JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 16 (JTA) — A Jewish group has spearheaded efforts to deliver aid to a black township near here that was devastated by torrential rains and floods.
For more than two weeks, rains described as the heaviest in some 50 years lashed the Johannesburg area, leaving hundreds homeless as a result of flooding in the black township of Alexandra, a pocket of poverty in the heart of the city’s affluent northern suburbs.
With a group of students taking the lead, Tikkun, the South African Jewish community’s umbrella project for helping the disadvantaged, delivered carloads of blankets, food and clothing to the residents of Alexandra.
The Jukskei River, which runs through the township, burst its banks during the rains, reducing houses built of bricks and makeshift shanties to rubble. All the residents’ possessions were destroyed in the floods.
Tikkun’s young Adult group, in a joint effort with the South Africa Jewish Board of Deputies, came to the rescue despite fears for their own safety. The township has one of the highest crime rates in Greater Johannesburg, particularly carjackings.
“Several people expressed anxiety at our decision to deliver the collection to those in need,” said Ann Harris, Tikkun’s coordinator of resources and wife of the organization’s co-chairman, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.
“Despite the fact that we met literally hundreds of people during our two-hour visit to see the devastating conditions in which they were living, none of us felt intimidated,” she said.
Tikkun’s aid convoy was escorted by a leading figure in Alexandra, Linda Twala, who runs a church and community center for the aged in the township.
Twala met the convoy of vehicles in a van sporting the slogan “Thou shalt not hijack.”
The initiative for assisting the flood victims came from “an outstanding group of young people” who started a campaign drive among several Jewish schools, Harris said.
The group was led by three siblings — Craig Hummel, a student at Yeshiva College in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Glenhazel, his twin sister, Adina, and brother Joshua.
“They motivated the wonderful response from their contacts” at the King David Schools, Yeshiva College, Bnei Akiva, Betar, Habonim and the South Africa Union of Jewish Students, Harris said.
Hummel, 18, was responsible for starting a child care center last year in the impoverished squatter camp of Diepsloot, outside Johannesburg.
He said the center is now being used as a temporary shelter for many left homeless by the floods.
“I elicited support from the Jewish day schools,” he said. “Within 48 hours of embarking on the project, six tons of food, clothes and blankets were donated, as well as anonymous monetary contributions,” he said.
Leonard Bilchitz, a representative of the South Africa Union of Jewish Students, told JTA it was essential that the Jewish community — “especially students” — work for the betterment of others.
“We come from privileged backgrounds, and Jewish law says you should treat your neighbor as yourself. We can make a difference,” he said.
Elizabeth Gezane took many of Alexandra’s homeless into her own house, erected temporary shelters on her property and encouraged her neighbors to follow her example.
“People are suffering. It is our duty to house and cook for them. We are really grateful that, through this project, we are able to do so,” she said.
Meanwhile, Herby Rosenberg, Tikkun’s chief executive officer, announced this week that South Africa’s former president, Nelson Mandela, has agreed to become the organization’s patron in chief.
Mandela told Tikkun leaders that he hoped, by lending his name to the organization, it would help expand its operations.
“His stature will add greater credibility to our projects, both nationally and internationally,” said Rosenberg, who together with Tikkun’s co-chairman Bertie Lubner is scheduled to visit the United States soon in an effort to raise funds.
Tikkun, he said, has been registered in the United States and would soon be obtaining federal tax-exempt status.