Helping in a time of crisis

By Gwynne Robins

Crisis, when written in Chinese, is composed of two characters — one represents danger, the other opportunity. The danger represented by the COVID-19 crisis allows us to think and to turn our attention to mortality and our vulnerability. It is also an opportunity to bring out the best in people.

Throughout history, people have noted how the Jewish people have survived and thrived for so many millennia, even while other ancient nations disappeared from the historical scene. We have been through one crisis after another. A key to Jewish resilience has been that we look after ourselves as a community. Jews know they are not alone and that, together, we can persevere and triumph over the challenges. We’ve always lived among our fellow Jews and looked out for one another’s wellbeing. Unfortunately, we have also learned that we cannot always rely on other communities for help as they are often hostile to us.

As in many faiths, charity plays an important part, but we look at it differently. Charity comes from a Latin word, ‘caritas’, meaning ‘heart’ — giving because the problem touches your heart. However, this implies a degree of condescension which can be humiliating to the recipient. No one wants to be the object of charity.

In Hebrew, the word is ‘tzedakah’, meaning ‘justice’. If G-d wanted to make this world a perfect one, it wouldn’t be that one person suffers while another doesn’t, or one has food while another starves. To right the injustice, we must give. Tomorrow, we may be suffering ourselves.

The great sage Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) devised a scale of tzedakah — the highest level is to give to people so that they can earn a living and will not need help in the future, the next highest level is to give in such a way that neither the donor nor the recipient knows from whom the money comes.

We’ve long recognised that we are strongest when we stand together, helping and supporting each other. The COVID-19 crisis has shown this as the communal bodies have come together working as one in a COVID-19 Steering Committee chaired by the Cape SAJBD, which meets regularly to strategise for our current and future needs with the various sectors of the community.

Our community is looking after our community, raising money for PPE, helping those who have lost their jobs, who have no food, who are sick, who need advice with legal, medical, psychological and economic problems.

A national Gesher Fund was established by the Chief Rabbi to relieve previously sustainable small Jewish-owned businesses, and, in Cape Town, the UJC established the Emergency Fund to fund short-term PPE requirements and COVID-19 testing, protect those on the front lines, ensure our children can receive an education, top-up welfare organisations that relied on donations and assist organisations in difficulties.

Jewish Community Services (JCS) is now delivering more food through the Tikvah FoodBank and Meals on Wheels than before the pandemic, and Cape Jewish Seniors Association (CJSA) is now delivering Shabbat meals to isolated seniors. The CSO has launched a Mental Health Hotline and a Wellness Programme to monitor people who have tested positive. The Cape SAJBD has issued the community with information on health, the lockdown and labour issues.

As we are not only Jews, but also South Africans, we must also give to our fellow South Africans. We have been raising money to provide food and PPE to others. The national SAJBD has raised R9 million to feed the hungry and the vulnerable. The Cape SAJBD has compiled a list of organisations feeding the vulnerable, the refugees, the homeless and the hungry, to make it easier to support them. It has donated money to provide food for Congolese, Rwandan and Burundi refugees who, given their status, do not qualify for government assistance but are as hungry as non-refugees.

G-d commands us in the Torah to “share [our] bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into [our] house.” (Deuteronomy 15:7–10)

Feeding the hungry is one of our most important responsibilities and a midrash tells us that “When you are asked in the world to come, ‘What was your work?’ and you answer: ‘I fed the hungry,’ you will be told: ‘This is the gate of the Lord, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.” (Midrash to Psalm 118:17).

The former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has asked “When the worst of the pandemic is over, what kind of future will we seek? Will we try as far as possible to go back to the way things were? Or will we try to create a more just and caring society? What impact does collective tragedy have on the human imagination? We have to use the pain we’ve been through to sensitise ourselves to the pain of others, the poor, the weak and the vulnerable — the widow, the orphan and the stranger. We’ve been through too much simply to go back to where we were. We have to rescue some blessing from the curse, some hope from the pain.”

So help make the world better. Volunteer, make sandwiches, give.

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website:

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