Dave Gordon with children at a learning center in Alexandra, South Africa. Credit: Courtesy.
Dave Gordon with children at a learning center in Alexandra, South Africa. Credit: Courtesy.
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‘Part of my Jewish faith,’ say South Africans who help the country’s most vulnerable

The average South African does not agree with the ruling party’s accusations against Israel before the U.N. court in the Hague, says Rabbi Yossy Goldman.

A sandal-clad boy, no more than 4 years old, with a face of cracked skin weaves aimlessly among rickety shacks and crumbling makeshift homes along winding dirt roads. The Johannesburg-area locals ignore him as he wanders with no apparent destination in the middle of the day. 

He won’t stray too far, and wherever he ends up, someone in the community will know someone else who will know to whom he belongs, a guide tells JNS on a visit before the COVID-19 pandemic. (JNS followed up with the sources in this story in recent weeks.)

A few hundred feet away, the school has been shuttered by government decree—a budget issue, the guide says. It is emblematic of the state of affairs in Alexandra, a three-square-mile township with a population of about 180,000, located some eight miles from Johannesburg.

About 15 miles from Johannesburg, a teenage girl ducks suddenly behind the corner of a house in the squatter camp at Soweto, seemingly keen to avoid being seen or caught. She had skipped a day of school or perhaps several days, an aid worker tells JNS. It’s not delinquency but a young woman grappling with her menstrual cycle without the financial means for feminine hygiene products. She is apparently terrified of being teased at school.

Many studies argue that inadequate sanitary facilities affect girls’ experiences at school, causing them to miss classes every month or even drop out. Schools that have female-friendly facilities and incorporate information on menstruation into the curriculum for both girls and boys can reduce stigma and contribute to better education and health outcomes.

An annual income of $15,060 for an individual qualifies as the poverty guideline in most of the United States ($18,810 in Alaska and $17,310 in Hawaii). For that money, many families could eat like kings for a year in Soweto, where 2.2 pounds of breakfast cereal costs 19 South African rand, about $1.03.

In the country’s 30th year of democracy after transitioning to a democratic government on April 27, 1994, the racial divide no longer has government sanction. But there remains a class divide as stark as ever, and for many in the townships, food is infrequent, unpredictable and hard to come by. 

South Africa recently accused Israel of genocide before the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial arm of the United Nations, in The Hague. In that sense, it was biting the hand that feeds it.

The South African township of Soweto. Photo by Dave Gordon.

An army of dedicated Jewish aid workers, with whom JNS spent three days, are making a world of difference to the impoverished South Africans they help.

“The feeling here in the Jewish community of South Africa is that the government’s case against Israel at The Hague, and its recent increased actions and rhetoric against Israel, are the political machinations of the African National Congress, the political party which currently controls the government,” Rabbi Yossy Goldman, life rabbi emeritus of the Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South Africa Rabbinical Association.

“It is decidedly not the feeling of the average South African citizen, black or white. The majority of South Africans, who are Christian, are supportive of Israel,” Goldman told JNS. “Everyone understands that the ANC case at The Hague was political grandstanding and the most obnoxious hypocrisy coming from a government where more innocent civilians are murdered annually than have died in Gaza.”

Earlier this week, Naledi Pandor, the foreign minister of South Africa and part of the ANC Party, said that South African citizens who fight with or alongside the Israel Defense Forces will be arrested upon their return home.

Goldman said that Jewish South Africans hope and pray that the ANC loses power in the upcoming national elections scheduled for May.

‘Some form of outreach program’

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, told JNS that the representative body is “extremely proud of the contribution of our community in the area of poverty alleviation in South Africa.”

“Members of our community have also played such a central role in establishing non-governmental organizations that have played such a pivotal role in uplifting disadvantaged communities,” she said. (The Jewish Board of Deputies facilitated the distribution of the equivalent of about $1.63 million in current value in food relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Kahn.)

