By: Chandrea Serebro
What Jew doesn’t feel immense pride when he sees Israel standing at the forefront of the global community, frequently even arriving first on the scene, when it comes to offering aid to disaster zones like Nepal after their 2015 earthquake, Haiti after their 2010 earthquake, and Thailand after their 2004 Tsunami, often without even a remote vested interest in the country in question? Showing kindness to non-Jews – a mitzvah in its own right – falls under the category of what our Rabbis called darchei shalom, lit: paths of peace, through which we can build and maintain good relationships with our non-Jewish neighbours. The Shulchan Aruch, the famous Code of Jewish Law, teaches that we: assist poor non-Jews financially; visit non-Jews who are sick; help non-Jews bury and eulogise their dead, as well as comfort and console their mourners; and all of this for the sake of the mitzvah of darchei shalom. As Jews, we just seem to have an innate need to do our bit for the world, a responsibility to better the world and help others, that seems to be ingrained in our makeup. We don’t just worry about our own; we worry about the well-being of everyone.
In short, you don’t have to be Jewish to benefit from the kindness of Jews. There are so many ways local Jews are doing good for their own communities-at-large. We chose a handful of groups to profile here and hope to do more stories on such great initiatives in the future, so please let us know about the wonderful Jewish organisations in your community reaching out to help non-Jews.
Afrika Tikkun – its very name sets out its dual intention of bringing the Jewish ideal of making the world a better place and applying that ideal to the South African people, making a better place for everyone who lives here. In the past, Jewish Life has had the pleasure of reporting on Afrika Tikkun and all the good work they have done in the last twenty years under the helm of the late, great Dr Bertie Lubner, a”h, implementing very successful development programmes to redress the inequities of apartheid and to help disadvantaged young people to realise their potential. Listening to Marc Lubner, it’s difficult not to be wowed by the fresh direction in which the organisation is going with their Cradle to Career programme, born out of a shared desire he and the late Bertie had to propel the vision of the organisation into an enterprise that caters to the needs of what both individuals and the country generally need on the ground at every level. Afrika Tikkun’s vision has evolved into a more holistic development model reflecting the requirements of the people, which aims to reach thousands of vulnerable children and young people every day, addressing their needs not once, but at every stage of their development. It is a “virtuous circle”, Marc explains – developing the youth, first getting them schooled and educated, following this on with training and learnerships, giving them aptitudes needed in the job market that will sustain them, and then directing them to actual employment opportunities as well. He attributes the initiative to “Bertie’s dynamism” and his own “innovativeness”, and it is a true example of our fellow Jews who, through what Marc can only attribute to “G-d’s hand”, are pioneering paths to peace by bettering the world in a real and sustainable way.
Best friends for 20 years, Lara Hirschmann and Michelle Rosen founded the Thusanani Children’s Foundation together. Having worked in Baragwanath Hospital after qualifying as an Occupational Therapist, Lara realised that there was a tremendous delay in the orphaned and vulnerable pre-schooler population, as it is often difficult for the few care workers to take these children to the hospital for any required therapies. Since 80% of the brain’s growth occurs in the first five years of life, if these issues are not addressed, it will affect future physical and cognitive development. So, impelled not only to identify this delay, but to provide the therapeutic input and stimulation required to achieve their developmental milestones, Thusanani, which means ‘helping each other’ in Venda, was created in 2002. Starting as a two-man team, with Lara – the occupational therapist – and Michelle – the accountant, Thusanani now has a full medical team offering the services of OT Intervention, a speech therapist, and a Pediatrician, performing the medical and therapy adoption assessments for almost all of the children adopted in Gauteng. They work from their own clinic at the Children’s Memorial Institute, an entity comprising about 30 separate organisations, mostly NGOs, providing services to children with special needs (medical, educational, psychosocial, or legal). In addition to this, care workers are offered training about identification of developmental delay and how to address it. Michelle’s heart is in her charity work, so much so that she gave up her career in asset management to spend her time working between Jewish charities and Thusanani. “One of the wonderful things about living in South Africa is that there are so many amazing opportunities to make such a big difference in people’s lives. I am proud to be part of Thusanani, and amazed that our small idea has grown into an organisation, giving these orphaned and vulnerable children the solid foundations for learning, as well as the opportunity for adoption – a chance for a better future.”
While most of us hold within us the Jewish values of bettering the world and uplifting the lives of others, it’s a different kettle altogether to make it your life’s work. And indeed, notwithstanding the want to do it, few would have the ability to lead the life of a not-for-profit pioneer. But Pam Green always felt the importance in her own life of volunteer work and social responsibility, her dream to one day dedicate herself to helping others, and educating and inspiring society to give back at the same time. “We have a responsibility to open our hearts and assist those suffering in the world around us, being a light of hope and love and kindness.” Never having the chance to act on these dreams until one of her life’s greatest challenges, which saw her penniless and homeless, inspired in her the resolve to always be kind to the desperate, compassionate to the weak, and to triumph over her adversity. She picked herself up and starting rebuilding her life, little-by-little, while at the same time not forgetting about others around her. Soon, Pam won what she likes to call “the virtual lottery” when one of her posts – asking for help to find a job and a new life for a homeless beggar – went viral, and her NPO Organisation #SecondChances was born. “#SecondChances highlights the daily struggles of unemployment, addiction, hopelessness, and the cycle of abuse. It reminds us that our circumstances need not be permanent, but that with a helping hand, perseverance, and hard work, people can successfully get their second chance. This comes in the form of employment, sobriety, education, and sponsorships, by using social media to bring the country and, in some cases, the world’s attention to individuals in need.”
The eight month old, 12 000-member-strong Angel Network is a voluntary organisation run purely via social media to do whatever anyone can to cater to the constant need of so many who have so little. “What began as a small group of volunteers packing toiletries for State patients grew into six strangers with one goal – to offer help wherever help was needed by giving a hand up rather than a hand out, and with very little thought and almost no planning soon mushroomed into a Facebook group operating from Johannesburg, PE, and Cape Town, assisting charities in six provinces, while receiving sponsorships and donations from around the globe – The Angel Network,” says co-founder Glynne Wolman. “We lost plenty of sleep in the early days, enthusiastically inviting people to join and delighting every time a new member was added to our page. But, beyond our wildest imagination, news quickly spread and, before we realised it, we were assisting 35 charities and outreach centres.” Now, every new member helps The Angel Network reach more people out there who are “battling poverty and starvation this winter”, “just ordinary people doing extraordinary things through small acts of kindness that make a big difference,” explains Glynne. “People want to give back and often aren’t sure where to help or how to get involved, and most of the time by asking for real help rather than funding we’ve seen that people generally like to give when they can see exactly where it is going.” Facilitating projects, from partnering organisations and feeding schemes to feed children, to packing rape and dignity packs for hospitals and centres, as well as helping to provide clothing for victims of fire, they function like the modern day Superman with Facebook as their phone booth. As Jews, explains Glynne, we are taught to be “a light unto the nations”, and if that light is the “new message alert” that’s also fine, because today we have a superhero level of power at our fingertips just by doing something as simple as scrolling up and “liking” the wonderful things that people are doing to help others.