By Craig Nudelman, Programme and Development Manager, Cape SAJBD
It is difficult to give credit to Gwynne Robins in a short article, as her contributions to the Cape Town Jewish community are almost too many to list.
After working for the Cape Jewish Seniors, she moved to the SA Board of Deputies (Cape Council) as it was known 23 years ago. Although starting out as a half-day assistant to the director, she soon understood that being a Jewish professional for the Board does not entail just one role!
Besides taking fastidious minutes at Cape Council meetings, she started using her EQ as a social worker to work closely with Holocaust victims, to ensure that the survivors received compensation from the Claims Conference. She organised the Board’s annual Yom HaShoah ceremony, and her knowledge of the ins and outs of the preparation for it ensured its success for over 20 years. One of her key works includes In Sacred Memory: Recollection of the Holocaust survivors living in Cape Town, written in 1995 under her nom de plume Gwynne Schrire, where she compiled the testimonies of 52 survivors — something which will ensure that we always remember the Holocaust and never forget those who perished, and those who survived.
Her interest in Jewish history does not end with the Holocaust. She was, and still is, a prolific writer and researcher of Jewish life in South Africa. Rael Kaimowitz, a past chairman of the Cape SAJBD, said of Gwynne’s writing, “your prolific writing skills, legendary encyclopaedic knowledge, and ability to keep abreast of all that is important, has resulted in you being an asset to every chair and director you have served.”
She has written dozens of articles on a multitude of historical topics about South African Jewry for the South African Board of Deputies’ journal, Jewish Affairs, where she sits on the editorial board. She also wrote to a number of media agencies, under other pseudonyms, about issues pertaining to Jews and the Jewish community, and has often spoken out against discriminatory pieces and editorials. Her attention to detail and meticulous hours of research ensure that her writing comes from a position of objectivity, as do all her interactions with people.
She is not, however, just passionate about the Jewish community. She is a stalwart in the interfaith and inter-community networks. She was a founder of theCape Town Interfaith Initiative (CTII), and a director of the Faith Based Alliance for Social Development. Her relationships with leaders of all faiths have led to her spearheading the Cape SAJBD’s interfaith initiatives, such as hosting numerous United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week events, as well as her involvement in the Reconciliation Day Interfaith Walk in District Six and the CTII Heritage Day Bus Tour. Her ability to kindle relationships with Muslim, Baha’i, Hindu and Christian denominations continues to inspire and encourage cooperation.
Reverend Berry Behr, CTI chairperson wrote, “You (Gwynne) have created a deep well of compassion, acceptance, and kindness for all of our diverse interfaith components; and it is a well that will continue to nurture generations to come. What an honour to have shared some of your path.”
Her passion for inter-community relationships also extended to refugee communities within the Cape. She engaged with members of the Rwandan, Burundian and Congolese societies, as well as other minorities, reflecting her passion for inclusion of a diversity of peoples.
Isaiah Mombilo, Chairperson of the Congolese Civil Society praised Gwynne’s commitment to refugees, “No one could value what we were doing as refugees or understand us, but Gwynne gave us this privilege. She enabled us to be a beacon of hope to our community, and she will remain in the book of history for our Congolese community.”
Past Chairs, Council members, Executive Directors and colleagues all spoke of Gwynne’s love of the community, her guidance, her knowledge, her wisdom, and her passion for connecting with people. Tzvi Brivik, current Chairperson of the Board, spoke of his relationship with Gwynne over the past two decades. He said, “Your breadth of knowledge and the way in which you assess current information have ensured we have remained relevant and very much in contact with our sister organisations both within and outside of the community. You are a vault of information that we hope to still access from time to time. Personally, I will miss your daily emails but I’m sure that you will enjoy your children and grandchildren now that you have more time.”
At her last Council meeting (where she still took the minutes as fastidiously as ever!) she said that the most important thing for any leader to say to an employee is ‘thank you’. Although we may often want monetary compensation for our work, a few simple words of gratitude for the work one puts in are also necessary.
Ann Harris, a fellow champion of interfaith relations said, “What a way to retire — to bow out with oceans of well-deserved praise as the outstanding doyenne of the Cape Town professional community. All your colleagues and friends marvel at the encyclopaedia you carry in your memory of the Jewish history of the Cape. You have more vital knowledge at your fingertips than the entire Cape Council! It has been such a privilege to work with you on the Interfaith subcommittee, I have so admired your knowledge and your ability to put it into practice.”
Daniel Bloch, Executive Director of the Board, wrote about how she assisted him during his tenure, saying, “My time with the Board has been short, however I have learnt so much from you. On many occasions, you have shared your experience and knowledge of the community. You speak with such passion that one can only admire and listen intently to each word. I appreciate your honesty and guidance and will miss our conversations.”
Gwynne is the epitome of a Jewish professional. May we all strive to be as committed to our community as she is.
Published in the PDF edition of the May 2022 issue – Click here to read it.
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