Abe, our friendliest face

With the residents committee, From left: Esmé Jacobson, Michael Kelly, Abe Sank (standing), Arnold Wallach, Diane Kanter and Jenni Burnett.

Mathilde Myburgh interviewed Abe Sank, long-time supporter of Highlands House, and Honorary Life Member as of 2022

“I got involved with Highlands House through the late Sylvia Gottlieb.”

“Sylvia was involved for many years with the Home. She first got me involved in the late 60s with the Jewish orphanage, Oranjia. We stayed near Oranjia, on Montrose Avenue in Oranjezicht, and I used to walk to school with some of the Oranjia children and spend a lot of time with them. Sylvia was very involved in Oranjia, having herself benefitted from the orphanage. It’s very much part of her story. She wanted to give back to Oranjia, for what Oranjia did for her. After Oranjia, she got me involved in the Jewish Board of Guardians, which you now might know as Jewish Community Services. In those days — the 70s — they were still in Cape Town on Dorp Street. Sylvia, all that time, was involved at Highlands House, and one day, she schlepped me along.”

Abe’s wife, Leina, chips in, “When our children were very little, we were both very involved with Oranjia. There was a little boy in Oranjia, who today must be in his 60s, who used to come home with us. The children outgrew each other, they were teenagers, and they weren’t that interested in each other any more. And that’s when Abe became involved with Highlands House — when the kids were a bit older. We also knew people in Highlands. We had family who stayed there, and that’s how it went on, from year to year.”

“I got onto the committee first. I wanted to help. If I was needed, I was there. And I knew the chairman and the late Max Florence and Mr Dan Rabie, Mr Zeh there were so many of them who I knew through business. I found it rewarding. Maybe in the early days I didn’t do as much as I did later, but I grew into it.

“I come from Paternoster. You’ve probably heard about the place because 20 years ago it suddenly became a popular destination. My late parents had the hotel there in the early 1930s. The last time we were there, it was, unfortunately, a bit grubby. Leina is from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe and came to Cape Town to study. We met at a party on a Saturday evening. I was in the motor business and I worked with my brother. He was my partner, and we built up a company called Market Cars, which became Market Toyota. We sold out in 1998. My claim to fame was Mr Toyota. I used to walk in the streets and people would say, there goes Mr Toyota.

“I’ve been involved with Highlands House for around 50 years. Sylvia was an Honorary Life Member back then. She started the hairdressing business and the manicuring services at the Home, and spent many days of the week at Highlands House. She was like an interfering aunty, but she was one of those people who got things done. The committee was old back then I thought — I was a pikkie then. I went with Max Florence to the interview with Harris Burman, when he arrived from Durban. 

“Today, Highlands House is different. Back then, in the heyday, there were over 200 residents. Now it’s a smaller community of 153. When they started talking about only admitting people who need care and assistance, I was against it. It’s a completely new idea. There’s a lot going on that is modern, and not how the older committee would have thought about it. The current committee is doing a fantastic job we’re very lucky to have the quality of people that we have. It’s modern and it’s the right way to go, and please G-d they can go on for many, many years to serve our community, which is pretty old, with an ageing population. There is a big question mark over how to keep institutions relevant and sustainable.

The changes are progressing amazingly, with Dr Leon Geffen setting a good pace. The healthcare is unbelievable — I don’t know of any other organisation that offers what we do. The activities programme provides stimulation to residents. We’ve been to old-age homes where people are just sitting along the passage, with nothing do to occupy themselves. A lot is going on for Highlands House residents. And every day there is an improvement. Leina (my wife) taught yoga there for many, many years. The upgrade of the terrace outside the Coffee Shop is very exciting. There is a culture of giving back and getting involved. 

I worry that the young people are leaving, and we need to sustain our organisations. The younger people aren’t committing as the older generations have. I was in my 30s when I got involved. I remember, in the old days, they paid people to go and collect for Highlands House, and they earned a commission. They used to get stop orders signed, for pounds and shillings. Even if you gave five shillings a month, it was something — it meant something. In those days my parents signed stop orders. It wasn’t for very much, but that’s where the culture started for me. There was an idea that if everyone contributed — even just a little bit, only what they could afford — then we could reach our goal. The older generation gave money, whatever they could afford to give, and those who became wealthy gave more. In Highlands’ history, there were a couple of bigger donors who are no more. I worry that it dries up. I worry that it isn’t carried forward generationally. I want to see that community sense of paying back and looking after each other again.

I would like to see Highlands House modernise and run like clockwork, like it’s starting to run now. I’d like to see the gardens improved. I want it to be a place of comfort for people. 

Abe Sank has been involved in Highlands House since 1972, and still serves on the Advisory Board. This year he was made an Honorary Life Member.

Highlands House www.highlandshouse.co.za

• Published in the October 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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