How and why does the Jewish community respond to social issues in the ambient society

By Mickey Glass

During Interfaith Harmony Week at the beginning of February, an opportunity was given to present the Jewish community’s contribution to human rights and social welfare.

Because insufficient publicity is given to these manifold activities, all of which make a huge material difference to the marginalised communities amongst whom we live, this article is a follow-up for the benefit of our own community.

It is the Jewish custom to read a portion of our Torah every week. We have just read about the giving of the Ten Commandments nearly four thousand years ago. These, subtly and uniquely, blend laws regarding our relationship with God, together with laws that deal with social justice. At the time, this created a totally new world view. For the first time, a people received instructions which emphasised that the religious experience and the decency upon which we are commanded to build our interpersonal relationships are no longer to be seen as two diverse realms, rather they are two aspects of one whole. Religion and common decency are intertwined and inseparable.

Social responsibility needs reaffirmation because it has become problematic in recent years. There exists a perception that these issues are far too great for individual acts to make a difference. So, we delegate our responsibilities to government. In so doing we substitute politics for ethics, law for moral obligation and independent contractors for personal involvement. As a result, ethics has become a matter of personal choice rather than collective responsibility. Any conception of human life without social responsibility fails to do justice to human dignity.

It should always be remembered that Judaism, the religion of biblical Israel, has existed twice as long as Christianity and three times as long as Islam. Whilst Judaism, like other faiths, might contain many strange concepts, its ultimate purpose is certainly no mystery. It is to honour the image of God in other people and thus turn the world into a home for the divine presence.

We know that our common father, Abraham, was invited by God to initiate a new faith in which every generation strove for justice in human terms. It is not a faith that accepts the status quo as God’s will. On the contrary, it’s a faith in which God invites human beings to become his partners in the work of redemption; to build a society on the basis of a justice that people understand and relate to.

We learn that someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual obligation. Thus, wherever you find a Jewish community, you will find welfare structures that cater to the diverse needs of that community. Our relatively small community runs its own:
• Old-aged home — Highlands House;
• Residential facility for Jewish adults with profound intellectual disability — Glendale;
• Residential child and youth centre providing group care to children and youth who have been found to be in need of care and protection — Oranjia;
• Employment centre and residence to those in our community with disability — Astra Centre and Rosecourt.

There are certainly many other initiatives directed to the needs of our community. But this evening I want to concentrate on the work that we do beyond our own community. I mention only a few initiatives:

For nearly 30 years we have operated Afrika Tikkun, founded by our late Chief Rabbi Harris, with a budget today of over one hundred million Rand per annum, specialising in skills development and training in transformative development from cradle to career. Its local centre is not far away, in Zolile Malindi in Mfuleni, and cost over R15 million when it was built some years ago. Afrika Tikkun’s largest and main centre is in Orange Farm in Gauteng.

Jewish initiative led to the establishment more than 55 years ago by Helen Lieberman, of Ikamva LaBantu which caters to the needs of thousands every single day, mainly here in the Cape Flats. 140 school principals and teachers are enrolled annually; 2000 senior citizens are reached via 19 clubs; 1321 pre-school children receive effective deworming treatment and 150 at-risk children are provided with academic support programmes.

There are multi-purpose service centres for children, youth and adults to empower the most vulnerable — the disabled, the elderly, pre-schoolers, and provide economic empowerment and business initiatives for working adults. Ikamva LaBantu employs hundreds of social workers, occupational therapists, community field workers, nurses and volunteers. It is by far the largest NGO active in local communities.

Rolene Miller was the moving spirit behind the establishment of MOSAIC. She saw that abused women in the townships desperately needed help and needed to be empowered and educated about domestic violence and abuse. The programme started in 1994 when 28 women joined a course dealing with these issues. MOSAIC is now active in 33 communities. MOSAIC was the first organisation in the Western Cape dealing specifically with domestic violence — helping with the writing of affidavits, assisting in the obtaining of protection orders and counseling.

Today MOSAIC operates in fourteen magistrate courts in the Western Cape and two in Gauteng, at the request of the magistrates in charge. It also runs special courses for Clerks of the Court. It has 70 staff members of whom 42 are qualified and dedicated court workers.

