I’ve returned from an inspiring AJF lunch lecture in the succah with Helen Lieberman, founder of Ikamva Labantu, a South African not-for-profit that helps develop self-reliant and sustainable community-based organizations in townships.
Frankly, extreme poverty in the third world is not high on the pecking order in my personal list of causes, and it isn’t that much higher as a result of meeting and hearing Helen. Nevertheless, I find her story so compelling and there is so much to learn from her approach. It left me with far more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.
Helen’s Jewish identity was clearly a huge influence in her life choices. Some 45 years ago, after being confronted with the stark difference in levels of care between whites and coloureds in South African hospitals, Helen decided to work herself directly in the townships. This was far from the done thing at the time, and she did so despite fierce opposition from the Apartheid regime of the day (along the way, she was arrested three times). When people from the townships where she was working would ask her why she is doing this, she replied quite simply: “I’m Jewish; this is what we do“. Can you begin to imagine this? A young white woman helping blacks in a township where most whites would fear for their safety to even enter, who is working with people who have probably never met a Jew or even know what one is, and this is her answer? “I’m Jewish; this is what we do“. Wow! I just want to take those words and replay them every morning after I get up.
Helen well understood the adage “teach a man to fish“, and applied it in every thing she did. It was not about giving, it was about empowering. To communities that for generations had been repressed and underprivileged, she was a breath of fresh air. She speaks with such high regard for the “mamas” – the women of the communities where she introduced trade, and helped raise standards of living, health and literacy. In her mind, they were the true heroes.
As her work and fame spread, international personalities like Bono, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates took an interest in her work. I reckon she leaves them all in the dust. She didn’t go searching the world for a sexy cause; she helped people in her own backyard when no-one else cared to. She stood shoulder to shoulder with the people she helped, working long hours at the coal face. What she has achieved with black communities in South Africa is truly outstanding.
And all through this, my mind was ticking over. There are degrees of poverty, and Helen worked in cases that would be termed extreme. But what about here, in our own backyard? There is severe poverty in the Melbourne Jewish community. There are people who can’t find employment; who can’t pay their rent; who can’t feed and clothe their children. Millions of welfare dollars, from government and private organizations, go to help people in these situations each year. But they are often described as chronic cases that will be dependent on welfare for the rest of their lives. The sad situation is that many of them are locked into a cycle of dependence.
Can we apply some of the principles that worked so well for Helen in these situations as well? Or do they only work in third world communities? What was it about Helen’s approach or the culture of the communities she worked in that work? Can we “bottle” that and achieve similar gains here? I don’t know the answer. Much has been tried without success. Hopefully, her visit will inspire the local Jewish community to be more effective in helping the underprivileged people nearest to us. After all, we are Jewish; this is what we do.
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She sounds like an admirable person.