Merle Furman retires from Astra Centre

By Peter Greenberg, member and past chairman of the Astra Committee

Merle Furman, executive director of Astra Centre retired in December after 46 years at the helm.

Merle started working at Jewish Sheltered Employment Centre as a timid social worker. Her enthusiasm and interest in her work and in the well-being of the workers culminated in her being the obvious choice to succeed as Executive Director.

From a small workshop for physically and mentally challenged members of the Cape Town Jewish community, Merle was instrumental in developing Astra Centre into a world class internationally recognised centre for people with disabilities.

Her ability to collaborate with her committee and other community members has enabled Astra to grow from a small workshop into an organisation comprising various workshops, an outstanding gift shop, a kosher coffee shop/restaurant and function venue, and three excellent group homes. Various workshops produce a large range of high quality goods that are sold at Giftime, which during Merle’s tenure grew from a small shop into an enterprise selling upmarket gifts to both the general public and large corporates.

A few years ago, inspired by the incredible mountain views, Merle came up with the idea of starting a small coffee shop. Coffeetime evolved into a well-known kosher coffee shop, restaurant and function venue, hosting many weddings, bar and batmitzvahs and countless birthday parties over the years.

Throughout this tremendous growth and development, Merle never lost sight of the ethos and purpose of Astra, and the 65 community members who work there, making a valuable contribution to the daily running of Astra Centre. Her hands-on approach has resulted in a personal connection with each and every worker, staff member and committee member; and this has enabled her to connect with and motivate them all. Her ability to combine her social work background with her leadership and interpersonal skills has been key to the success of Astra.

Merle has ensured that Astra has secured a number one position on the world stage and has, over the years, hosted numerous international dignitaries who have visited Cape Town. Every person who visits Astra is bowled over by what has been achieved, and how the workers have attained such dignity and pride from their work, motivating them to want to achieve more and more. Merle’s attention to detail, interest in and regular personal contact with all the workers has been the key in this achievement. Her inspiring and motivational leadership has worked its way down to the staff, workers and the committee, ensuring the continuation of the success of Astra after her retirement.

The development and success of the three group homes, Rosecourt House, Rosecourt Terrace and Vriende House and the opening of a new group home in the foreseeable future are further testament to Merle’s vision and leadership. Each home is headed up by a house parent who operates the house like a home away from home. The warm and friendly interiors and atmosphere ensure a wonderful home life for many of the workers, and give their families peace of mind that they are nurtured and cared for. Merle has spent many years working behind the scenes to achieve this harmonious situation.

Merle will also be remembered by many as the face of the famous Astra fundraiser, the Astra Race Day which was held every year at Kenilworth Racecourse, which raised much-needed funds and which we hope will resume again soon.

Merle has given her life and soul to Astra and together with her husband, Selwyn, a long-time committee member, leaves behind an incredible legacy which will ensure the continued growth and success of Astra. She has been a visionary in her field and the entire Cape Town Jewish community is indebted to her for her vision, foresight and courage. Merle’s legacy can be aptly described by the following words, What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others. This is a farewell but not a goodbye and we hope to see Merle at Astra regularly, keeping a watchful eye on the legacy which she has built with compassion and love.

We wish Merle a well-earned retirement with Selwyn and many years of good health and happiness.

Astra Jewish Sheltered Employment
20 Breda Street, Gardens, 021 461 8414,

Honouring Merle Furman

After an extraordinary 46-year career at Astra Centre, Merle Furman has taken a well-earned retirement. Her contribution to the community and beyond has been truly exceptional.

In 2021, at the Jewish Care Cape AGM, she was awarded the Eliot Osrin award in the category of Chairperson’s Choice. The adjacent wording appears on the certificate.

“During her 46 years of service at Astra, through treating people with dignity and providing opportunities in order that they may thrive, Merle has made an enormous difference in the lives of many persons with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities. Under her professional leadership, the scope of services and opportunities has expanded, providing sheltered employment through the workshop where beautiful arts and crafts are produced, Giftime where these products are sold and Coffeetime which attracts people to come and visit. Over three decades ago she was a trailblazer in providing independent living in a supportive environment and went on to create three beautiful residences. Her work has contributed towards the destigmatisation of disablity, breaking down barriers and increasing the visibility of these vulnerable persons in our community. Merle is internationally recognised for her expertise and wealth of experience and bears the merit of many facilities being established abroad with her guidance. Our community is proud of the legacy that she has created.”

• Published in the PDF edition of the February 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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