Proudly serving the Jewish and broader communities
By Bev Goldman
“Founded in 1931 with the aim and objective of serving both the Jewish and broader communities, the Union of Jewish Women South Africa provided welfare projects during the depression years and later during the racially restrictive period of the National Party rule.”
These are the opening comments on the webpage of the Union of Jewish Women South Africa (UJW): inspiring, impressive and edifying. They encompass how Jewish women rose to the fore to alleviate the incalculable distress suffered by those in South Africa who were most disadvantaged by both international and local happenings and legislation.
And for almost 90 years, the organisation has faced, and done its utmost to mitigate and ameliorate the profusion of challenges which have confronted citizens in this beautiful yet troubled country.
Today the UJW continues to carry out the invaluable welfare projects which were the reason behind its establishment, but they have broadened, multiplied, increased in size, scope and diversity; and most important, they are nation-wide – from Johannesburg and Pretoria through Cape Town and Durban to Port Elizabeth and East London, as well as rural areas across the country.
I often think of the words of Albert Einstein which resonate so strongly with me:
“The value of a man resides in what he gives and not in what he is capable of receiving.”
This perfectly describes the women of the UJW – they give and give, they give of their time and energy, their commitment and dedication, their sympathy and understanding, their love and support, but with no thought of receiving and no wish to receive. They nurture, they nourish, they educate, they empower, they feed, they strengthen and support, because for them it’s the giving that matters, but the giving with a purpose and an end in sight, understanding that “It is only in the giving of oneself to others that we truly live” (Ethel Andrus).
So, what exactly does the Union of Jewish Women do? Who are its beneficiaries? Who are its recipients? And, where are they?
Whew! Such questions require reams of answers, reams of details, and a long and comprehensive history more suited to a book than an article.
So instead I’ll give a brief overview of many of the projects, bearing in mind always that the beneficiaries and recipients are the needy, the dispossessed, the indigent, the homeless, the desperate; infants, children, adults and the elderly; those unable to care for themselves, unable to feed themselves or their families, lacking the basics of education or the ability to be financially self-sufficient, lonely and isolated, impoverished and despairing.
The UJW runs feeding schemes and soup kitchens for those who have no food.
It gives blankets and warm clothing to those who have none.
It provides special Baby Bags, filled with all the necessities for new-borns, to new mums, many of whom having given birth in clinics or hospitals then must leave with their babies wrapped in newspaper or towels.
It sustains pre-school and nursery school children with food and clothing and educational material like stationery and craft supplies to stimulate their little minds.
It provides for children who are sight-impaired, a handicap which adds to their distress.
The UJW does outstanding work in South Africa’s outreach communities, in a country which has the highest incidence of unemployment in the world, almost the highest gini coefficient, and where sadly poverty and crime are rife because living standards of millions are so pitiful.
It assists creches in townships with construction needs and play equipment, with full day care, with early childhood development programmes, with meals.
It provides food for children of refugees and foreign nationals, for those who live on the streets and have neither shelter nor sustenance, for patients in hospices.
It packs parcels for Rape Crisis victims; it feeds new moms who have just given birth.
It brings light, life and succour to thousands who are marginalised, who have fallen through the cracks, and who receive no support from either government or local council bodies because they are deemed ‘invisible’.
The UJW takes great care of the elderly in the communities.
It offers assistance in the form of meals and clothing to Jewish families wanting to celebrate the Sabbath and/or religious festivals in the traditional way.
It provides meals 365 days a year to 160 elderly members of the Jewish community; it offers elderly lonely people opportunities for socialising through its luncheon clubs; and at its various Friendship Club events attendees are given birthday gifts, bingo prizes and treats for tea.
It hosts pre-Rosh Hashanah and Pesach braai luncheons and annual Chanukah parties.
It runs special club projects for the elderly.
It provides panic buttons to senior citizens living on their own which reassure them that in the case of any emergency, help is almost immediately there.
The UJW always assists local Municipal Emergency Services with household equipment, blankets and clothing in times of disasters like shack fires and floods.
It upgrades and improves facilities at homes for the aged, at hospitals, at synagogues, at schools.
It empowers women – and some men – through its Sewing Schools and Literacy Centres, providing opportunities for them to become self-sufficient or gainfully employed.