“Most of our Jewish communal organizations include some form of outreach program—schools, synagogues, women’s organizations and youth groups,” she said. “It is a fundamental value in our community.”

According to Kahn, the South African government’s hostility to Israel “does not mean that the majority of our society share this disgraceful stance.”

“The majority of South Africans are deeply religious, and they have stood by Israel in its darkest hours. We have been so encouraged by the solidarity shown to Israel and our community by many of the churches, including some of the traditional African churches who have many million followers,” she added.

The ANC’s anti-Israel case in The Hague is an example of its “obsessive hostility to Israel” and “their attempt to regain their human rights credibility that has been in tatters,” she added.

‘Not even dogs’

Marilyn Herson Bassin is a brash player in the nonprofit world who ruffles feathers and gets kicked out of hospitals for having the chutzpah to call attention to their dismally failing care. A parliamentarian had to intervene for her to be allowed to return.

Bassin, who is Jewish and who graduated from King David Schools—a private Jewish school network in South Africa—has fought for medical care for deaf children and for those who suffer from chronic bowel issues, cerebral palsy and meningitis.

She supplied pajamas for babies with brain damage who were freezing in bed in hospice and helped a toddler in a burn clinic who was badly hurt when the aunt’s boyfriend burned their shack down.

The South African township of Soweto. Photo by Dave Gordon.

“You don’t see dogs treated the way these children are treated,” she told JNS of South Africa’s rural hospitals.

Her “biggest project yet,” she told JNS in early March, has been providing specialized wheelchairs (“buggies”) for children with cerebral palsy in rural parts of the country.

“We have provided buggies to kids who have waited a lifetime for a mobility device,” she said. She and her team at the nonprofit Boikanyo: The Dion Herson Foundation have even fit a 43-year-old in a buggy. “So long as they are small in stature and can fit into a child’s buggy, we will fit them,” she told JNS.

Bassin has worked with Sediba Thuto High Primary School in Soweto, where most of the kids get fueled by a single daily meal, which the school provides, of a powdered drink with processed vitamins and proteins or a “pap”—ground maize and water.

Five girls collecting water from a pump wear different school uniforms, but all attend the same school. Second-hand uniforms from other schools are acceptable when it’s given that parents have limited means. One girl owns no socks. Another tells JNS she has but a single pair.

Eagerly smiling and apparently giddy from the attention, an entire class of children waves back excitedly through the windows at JNS.

Water is a luxury

In the Soweto camps, where Nelson Mandela—former political prison, civil-rights activist and the first president of South Africa after apartheid—lived, 80% of the squatters own almost no possessions, according to Bassin. Here, homes are made of scrap aluminum siding (roofs often held in place weighted down by rocks), wood and stray flotsam pieces. Fences are made of mattress springs.

As many as 15 people can live in a single shack. Roads are unpaved, and clothing air-dries on row and row of lines, stretching in every direction.

Water is a luxury, with the odd porta-potty dotting the landscape. Resourceful individuals have hacked wiring from power lines, stealing electricity. Few were fooled when, leading up to the last election, some electrical lines were fixed and some roads paved, Bassin told JNS.

A 3-year-old boy, sitting in a dirt courtyard between shacks, isn’t convincing when he insists that he hasn’t taken drinks from his “toy” soda bottle with the brown water that his mother uses to wash clothes. 

Glynne Wolman, an alumna of Theodor Herzl Schools in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, is the founder of the Angel Network, a nearly 10-year-old charity. The latest project she and other Jewish South Africans in the network have taken on was a Christmas and back-to-school drive that delivered backpacks with stationery, snacks, toiletries, a lunch box and a water bottle to poor children.

Wolman helped a family relocate from a vermin-infested apartment to a well-equipped home, handling their expenses for a year. One volunteer provides daily meals to 80 children in need. And more recently, the nonprofit provides feminine hygiene projects to girls so they no longer have to skip up to 50 school days a year.

And for Mandela Day last July, Wolman and her team gave 3,000 children from poor communities their first pairs of new school shoes.

