CAPE TOWN, Aug. 9 (JTA) — South Africa’s chief rabbi has accused the country’s Jews of not sufficiently supporting MaAfrika Tikkun, the community’s outreach initiative, implying that Jews must do more to uplift and empower the country’s blacks. “What we need from the Jewish community, which we still haven’t got, is something called acceptance,” Cyril Harris told JTA in a recent interview. “There’s an unfortunate reluctance, a sort of suspicion about interacting with the black majority — particularly on the part of the older generation — which is absurd,” he said, noting “a kind of restraint” when it comes to non-Jewish causes. MaAfrika Tikkun provides skills training in the form of literacy programs and sewing and computer classes; upliftment programs such as upgrading under-resourced schools, clinics and nurseries; personal development programs such as leadership training for black schoolchildren and after-hours tutoring in school subjects; poverty relief in the form of soup kitchens; and HIV/AIDS awareness programs. “I’m hoping that this is only a time factor and that gradually most of the community will actually embrace” the MaAfrika Tikkun initiative, Harris said. “If there is to be proper interaction with the majority community, we’re going to have to concentrate on it and try and develop a more correct human approach to the problems.” Others deny that the community isn’t engaged. Michael Bagraim, national chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said he “very strongly disagrees” that the community has been less than wholehearted in its support for the initiative. “We are behind them 100 percent — I don’t hear anybody saying that what they’re doing is wrong,” Bagraim said. “Every single person in their own right is trying to do as much as they can” to help the black majority, Bagraim said. “You can’t just say because people haven’t appeared at a particular Tikkun project, that they don’t accept upliftment as a tool. “I do two to three hours’ work a day in my own sphere toward upliftment without charging for it — and I’m not an exception,” said Bagraim, a labor lawyer. “If Tikkun asked me to come and do two hours a week at a project in Cape Town, I’m not so sure that I’d say no, but I’ve never been approached.” MaAfrika Tikkun was founded in 1996 by Harris and businessman Bertie Lubner after they and representatives of 18 Johannesburg Jewish organizations visited a school in the East Rand area. There they found 180 kids studying in three tumbledown shacks with leaking roofs, no toilet facilities and a door that doubled as a blackboard. “On the way back we began to compare it with the Jewish school facilities and decided we had to do something,” Harris recalled. That was the beginning of MaAfrika Tikkun. The philosophical foundation of the organization was to be found in The Jewish Obligation to the Non-Jew, a source book of references from the bible, Talmud and philosophical writings that Harris compiled. “We’re not saying that Jewish causes should take a back seat, but if you give 100 percent of your tzedakah to Jewish charities, you are doing something which is un-Jewish, because we have a reputation for always having cared for others outside our own community,” Harris said. “How Jewish people relate to the wider community is crucial,” he explained. “I look at it as a human-rights issue — you’re not allowed to live in a little island of comfort surrounded by a sea of desperate deprivation.” The commandment to love your neighbor as yourself does not refer exclusively to Jewish neighbors, he emphasized. Herby Rosenberg, MaAfrika Tikkun’s CEO, acknowledged that the group had received support from a number of Jewish organizations and individuals, but said he basically agreed with Harris’ charges. Government reaction to MaAfrika Tikkun has been very positive, Harris said, receiving the ultimate endorsement when former President Nelson Mandela agreed to be the group’s chief patron. “They rate us very highly because, thank God, by and large we’ve been able to deliver,” Harris said. “The area of black empowerment and alleviation programs is littered with casualties of do-gooders who’ve tried and failed,” he said. “Not all our projects have been successful, but enough of them have been successful to make a difference and to make the name of MaAfrika Tikkun known.” The organization’s efforts have been emulated by other groups. A delegation from the National Religious Leaders Forum, including members of the Rhema Church, was so impressed with Tikkun’s revamping of over 200 shacks in Alexandra township that it resolved to do likewise. Considering that Harris is the organization’s co-chairman, and his wife, Ann, is its national projects manager, Harris was asked if it’s not unusual for a chief rabbi’s family to be involved in such a hands-on way with the wider community. “Probably,” he said, “but then South Africa is an unusual country. I think the least we can do is try to be of some help.”
Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa. A law graduate and psychology major, she is the Cape Town correspondent for the South African Jewish Report. She contributes to London's Jewish Chronicle, is a reporter for the Cape Jewish Chronicle and has been published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.