By Ilan Preskovsky
With the weak rand, an endlessly increasing cost of living, and a world economy that is still struggling to get over the near-disastrous events of the 2008 financial crash, South Africans in 2016 are feeling the pinch and feeling it hard. Of course, the true tragedy of such capitalism gone wrong is that it’s seldom the super-rich who feel the soaring costs and financial hardships, but the middle class struggling to maintain their status as such and, most especially, the poor struggling more and more just to survive.
The Jewish tradition has never been so callous as to simply leave the fate of its people to the capricious and often cruel fates of the free market, but it also never places its faith in a Utopian poverty-free society, where the gap between the poorest and richest is one of luxury, rather than basic survival. Ever since Sinai, the Jewish people have lived according to a system where the hard working, the lucky, and the plain brilliant have the space to become extremely wealthy, but, at the exact same time, there are specific mitzvos in place to ensure that the less fortunate have enough support that they at least don’t lack in the basic necessities.
One of the more interesting commandments relating to this fundamental area of Judaism is the prohibition of one Jew either charging or paying interest to another Jew on any and all loans – including even borrowing things like a cup of sugar. These incredibly praiseworthy loans are obviously a major way for people to contribute to their community on a personal level, but Jewish communities tend to rely on more formal and organised systems for dispensing such loans as well, called “gemachs”. Composed of a contraction of the Hebrew words gemilus chesed (literally: the bestowing of loving kindness), gemachs are charitable organisations that provide interest-free loans to their local Jewish communities, both in the form of conventional money loans and often through the lending of specific goods (eg. wedding dresses, furniture, party décor, etc.).
And Johannesburg has plenty of both kinds of gemachs, but this being a money-themed issue I’ll be sticking particularly to a purely financial gemach, the Rambam Charitable Trust. First, though, special mention must be made of the Witwatersrand Hebrew Benevolent Association, a gemach established way back in 1893, a mere half-decade after the establishment of Johannesburg’s very first Jewish congregation, the Witwatersrand Old Hebrew Congregation and the first shul, the Park Synagogue. Both its early founding and its nearly 125-year existence testifies to just how essential a function such an establishment has been and still is to our community. For more on this particular gemach and its enduring place at the heart of the Johannesburg Jewish community, keep an eye out for a future issue of the magazine (or, in the meantime, contact them at 087 350 3592 for more information).
Over a century after the founding of that original gemach, the Rambam Charitable Trust was founded in 1995 after a casual conversation between its five founders turned towards the idea of creating a new gemach for the community. That it happened to be at a time when many South African Jews left the country and the rand began its downward descent towards its currently pathetic levels may have just been a coincidence, but it was certainly a fortuitous one. With each of the five donating a humble R500 each at its founding, the Rambam Trust has since given 119 million rand out in loans (including to schools and shuls) in the past two decades, with less than one-percent being written off. Once sureties have signed off and all the requirements have been met, every loan is given entirely interest-free, with twenty-four months to pay it back. “[Servicing] members of the entire South African Jewish Community…the trust aims to ensure that funds provided uplift the recipient and not become a burden.”
Ensuring both its ability to prevent itself from drowning in bad loans (remember, there’s no interest to act as a lifejacket here as with the normal lending done by banks) and that its clients benefit fully from the loans it does give out, the Rambam Trust takes a holistic view of each of its client’s finances when ascertaining how to best help them. As, for example, a case where a couple approaches the gemach looking for help with their school fees, but has a number of other crushing debts with, say, a bank who very much charges interest on their other debt, the Rambam Trust would usually try and figure out how to settle those far more draining debts first before dealing with the more “manageable” one of school fees.
By a similar token, in cases where it’s clear that a potential client simply wouldn’t be able to pay back his debt (as, for example, in a case where expenditures far outweighs income), the Rambam Trust works very closely with the Chevra Kadisha and sends those persons that it can’t help to the Chev for other, often charity-based options. Further, some cases call for the help of other professionals, most obviously lawyers, and the Rambam Trust again works closely with them – which is undoubtedly helped by the fact that the trustees and members of the gemach are usually professionals themselves, who work at the gemach for a few hours each week purely as an act of chesed.
Maintained by 21 trustees in Johannesburg and 7 in Cape Town, the Rambam Trust has been hit by the tough current economic realities of our country as much as anyone, as the weakened rand and increased cost of living means that the cash pool from which it draws gets depleted far quicker than it used to. What it once took R10 000 to accomplish a few years ago, now takes ten times that. The bulk of the gemach’s fundraising comes from a five-star golf day that it holds once a year, but, obviously, every donation or debit order, no matter how large or small, helps it help the people of our community. To make a donation or to apply for a loan: www.rambam.co.za or firstname.lastname@example.org or 011 485 5401.