The South African township of Soweto. Photo by Dave Gordon.

‘Outside negativity’

The motto of the nonprofit Afrika Tikkun is “developing young people from cradle to career.” After 30 years, it has fed more than 2 million meals to children—most of whom had nowhere else to go for food. (Tikkun means “fix” in Hebrew, and one of the nonprofit’s founders was the former South African chief rabbi Cyril Harris, who died in 2005.)

The nonprofit also helps thousands with career development training and has placed 5,000 in jobs, Taina and Marc Lubner, who oversee Afrika Tikkun, told JNS.

The late South African president Nelson Mandela was a supporter of the nonprofit, as are KFC, HSBC, BMW and the Australian High Commission in Pretoria.

Children don’t want to leave the Uthando Centre in Johannesburg, one of four that Afrika Tikkun runs, at 6 p.m. “The outside negativity is too much. This is their second home. If we weren’t here,” a staffer told JNS. She left the rest unsaid.

Less than a mile away, several hundred people pack into Johannesburg’s Hillbrow Community Health Centre, a hospital where waiting rooms are at full capacity, and the lobby is replicative of a sardine tin filled with chairs and people sitting on the floor. Lines begin at daybreak with no guarantee of intake, let alone by sundown.

The nearly 100-year-old Union of Jewish Women provides hot cups of soup and slices of bread daily to patients. It also sponsors a sewing empowerment project, which trains unemployed women for a new profession.

Dave Gordon with children at a learning center in Alexandra, South Africa. Credit: Courtesy.

The women mostly make blankets, towels, bags, cushions and the like, but years ago, they made yarmulkes from soda cans and hanger wire. Their final project is making their own garments to wear to graduation; program alumni help current students produce professional work, according to Vanessa Weltman, office and projects manager at UJW.

“I have always volunteered in my personal capacity, as part of my Jewish faith,” Weltman told JNS in March. “As a South African, I must do my part to help improve the lives of others.”

Weltman told JNS that she worries about the future of South Africa, “not necessarily that my standard of living will drop but how inefficient the country is especially with our poor infrastructure.”

“Load shedding and water outages have taken their toll on everyone,” she said.

To Bassin, helping those who need it the most is also tied to Jewish values. “When you live in a country, which is one of the most unequal in the world, helping those who are less fortunate is not an option. It’s mandatory,” she told JNS. “I don’t see skin color. I see terrible injustices, which need to be rectified.”

At every Torah lesson (shiur) that she has attended, it is explained that “this life is difficult. The next world is bliss,” she told JNS. “Well, I would go as far as to say this life is hell, and the next is absolute heaven.”

“Judaism teaches us about reincarnation; well, for me, I have seen enough in this lifetime that I never want to come down to earth again,” she added. “For that to happen, I need to get involved in the terrible suffering that some people live, and I am happy to do that.”

Goldman, the South African rabbi, told JNS that “many Jewish organizations and many other Jewish-inspired organizations have been helping the disadvantaged in South Africa for decades and continue to do so with love, dedication, tremendous compassion and commitment.”

His wife, Rochel Goldman, founded the group Women of the World, whose projects include sponsoring scholarships and libraries at high schools in Soweto, in addition to supplying students with their first computers.

“South African Jews do not hold our disadvantaged, impoverished citizens at fault for our government’s hypocritical stance on Israel,” Goldman said. “We will continue to do chesed wherever we see the need.”

Kahn, of the umbrella Jewish South African group, told JNS that the country’s “dynamic Jewish community continues to flourish,” despite Jew-hatred rising, as it has throughout the Diaspora since Oct. 7. She believes that antisemitism is flourishing less in South Africa than it has elsewhere.

“Incidents are also far less violent. Marches occur, but not to the same extent as in other countries,” she pointed out. “One of the jewelers in Johannesburg tells us that there has been an unprecedented demand for Magen David necklaces in his shop. While other Jewish communities cover up their Jewish symbols, we clamor to increase this.”

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