It nurtures and stimulates people with early symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer by encouraging them to participate in regular group meetings.
It holds Domestic Workers Appreciation mornings where domestic workers are cherished and spoiled with lectures, teas and goodie bags.
Mitzvah Day is a Jewish-led day of social action that brings together thousands of people all over the world, on one day, to give their time rather than their money to make a difference to the local community around them. In South Africa the UJW spearheads this wonderful initiative in a number of different ways, including entertaining residents at retirement homes; providing special lunches for the indigent who reside at shelters for the homeless; providing lunches for the residents of state-run institutions for adults with mental and physical disabilities and simultaneously assisting with gardening and painting some of the houses; brightening up playgrounds at schools to give the children something exciting to which to look forward when they return to school after holidays; giving solar lights to families living in abject poverty and squalor in squatter camps to “bring light to the people”; holding blood drives; distributing knitted beanies and teddies to children in oncology wards; preparing sandwiches for hospital outpatients.
Mandela Day is marked every year on Nelson Mandela’s 18 July birthday, and it celebrates Madiba’s life and legacy in a sustainable manner. The UJW plays a pivotal role in Mandela Day celebrations across the country, and just a few of the initiatives have included providing many hundreds of new school shoes and pairs of socks to school children, some of whom go barefoot all year long; distributing hundreds of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste to children who have never had their own, and simultaneously educating them in the importance of brushing and caring for their teeth and general dental healthcare; baking and donating cupcakes to children who for the first time in their lives taste and enjoy a cupcake; providing blankets to residents at aged homes; kitting out soccer teams with uniforms and soccer boots; giving jackets and coats to homeless persons battling the winter cold; entertaining children at homes for abandoned children with a fancy dress party and a super tea and gifts afterwards; gift bags for “gogos and grampas” (the African words for grandparents); toys, clothes, blankets and books for schools, homes for vulnerable children and creches; soup and sandwiches for the many street people in various regions.
The International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW) is an umbrella organization representing Jewish women and women’s organizations in 35 countries on 5 continents. Its mandate is to confront and respond to the concerns of the Jewish community and women in general in the countries where its affiliates are active. The Union of Jewish Women of South Africa is the only South African body affiliated to the ICJW, and members have held, and hold, executive positions on the body.
While all the above information is more than merely a nutshell of who the UJW is and what it does, it doesn’t adequately describe the effect of these actions on the innumerable beneficiaries and recipients. It doesn’t describe the joy and excitement of the children who receive their first ever cupcake, their first ever pair of shoes, their first ever and their own toothbrush and toothpaste, their first ever set of crayons, pens, colouring books, storybooks, soccer kits. It doesn’t describe the gratitude of the elderly who for the first time in many years can see the winter months through with warm blankets and wholesome food in their tummies. It doesn’t describe the astonishment and thrill of the homeless who had long accepted being invisible in society but are suddenly recognised and nurtured and give their dignity back again. It doesn’t describe the immense gratitude of the senior citizens who are able to participate in social events to assuage their loneliness and to know that their needs are being met.
The smiles on the faces of the recipients, the hugs from the children, the handshakes from the men who believed assistance was only ever given to women and children – all these are what fill the hearts and souls of those who work for the UJW and who do so not for reward or acknowledgement but because they believe so strongly in Tikkun Olam – healing the world in the best way that they can.
The late President Mandela once called the UJW the community’s “best-kept secret”. But it is not a secret – it is there for whoever needs it and wants it, and it never fails to honour its mandate.
To quote Erich Fromm:
“Not he who has much is rich but he who gives much.”
About the writer:
Bev Goldman national vice-president of the Union of Jewish Women South Africa, worked for many years in education and journalism, and she holds a master’s degree in Feminist Literature. Prior to joining the SA Zionist Federation where she dealt with media and education for 12 years, she was the editor of the ‘Who’s Who’ of Southern Africa; a member of WordWize which taught English language skills to Russian and Polish immigrants in South Africa; an occasional lecturer in English at RAU (now the University of Johannesburg); and Director of Educational Programmes at Allenby In-Home Studies. Currently, she runs the Media Team Israel for the SA Zionist Federation; she sits on the Board of Governors of the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre (RCHCC); she is an executive member of the International Council of Jewish Women (ICJW); and she edits and proofs Masters and PhD dissertations.
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