The JNF in South Africa responds
By Beverley Price
Jews over a certain age will remember the iconic little blue Jewish National Fund (JNF) collection boxes they had in their homes where any spare coins were deposited in the slit that went towards planting trees in Israel. Whether they were dimes in the USA, pennies in the UK or pennies and later cents in South Africa they added up and over time helped transform Israel’s landscape from desert brown to fertile green. They contributed to changing the landscape of a Palestine from what Mark Twain derisively described in his 1867 visit as “repulsive and dreary…..hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere” to being the only country in the world to have a net gain of trees in the last 100 years!
However, there would be further changes following the changing fortunes of South Africa and Israel.
If in the post-1948 Israel independence years, South Africa JNF was in the vanguard in supporting state-building projects in Israel, in more recent years, a new paradigm developed with JNF supporting projects in South Africa. Israeli expertise in overcoming harsh environmental challenges could and is benefitting South Africa.
One such project is the community in Mamelodi, a semi-rural town located 90 kilometres from Johannesburg. In the early 1990’s, the JNF initiated a long-term sustainable development project there on behalf of the Jewish community in South Africa by opening the Walter Sisulu Environmental Centre. They did so in the presence of another icon, the President of South Africa – Nelson Mandela, who had earlier suggested the area to the JNF, close to the Mandela Park Peace Garden that teaches pensioners to grow and sell their own food.
The JNF Walter Sisulu Environmental Centre is an environmental education and resource centre encompassing 72 Mamelodi Schools, the 186 schools in the Southern Tshwane Educational District and the surrounding community to learn about the environment and to create “champions for a sustainable future.”
And the reason it is named after Walter Sisulu is that he visited Israel as part of his “five Nation Tour” in the early 1960s so there was the connection between his name, Israel, the Jewish community of South Africa and the Mamelodi region.
Based on Israeli expertise, the Centre imparts knowledge about recycling, water conservation, cultivation of crops and waste. Every year, over 12,000 students from the region enroll at the centre to receive education in sustainable development from trained instructors.
However, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, alarm bells sounded leading National Chairman of SA JNF, Isla Feldman, to exclaim in alarm:
“People are going to be hungry. We have to raise money and help our people in Mamelodi.”
And so began a fundraising drive by JNF-SA to purchase much-needed food parcels, each of which contained 6.5 kg of food that Boxer Superstores supplied. The management of the JNF-WSEC, Frans Mamogobo and Miko Khalo found volunteers to assist with the distribution. After much operational planning, the delivery site was set next to the local police station in order to provide safety and security.
To bring the good news to the people in the region, notices went out in both Sepedi and in English. Volunteers from the organisation, Cadena – a member of the global Jewish network delivering hand-in-hand assistance around the world – helped with the distribution on the day. Thabisile Vilakazi of the Tshwane Municipality and Shaun Wilkinson were also part of the team.
The initiative was not without drama.
The day before the scheduled delivery, there was civil unrest in Mamelodi, and in order to ensure the safety of all the volunteers, the deliveries had to be shortly delayed until the area was deemed sufficiently safe.
That day was Tuesday the 11th of August and in the midst of a deadly pandemic, the food parcels, with the help of many kind volunteers and many generous donors, the JNF food parcels were distributed to the needy Mamelodi community.
The Jewish National Fund has come a long way since it was founded with the sound of Theodor Herzl’s banging down his gavel at the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in December 1901. It was a momentous moment with the message resonating beyond the Conference walls in Basel that Zionism actually set foot in Erez Israel – not by mere words and declarations, debates and resolutions, but by land reclamation through a national fund of and on behalf of the Jewish people.
So too when it comes to the JNF in South Africa, it is less about words and more about deeds as it looks to support the people of Mamelodi.
Progressive Partnerships. JNF South Africa is currently seeking expat South Africans abroad to partner with its new “bridge-across-the-pond” project with JNF of America and with Israel. You can contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the writer:
Beverley Price. Educated at King David School, Lindfield and graduate of the University of Witwatersrand (Speech Therapy), Beverley Price is Education Officer at the Jewish National JNF South Africa in Johannesburg.
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