Working in mental health: A Jewish journey

Mensch Thought-Leader of the Month

By Abigail Smith

I was brought up in a Jewish home driven by a sense of activism and community service. I have always wanted to find a way to express these values in my working life. 

In 2006 I was based in Cape Town and working in advertising. I had doubts about working in the advertising industry but was unsure what to do next. 

As part of the job, I was invited to a workshop run by the World Wildlife Fund who happened to be a client. The discussion focussed on changing people’s lives by improving farming techniques. It was a beautiful combination of the practical and the ethical. That workshop gave me the clarity I needed and I knew then that I would build a new career in the NGO sector.

This was roughly at the same time that the South Africa government refused to admit that HIV caused AIDS. Millions were dying needlessly, without medicine or basic human rights. I applied for a one-year contract job with the Community Media Trust, working in and around Southern Africa on their HIV treatment literacy projects. It was hard work and involved coming face-to-face with the intense reality of human suffering. 

I was a white Jewish girl from Sea Point working in townships and urban areas across the country, and the work gave me a very sharp awareness of my privilege. It took me several years and several jobs within the NGO sector before I was able to manage my feeling of being an impostor. In reality, such a feeling is never fully resolved when working in South Africa. 

Notwithstanding this harsh truth, I’ve learned that no matter how real my insecurities, no matter how hopeless things feel, it does no good when such feelings become an obstacle to making the world a better place. As it says in Pirkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

Five years after moving into the non-profit sector, I changed from HIV treatment literacy to a job in education with the NaliBali Trust, a leading national literacy programme. The work involved less travelling around the country and was a more practical option if I wanted to start a family.

Then, during 2021, a friend sent me a job posting for the Executive Director at Lifeline in the Western Cape. I knew quite quickly that I wanted to work there. It’s my opinion that — HOW we ensure quality community mental health — is the next public health frontier in South Africa. 

As with any other sector, mental health needs funds, but it also needs something else — it needs to be championed and, where possible, given an equal footing with other health issues. My main objective as Executive Director is to ensure that mental health never falls into the background when it comes to the welfare of those most vulnerable.

NGO work is unstable and often dependent on the whims of funders. Over the years I’ve considered going back to a corporate job, something more ‘secure’. It’s not an easy career path but, at this point in my life, I’ve decided that the rewards outweigh the risks. Yes there are challenges, some of them very serious and disheartening. But there are many days where the work is enjoyable and even fun. Above all, the work is consistently meaningful.

As a pupil at Herzlia I gained a range of skills that come from being in an enabling environment. Skills such as being able to think critically; and to apply knowledge when you know how… and to admit when you don’t know. As many reading this will be aware, I am far from a unique example in the South African Jewish community. There are many of us out there, veterans of the youth movements and day schools. We remain in this country and are working to change systemic inequalities whether in the NGO sector or by other means. We almost all share a core foundational experience — that of an ethical Jewish family life and education. I believe that it is this foundation that has compelled us to build careers on that eternal indestructible golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. 

I feel proud and at home when I interact with my Jewish brothers and sisters in the NGO sector.

Abigail Smith is a valued member of Jewish Social Justice NGO, Mensch. To find out more about Lifeline Western Cape, visit | Mensch on Facebook | Mensch on Instagram

Published in the PDF edition of the May 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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