New initiatives in the time of Corona
By Ilan Preskovsky
At this point, what more is there to say about COVID-19? Most of us have never experienced a global phenomenon even remotely like this; one that has so thoroughly altered our most basic, day-to-day existence on so fundamental a level that even with all the political and social upheaval that 2020 has wrought, it will forever be defined by this pandemic. And that’s only partly because of its health implications.
The forced disruption of day-to-day living by life under lockdown has been a shocking reminder that all we take for granted about our lives – our work, our entertainment, our religious institutions, even our most fundamental need for social interaction – can fall away so easily, so quickly and from something as unlikely as a mutation on the virus responsible for most common colds. The psychological, religious, emotional, and practical effects of COVID-19 will be felt long after the actual disease is, please G-d soon, a thing of the past.
One area that its impact is already most acutely felt is, of course, the economy – or, more particularly, on the financial realities of all South Africans. For the lucky few, COVID-19 has made a sizeable, albeit insignificant dent in their bank accounts, but for exponentially more, it has been and will be nothing less than a waking nightmare. The past few months have put millions of South Africans in incredibly dire financial straits.
Those that are already at the lowest end of the economic spectrum – the destitute and the homeless, in particular – will be and have been hit hardest but it’s hard to stress just how rougher it has been on ordinary working-class and middle-class workers who live, effectively, hand-to-mouth; for whom just one month without a steady paycheck can ruin them or, at the very least, throw them into debt that will take months, even years to climb out of. The same is, of course, true of small businesses as well and most especially for those whose profit margins are so small that a month in lockdown can mean never reopening again.
Along with all the real pain, despair, and uncertainty that has come with COVID-19, however, we have also seen countless examples of people stepping up to the plate and doing acts of kindness to help their fellow man. This has been true of the wider population, but it is certainly no less true of South Africa’s Jewish community. We have always really been a community of Jews who look out for one another, regardless of religious affiliation (or lack thereof) and these troubled times are certainly no exception.
Take, for example, the Chevra Kadisha, the organisation that stands alone in providing invaluable welfare services to countless members of the Johannesburg Jewish community. Even with so many of their donors taking a major financial hit during this crisis, they have continued with all their many existing services and have even added an emergency fund to deal with the effects of COVID-19.
As the Chev’s CEO, Saul Tomson, describes it: “Nearly 1 000 of the most vulnerable, aged, and disabled people in our community reside in Chevrah Kadisha facilities. They need our vigilant protection, which comes at an incredibly high cost. Simultaneously, the economic devastation to families is resulting in significant additional demands on our organisation for financial support. This fund will ensure the physical and emotional survival of families in our community. Lives are at stake, our fellow Jews have nowhere else to turn.”
As the Chev continues to be a backbone of the Joburg Jewish community, though, there have been a number of “grass roots” initiatives that have also arisen as a result of the pandemic. Within the Jewish community alone, countless individuals and organisations are doing their part to help those most affected by COVID-19 – both for fellow Jews and for the wider South African community.
What follows is just – and I can’t stress this enough – a small sample of all the good work being done in our (and sometimes other) community for the less fortunate during this trying time.
Gesher is a “small business relief fund” that was created by the office of the Chief Rabbi, a number of founding donors, and the Chev as a way to offer flexible-term, interest-free loans to the many majority Jewish-owned businesses in the community that have been badly undermined by the COVID-19 crisis.
Making use of the Chev’s extensive infrastructure and workforce, but crucially, remaining an entirely independent entity, Gesher is intended as a “last resort” option for those Jewish-owned, SMMEs (small, medium, and micro enterprise businesses) in desperate need of a cash-flow injection. As chairperson, Martin Sacks stresses, however, certain criteria do need to be met before a loan is given.
The business has to have tried whatever else they could to get the money first. They need to have been solvent before COVID-19 hit and must be operationally viable for at least twelve months. The loans are for “short-term operating and working capital”, most especially for the payment of employee wages. Those that most positively impact on the community are given preference.
