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Benevolent women know no obstacles

  • JWBSBreakfast
You don’t have to be a feminist to know just how incredibly effective women can be. Alone, they are capable of much more than merely multitasking – able to lead, innovate, and effect change.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Sep 06, 2018

In a group, they are a force to be reckoned with, able to move mountains and overcome obstacles. When they’re Jewish, they are almost unstoppable. So, it’s no wonder that the Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has gained such recognition and respect in the Johannesburg community.

Established 125 years ago, the JWBS was created as a women’s society to assist mothers and destitute Jewish families who were often without fathers. At the time, it was common practice for the Chevrah Kadisha to assist men, and while Arcadia came to the aid of children, no organisation was committed to the plight of women.

When the Jews of Europe arrived in the country at the close of the 19th century, many immigrating men took up jobs in the mining industry. Given the high levels of fatalities in the industry at the time, several of them lost their lives. The families they left behind were those to whom the benevolent society would reach out to, supporting women and mothers who suddenly found themselves without an income. Consisting of a group of determined women, the organisation met regularly at its headquarters in Doornfontein to explore every avenue possible for the distribution of funds to those who were most in need.

Maureen Disler, the co-Chairperson of the organisation’s executive committee, has been involved with the society for 35 years. “When I moved to Johannesburg from Benoni, I was immediately invited to become a part of the organisation,” she says. “I was struck by the simplicity of its defining mandate – to assist those in our community in whatever way possible. This was not simply a financial assistance scheme, but one which involved supporting, befriending, and committing oneself to those who were really in need.”

Over the years, Disler has overseen the implementation of endeavours such as a senior citizens lunch club (open to any individual in the community), a clothing bank, charity initiatives, and several other campaigns. Today, though the organisation’s membership is female, it assists any member of the community in need of help.

For Disler, charity drives are meaningful only if imbued with personal investment and emotion. “We’ve seen two shidduchim (matches) emerge from our lunch club,” she says. “That is something very unique and beautiful. Also, when it comes to our clothing bank, we supply only clothing that we would feel comfortable wearing ourselves. If we won’t wear it, we can’t expect anyone else to. This personal touch in the work we do and the results we achieve are what gives it all meaning and makes it worthwhile.”

She recounts one particularly significant moment. “When many Jews immigrated from Russia in the 1980s, they arrived in Johannesburg with nothing and nowhere to go. One afternoon, a family arrived at the Benevolent, having been conducted there by an African man. They spoke not a word of English, but as soon as this man, a complete stranger to them, found them in the city and discovered that they were Jewish, he brought them to us. He walked in with them in tow shouting, “Jewish! Jewish!” and made sure that they were left in good hands before leaving.”

For Disler and the organisation’s volunteers, the greatest triumph is seeing people who come to them with nothing making successes of their lives, no matter what it takes. She says, “As much as you give, you get so much in return. When these people come to you and share their stories, you want to cry every single time. To see them succeed despite their circumstances is one of the most fulfilling moments one could have.”

The Benevolent is determined to show younger members that the organisation is not just for older women. “Young Jewish women were the ones who founded this organisation,” says Disler. “Although we have a few younger volunteers, we need female Jewish youth to understand that they have a place here and can contribute meaningfully to their community. It is only if the next generation joins our ranks that we can make a lasting impact in the community for years to come.”

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