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Chev calls for first emergency relief fund in 132 years




“We have never before had to – or wanted to – put out an emergency appeal. Notwithstanding all of the challenges that it has faced, the organisation has – with the magnificent support of our generous community – managed to carry out its communal responsibility,” says Chevrah Kadisha chairperson Colin Datnow, who has been in this role for more than 30 years.

“But COVID-19 has brought on enormous added costs and responsibilities, and we now have no choice but to launch a far-reaching emergency appeal to meet the significant demands on our resources. We are dealing with a ‘black swan’ event that has an impact on our organisation in every way.”

The Chevrah Kadisha, best known as the Chev, is the oldest Jewish organisation in Johannesburg, and the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.

The organisation’s chief executive, Saul Tomson, says that the Chev is unique in South Africa and possibly internationally, as it’s one of the only Jewish organisations dealing with residential-care facilities and financial-assistance services. Both these sectors have borne the brunt of the devastating ramifications of COVID-19.

“Some organisations deal with residential facilities and are at the ‘coal face’ of the health risk, putting them under enormous pressure. Others are dealing with the economic impact. But it’s unparalleled to be dealing with both,” says Tomson. “We have nearly a thousand people in our care facilities ranging from children at Arcadia to the elderly at our aged homes, to the intellectually disabled, and people requiring mental-health support.”

Meanwhile, welfare demands have dramatically increased, with more than 70 new applications from community members in need in May alone. “This is more than double what we usually deal with,” he says.

An organisation assisting such a large number of people is unusual worldwide. Another unique factor is that the Chev is 70% private-donor-funded, with the state being an almost non-existent funder. This contrasts with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and care facilities in first-world countries, which are often 70% state-funded. It’s especially stark considering how the South African government has “completely neglected” NGOs since the start of lockdown, says Tomson.

“Essentially we are on our own,” he says. “Without our private donors – who are already stretched – we wouldn’t survive this crisis. The result is this emergency campaign which we hope will go beyond our borders. We are appealing to South African expats to contribute because even a small dollar-based donation has a big impact. We ask them to consider our unique position and the current favourable exchange rate to help keep our communal infrastructure stable.”

The Chev’s group rabbi, Jonathan Fox, says that the Sandringham Gardens aged home’s minyan was one of the only minyanim in the world operating under lockdown due to the early lockdown of the Chev’s facilities. “We are saying Kaddish for more than 2 000 people from every corner of the globe, and have named dozens of babies. Many of those who reached out donated, and it made a significant difference,” he says.

Tomson says that every aspect of residential facilities makes their residents vulnerable to the virus. Keeping it at bay has stretched the Chev to its limits. This includes the high cost of COVID-19 tests, the supply of PPE (personal protective equipment), the need to hire and rotate more staff (including nurses, carers, cleaners, and security guards), the reconfiguring of facilities, and catering for residents in isolation.

“We have conducted almost 1 000 COVID-19 tests, which come at a significant cost, and this will continue to grow,” says Tomson. The price is high, but the organisation has no choice. “We are fighting an invisible enemy, and in spite of every initiative and effort, there is so much that is beyond our control.” Donations will go towards covering all of these urgent and unforeseen costs.

Then on the welfare side, there is a wave of community members pleading for help. This includes many single mothers who worked in the teaching, beauty, and tourism industries that have now shut down. There are also many individuals who managed to become independent but are now once again asking for help. Finally, there are community members who were and still are completely reliant on the Chev. Some of them had a small secondary source of income from a part-time job or family, but now have lost this due to economic circumstances.

The Chev assists with basics like accommodation, healthcare, food, and even education on a monthly basis. Donations will also go towards all of those individuals who have nowhere else to turn and might not have an income for an extended period.

Balancing both of these spheres, Tomson says that the Chev wanted the hard lockdown to continue to help protect its residents in care facilities, but also for it to end to help those suffering economically. The organisation has also had to walk the fine line between enforcing clinical regulations to keep people safe, and not negatively affecting their mental well-being. It continues to take a research-based approach, consulting an independent medical advisory committee chaired by Netcare Chief Executive Dr Richard Friedland for each and every decision in this complex situation.

Investec Bank founder and former Chief Executive Stephen Koseff has seen the community face many challenges, and says this moment is unprecedented. “The consequence of this pandemic is playing out right in front of our eyes every day, with many more vulnerable members of our society battling to survive,” he says.

“The Chev has always supported those members of our community who have fallen on hard times. It provides a significant safety net to many, and it’s incumbent upon those of us who are fortunate to be in a privileged position to do whatever we can to increase our support.”

In a message to the Chev’s dedicated staff who see their work as their calling, Tomson wrote, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.” He believes the community will overcome the current challenges, but it needs urgent and ongoing help to get there.

“In 1888, The Chev made a commitment to be there for every South African Jew when they had nowhere else to turn, and to catch them when they fall,” he says. “Please partner with us to continue that commitment in these unprecedented times.

“For 132 years, the Chevrah Kadisha has been at the forefront of supporting the Jewish community,” says Marlene Bethlehem, a community leader of many years and the president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. “This proud history can continue only with the support that it needs during this devastating pandemic in which the demands have multiplied exponentially. To save a life is to save an entire world.”

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