Our Union of Jewish Women has for decades provided early school facilities in the townships around Cape Town, as it does elsewhere in our country. The Kensington Educare Centre provides quality education and nutritional support to high-risk preschool children to ensure their readiness for primary school, improve their chances of successful schooling and ultimately, lead them out of poverty by improving their employment prospects.

The UJW is also involved in the Vlottenberg Community Centre which is run by a lay-preacher, Hilton Davids. He and five volunteers keep children off the streets in Wesbank, Blue Downs, and help senior citizens who do not enjoy family support and need money or food. Over 120 children use an unfinished church building for homework supervision and play time, and over 150 children and adults are fed by this project.

In Khayelitsha, Ria Tamele started the Nolunthu Soup Kitchen and After School Centre when dozens of children began regularly to pass her home, asking for food. When Ria ran out of money (she was a domestic worker and she used money from her modest wages to start her programme) she was helped by the UJW and for more than 10 years the centre, which is now registered with the Department of Social Development, provides breakfast to an average of 120 children every day, including weekends. Children are also provided with clothing, educational supplies and toiletries.

Babes Creche in Dunoon is supported by the UJW. Over 86 children ranging in age from 18 months to six years are helped by Zuki and a small team of teachers. Today Zuki is also able to provide meals for many members of the local community.

Over 115 children are looked after by Noxola in Joe Slovo Park. The UJW has built classrooms, equipped them, and continues with ongoing support of stationery and backpacks.

For the past four years the UJW has joined with social workers and nursing staff at Somerset Hospital, in providing high-risk mothers with baby bags. Bags for New Beginnings not only gives a bag at birth but continues to do so every three months to help the new mother through the first year, and the results show better maternal well-being and allows space for education and intervention.

The Mama Flo project also supported by the UJW is to end period poverty. They provide both single-use pads and reusable pads, and menstrual cups to a community in site B, Khayelitsha.

The Temple Sisterhood has been active since 1933 in administering feeding schemes directed to the underprivileged, assisting students across the board, distributing grocery hampers and running courses which teach life skills.

I could go on and on listing various initiatives. The point which I am emphasising is that our small Jewish community is deeply involved in uplifting and improving the lives of those living in marginalised communities — an involvement far out of proportion to our size. You might well ask why?

Suffice it to say that our Torah gives a very clear message — serving God and serving our fellow human beings are inseparably linked and any split between the two impoverishes both. And let us be clear — that applies to all faiths. It is not what God does for us, but what we do for God, that changes us.

Wherever we live, the Jewish people have rarely lost touch with the simple ethical imperatives of our faith. We are here to make a difference. We learn that someone else’s physical needs are our spiritual obligation. Our Rabbis have always taught that the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come. You don’t have to be Jewish to be good, wise or beloved of God. The God of Israel is the God of everyone.

It was the Jewish prophets who introduced the whole idea of man’s responsibility to his fellow man, the concept of social welfare. No-one who reads the Jewish prophets can fail to understand that every individual is sacrosanct; every life is sacred; every human being has inalienable dignity. It was Judaism whose Bible opposed the entire political universe of the ancient world where the kings and pharaohs were seen as gods, where they presided over hierarchal societies in which there was a definite and absolute difference between the rulers and the ruled. Judaism altered that forever.

Judaism vests its faith in certain definite principles — the dignity of the individual; the sanctity of life; the rule of justice over the powerful and the powerless alike; the compassionate society and law-governed liberty. The key is diversity. We are all in God’s image, and yet we are all different. Judaism is about making space for us, making space for God, and about human beings making space for one another.

Thirty-six times in our Bible we are told to remember the stranger in our midst; to ignore the suffering around us at our peril. That is the basis of human rights as taught by our Torah. If we claim to be a people of faith, we need to remember that it was in, and as the voice of social protest that the biblical imagination took shape.

Our vision of the universe is anything but comfortable. To imitate God is to be alert to the poverty, suffering and loneliness of others; and to act directly, not only through prayer but through positive action.

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

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