I recently had an opportunity, rarely afforded to presidents and CEOs, to spend six weeks in the shoes of one of my organization’s volunteers. I joined the American Jewish World Service’s Volunteer Corps, which places mid- and late-career professionals on assignments with nongovernmental organizations throughout the developing world.
In this city, I was assigned to serve as a capacity-building consultant at Ikamva Labantu, a massive organization that provides critical social services in extremely poor black townships throughout South Africa. In the shantytowns and neighborhoods that became familiar over these brief six weeks, and in the outstanding organization that welcomed me as a guest, I encountered a powerful vein of Jewish-driven activism.
My stay in South Africa coincided with a time in this country’s modern history that one could describe as a crossroads. While apartheid has been abolished officially, its legacy has presented major challenges for black communities, and therefore for the country as a whole, trying to achieve stability and economic security.
Nearly 6 million people are living with the HIV virus and approximately 1,000 people are dying each day from AIDS. South Africa has one of the highest murder rates per capita, and there continues to be a tremendous income disparity, leaving more than half of the country’s population — mostly black — living below the extreme poverty line.
Most recently, a wave of mob violence has been directed at refugees who have come in huge numbers to South Africa from neighboring countries, including those fleeing the bloodshed in neighboring Zimbabwe. Amid this economic and social turmoil, I saw firsthand a small Jewish community at its finest.
This Jewish communityâ€™s history is similar to its North American counterpart but on a smaller scale. Jewish immigration to the region began in the mid-1600s with the first Jewish settlement. Throughout the 19th century, the largely Dutch and German Jewish population found commercial prosperity in markets such as ostrich feathers. The prosperity came despite significant anti-Semitism, which shut Jews out of high-level military and government positions and barred them from teaching in state-funded schools.
Later immigrant groups — predominantly from Lithuania and other Eastern European nations — were extremely poor. By the 1950s, Jews comprised only 2.5 percent of South Africaâ€™s white population and .03 percent of the population at large.
As the community developed and prosperity spread, some of its members began to assert themselves as proponents of social justice. Many highly visible Jewish activists were counted among the anti-apartheid movementâ€™s leadership. Thousands of Jews emigrated during this period, or parents stayed and children dispersed across several continents. But the organized Jewish community as a whole was not a part of this struggle for change. During the height of the movement, the community faced its own challenges in achieving a level of stability, and accepted the social policies of the country as a given.
In the post-apartheid years, the South African Jewish community, which now numbers some 70,000, has been challenged by a new wave of emigration due to a weak economy and increased crime, but the community that has remained has found its footing and a collective voice on issues of social justice.
Few, if any, Jewish communities in the world have crisis and social injustice swirling around them the way the Jews of South Africa do, and heroes can be found at the individual and communal levels.
Helen Lieberman, the founder and executive director of Ikamva Labantu, exemplifies this dynamic Jewish activism. Helen has been working in black townships for more than 50 years, which means that in earlier times she was arrested regularly for doing the work that she saw needed to be done.
Her organization has developed food gardens to nurture communities and build their economic potential, provided health services for the scores of people living with HIV/AIDS and general poor health in the townships, guided sustainable development projects and taken care of countless vulnerable children.
Helen sees Ikamva as a profound expression of her Jewish identity, and she compromised her personal safety for years to perform this essential work.
More recently, aware of the continued negative legacy of apartheid, a group of Jewish leaders started MaAfrika Tikkun, an organization that provides services in the townships on behalf of the Jewish community. This group recognizes that it is not enough to provide aid. It also helps the townships learn to negotiate with the government to provide essential services, knowing that long-term stability and sustainable economic development depend on empowering community members to be effective advocates for themselves.
In recent months, the Jewish youth of South Africa have mobilized one of the most impressive community crisis responses I have ever seen from a group of young people. Members of Habonim, one of the countryâ€™s prominent Jewish youth movements, were frustrated with the lack of government policy to assist the millions of refugees and alarmed by the increasingly fierce xenophobic violence directed at them.
The teens organized a dizzying array of emergency services: They performed needs assessments at refugee sites, arranged deliveries of supplies and created a schedule of volunteer shifts at several locations. They made more than 40,000 sandwiches and turned one of their community centers into a warehouse for in-kind donations from Jews throughout South Africa.
Habominâ€™s example has inspired other institutions in the Jewish community, including a day school that converted its public hall into an emergency center.
During my time here, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Desmond Tutu, the world-renowned humanitarian activist and first black Archbishop of Cape Town who earned the Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to apartheid. Tutu reflected that people thought South Africa would always be “on the side of angels” after defeating apartheid.
Yet as he said and I saw, this is a flawed assumption. Not only does the country have serious problems that will take years to address effectively, but the current government is too often not doing enough, not using its resources wisely and not being as strong a force for change in Zimbabwe as it should be.
While it was discouraging and painful to see up close the depths of this country’s poverty and to recognize the challenges of providing education, shelter and health care to millions in acute need, it was extremely uplifting to see a tiny Jewish community fulfilling its moral imperative to do right by those who suffer the indignities of hunger, poverty and disease.
For many of us in the United States, the worldâ€™s most profound problems are dimmed by distance. Yet even an ocean away, we are no less obligated to care and to act.
In South Africa, the Jews face these tragedies at their doorsteps and take their obligation seriously. They are responding as Jews in the most Jewish way — identifying the areas of greatest need, building bridges with others and taking action.
(Ruth Messinger is president of American Jewish World Service, an international develpoment organization dedicated to fighting hunger, poverty and disease among people of the developing world
regardless of race, religion or nationality.)