a time when homosexuality was criminalized. He felt the prejudice against him because he was gay.

"When one is oneself a person who is a minority in a sense, in our case a sexual minority, I think it gives one a certain compassion and empathy toward others, period," said Bank, who was also influenced by his cousin, Denise Goldberg, and politician Helen Suzman, who were fighting against apartheid.

"They really taught me, together with my parents and others, what it meant to stand up to power and what it would mean to stand for equality, dignity, and justice very early on," he said.

It is the blend of these experiences that shaped his life's work.

"It was what shaped me and allowed me to understand and carry with me the desire to always work for the rights of those who are repressed and vulnerable," said Bank.


A good fit

Prior to working at AJWS, Bank worked in local government before spending 14 years working at Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York, he said.

Working at GMHC helped him learn to listen to the most vulnerable people living with multiple challenges: HIV/AIDS, poverty, and undocumented immigrants, and understanding their needs and speaking up to have those needs met.

"I learned so much from people who had so much less than I do about their courage, their ability to speak truth to power, [and] their ability to fight for their rights," said Bank.

He's carried those lessons to AJWS. Working for AJWS provided Bank the perfect opportunity to wed his passion for social justice and LGBT rights with his Jewish values, he said.

Bank's two main goals as head of AJWS are to promote the organization and help people know about the work it is doing and to increase the impact local communities can make with the organization's support, both financially and through advocacy.

To help fulfill his goals, Bank plans to continue to build the organization's relationship with the U.S. State Department at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. He also hopes to work with Randy Berry, the State Department's special envoy for the human rights of LGBTI persons, on ways to work together to support LGBT movements around the world, he said.

"We are a country that cares about human rights internationally all around the globe for LGBT persons," said Bank, who has met Berry on several occasions and feels he has the same goals. He hopes the next administration will continue the work that has begun.

It is that commitment to the vision of social change that has allowed AJWS to stand by Ugandan LGBT activists during the long battle against the anti-homosexuality bill and other assaults on the queer community.

"We feel particularly proud about our work in Uganda for instance, which is a long battle against this reprehensible Anti-Homosexuality Act," he said.

However, Uganda is just one example out of the many countries where AJWS works with local LGBT groups. Others include El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in the Western Hemisphere. There, a small group of transgender activists is standing up "in the face of enormous opposition," he said, to build a community.

"We have activists that we work with in the countries that are fighting against enormous discrimination based on being LGBT," Bank said. "The most important thing is to really listen to the people on the ground as to what makes sense."

That's what Bank plans to do, work with the activists as they continue the long battle to affect change in their own countries.

"We work with the most vulnerable and the most discriminated against because we believe that is also a deeply held Jewish value," said Bank.


Got international LGBT news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at 00+1-415-221-3541, Skype: heather.cassell, or mailto:.

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