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Jewish Group in South Africa Works to Heal Apartheid’s Legacy

May 21, 2002
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South Africa may have escaped apartheid, but it hasn’t yet removed the last shackles of apartheid’s legacy.

Poverty, poor health care and limited education remain rampant among the country’s non-white population.

Enter Tikkun, the Jewish community’s nationwide social services project that addresses issues from adult education to skills training and AIDS relief work. It also runs health and community centers and upgrades underfinanced schools.

The national chairwoman of projects for Tikkun is Ann Harris, the wife of the country’s chief rabbi.

Harris plays a hands-on role, supervising the organization’s activities in some of the country’s most squalid townships.

A lawyer by profession, Harris was a partner in a prestigious London law firm when her husband was appointed South Africa’s chief rabbi in 1988. Eager to make a contribution from the start, she served for a number of years as acting director of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Law Clinic, a facility providing legal assistance to the underprivileged.

Tikkun — meaning “repair” — was founded in 1996, inspired by “The Jewish Obligation to the Non-Jew,” a source book of references from the bible, Talmud and philosophical writings compiled by Harris’ husband, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, who is the co-chairman of the organization.

On a visit to one of Tikkun’s chief projects — the Rietfontein agricultural settlement and training center, which includes a farm, bakery and school — former President Nelson Mandela described the kibbutz-style project as a miracle.

“What you are doing here has deepened my respect for you,” Mandela said of Tikkun’s efforts. “There are many good men and women in all communities, but I never expected that we would have organizations of this nature that have brought hope.”

A visit to the Tikkun-Alexander Forbes Care of the Aged Project in Alexandra township led to one of the more horrifying, yet gratifying, experiences Harris has endured in the course of her work.

“In one of the shacks, we found an 87-year-old blind man who was close to death. It was filthy dirty, pitch dark, a woman was boiling water in a can and there were more rats than people,” she recalls with a shudder.

“We immediately got to work, put windows in, got them something” to cook on, “cleaned the place up,” she says. “We provided second-hand furniture, including beds and bedding. When we went again a week later, he was up and about.”

As a result of that visit, Herby Rosenberg, the chief executive officer of Tikkun, solicited a donation that will allow 100 more such shacks to be renovated or rebuilt.

Northwest of Johannesburg lies the informal settlement of Diepsloot, where conditions are described as among the worst in the world.

Where children once played on a dirt heap and used plastic ice-cream containers for washing, Tikkun has built a small day-care facility and a washing block and plans to put up an informal health center. Tikkun’s Young Adults Group, comprising volunteers from the Jewish schools and youth organizations, has been collecting toys for the day-care facility.

Diepsloot is very dusty, making asthma and breathing difficulties common. But oxygen equipment donated by one of Tikkun’s supporters saved the life of a newborn.

One of Tikkun’s development officers, Nono Ntlhane, wanted to do something for AIDS patients, so she directed the building of a small kitchen in Orange Farm, a squatter camp outside Johannesburg. The camp’s 60 identified AIDS patients are provided with one meal a day, without which their medication would prove lethal.

Expanding worldwide, Tikkun now operates or raises money in the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. It is optimistic that substantial funds will be raised from American foundations and benefactors to support its activities in South Africa.

Israeli volunteer Galit Cohen, who had experience in AIDS work before she came to South Africa, has organized the training of volunteer care workers at the settlement. She also has proposed an AIDS orphans village, something that could help alleviate the tremendous social problems these children will pose.

One of Tikkun’s major projects in Cape Town, in partnership with the Jewish National Fund, is the Nelson Mandela Peace Park and Community Center in Delft, an impoverished area.

The organization has proposed that world leaders attending the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August be shown this recreation and skills-training facility, along with the project for the aged in Alexandra township, as a model of what can be achieved.

Other providers of social services praise Tikkun’s know-how.

“Nono and I spend a lot of time visiting other projects; we’re constantly asked for help,” Harris said. “Although we can’t always give it, we often give advice.”

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