Perfecting the World — Ann Harris

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At the end of our three statutory services every day, we say the beautiful prayer, Aleinu — it is our duty to praise the Master of all. We pray that the entire world will acknowledge the Almighty’s sovereignty which will allow us to work towards a perfect universe.

But we all know that we are facing a tremendous challenge. How can we attempt to heal a world so fractured by poverty and disease, by injustice and cruelty, by inequality and abuse of power?
Would it not be easier for us to concentrate on our own needs and challenges, and not embark on a gigantic and seemingly impossible task?

Why should a small community of 70 000 souls, laden with responsibilities for itself, support organisations like Afrika Tikkun?
Quite simply because our religion expects and demands it of us. And the truth is that the ethical doctrine of Tikkun Olam, explained in Aleinu as making the world a better place and exemplified in a host of our religious teachings, is more widely known and taught today than ever before.

We can find it explained and illustrated in Torah and Tanach, in Siddur, Machzor and Talmud, in medieval and modern Rabbinic scholarship down through the annals of Jewish history.

When the infant Afrika Tikkun first saw the light of day nearly twenty-five years ago, side by side with South Africa’s fledgling democracy, it was by no means a new idea. During the dark Apartheid years, many Jewish souls had been quietly involved in support for their disadvantaged fellow citizens, whether personally, commercially or communally. But a bright new day was dawning. Our founders, the late Dr Bertie Lubner and Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, both of blessed memory, realised that if the Jewish Community was to make a positive contribution to the new dispensation, its efforts would need focus, structure and organisation. And so a handful of volunteers in Johannesburg and an even smaller handful in Cape Town began to consider which problem to tackle first.

If we were to be involved in the building of a new and just society, our goal had to be to assist disadvantaged families and communities to give their children the chance to be tomorrow’s productive citizens. We looked back at our role models, the founders of our community, who brought with them to these shores exactly those values, care of the family and the building of community structures which could assist them in the fields of education, healthcare and family support.

With hindsight, we can now admit that it took us several years to work out how we could best contribute – and we are still learning. The most valuable lesson learned was to realize that we were not just a hand-out charity; and that the real constructive way to assist had to be to make partnerships with a host of community-based organisations in all the localities to which we ventured and with many other NGOs skilled in ‘specialist’ work.

Since then, we have developed our much acclaimed ‘Cradle to Career 360° Model’ which is focused on ensuring that vulnerable children and young people are holistically supported in every stage of their development. This continues from infancy until our children are able to access employment or self-employment.

We operate from five ‘Centres of Excellence’ in five communities in Gauteng and the Cape. Each centre operates an Early Childhood Development pre-school and a Child and Youth Development programme for the school years, providing varied activities including academic support, (last year, we scored a 98% Matric pass rate), libraries and computer laboratories. For the youth, the emphasis is on preparation for employment. Leisure activities focus on sport and music. Children with special educational needs are included.
Needless to say, we feed all our clients daily, as many as 800 000 meals a year — how could a Jewish led organisation fail to do that? We are also insistent on supporting our 12 000 clients with essential teams of social workers and primary health care. These services are a vital component of building Tikkun Olam. How can we make progress if people are sick and burdened by social challenges?

We often remember with amazement how we embarked on this adventure nearly a quarter of a century ago with less than a handful of staff. That small group has now become a nationwide dedicated and highly professional corps, costly but necessary.
But we all need to accept the responsibility of helping to make South Africa an example of Tikkun Olam by contributing our interest, our understanding and the practical application of the timeless moral and ethical values of Judaism.

Ann Harris is a founder of Afrika Tikkun, together with her husband, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris of blessed memory, Bertie Lubner also of blessed memory, Herbie Rosenberg and Arnold Forman. She continues to play a vital role in the organisation as a board member.

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