With all this said, though, already over 100 businesses have received loans from Gesher.
For more information, visit: https://gesher.org.za/
Bikkur Cholim Home School Gemach
Bikkur Cholim, as its name implies, has been visiting the sick in hospitals and clinics in and around Johannesburg for years, but with hospitals almost entirely shut to outside visitors, they have been limited to sending care packages in their stead. This did, however, free up both resources and time for the organisation and Bikkur Cholim wanted to do its part to help with the COVID crisis in its own way.
To this end, the organisation set up a gemach to loan out, for free and for an indefinite amount of time, all sorts of supplies to help families in our community with home schooling their kids. Primarily, the gemach provides laptops, printers, routers, and other essential equipment needed to connect teachers and students via the World Wide Web to those who are unable to afford these often pricey, but absolutely essential items.
Two other services offered in conjunction with the gemach are a training course for parents about the darker sides of the internet (this is only starting to get off the ground) and the chance for families to send in broken computing equipment for repair that will either be fixed for them free of charge or, failing that, a replacement will be loaned out to them instead.
As of the time of writing this article, schools have started to open, but as Bikkur Cholim’s Rolene Lang correctly points out, things are still very much up in the air, as it remains unclear as to just how long-lasting and how extensive the school re-openings will be (especially as cases of COVID-19 continue to rapidly escalate). More than that, many parents (including Rolene herself) will opt for home schooling for the rest of the year even if the schools do open.
So far, the Gemach has helped over 30 families with their essential home schooling needs and is open to anyone in the Joburg Jewish community in need.
For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reaching Out to The Wider Community:
This astonishing and incredibly inventive response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a crowd-funding platform to raise interest-free loans for self-employed individuals working as, for example, Uber drivers or nail technicians, who would lose most, if not all of their income during the lockdown. The entire thing was conceptualised and implemented within days of the government’s swift call for lockdown by Dani Silbermann and Julia Marcus, two lifelong friends from our community (though Julia is now based in Australia) who saw a need that needed to be filled and got to work filling it.
Dani, as Julia explains, tends to befriend and take a personal interest in the lives of the sort of service workers who most of us take for granted. “She doesn’t just get in an Uber and sit quietly on the way to her next destination – she leaves the Uber friends with the driver, knowing his whole life story.”
With that kind of understanding of this oft overlooked sector of the workforce, Dani was struck by a realisation that, as she explains, “There’s a whole sector of individual income earners who can only earn when they have access to their self-created day-to-day trade and the second lockdown clamps down on them they will lose their ability to do their day-to-day earning and, as soon as that happens, there world implodes and everything they built falls to nothing.”
With this, Dani contacted Julia and the two agreed that something needed to be done and needed to be done fast. What they both understood about the people they were trying to help is that these are individuals who often come from the poorest of backgrounds and who lifted themselves up to create their own small businesses and become financially-independent, productive members of society.
The loss of work over the weeks and months of lockdown wouldn’t just ruin them financially, but would destroy all of the hard work they had put into building their lives up from next to nothing. It wasn’t just a question of livelihood, but a question of dignity. These are people who, when approached, were adamant that, while they would gladly take a loan, they were absolutely not looking for a hand out.
Combining Julia’s background in finance (she works in life insurance) and Dani’s background in marketing and social media, the two women got to work setting up a crowd-funding platform that would offer loans to these individual income earners, free of charge, that they would be able to pay back – or, in many cases, “pay forward” – when they’re up on their feet again. The response from the Jewish community has been both enthusiastic and generous, with loans given to (and often already paid back by) numerous individuals grateful for both the much-needed help and the all-too-crucial ability to retain what they had put so much work and so much of themselves into.
Head on over to the Aloan Together website – https://www.aloannotalone.co.za/ (it was put together so quickly that they hadn’t quite decided on the final name when registering the domain and it is known variously as Aloan Together or A Loan Not Alone) – to contribute to this wonderful initiative and to hear some personal testimonials from those that have been helped by it so far.