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Help the angels who help Jews find their feet

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TALI FEINBERG

Yet, the fact is, sometimes community safety nets aren’t enough, and Jews do land up destitute and homeless.

“We’ve recently taken a number of people off the streets. The first was an elderly Jewish woman living at a bus shelter. She refused to leave as she felt safe there. Eventually we managed to get her into accommodation, but we had to teach her everything about living in a home – from heating up food to showering. She still cleans the streets every day, as this is how she prefers to earn an income,” says Hazel Levin, the executive director of Jewish Community Services (JCS) in Cape Town.

JCS can assist only those who are Jewish, and this has to be proven with a ketubah (marriage certificate), conversion certificate, or letter from a rabbi. It works closely with the Beth Din and all the shuls to establish this. Every person that arrives at its door goes through an intake process, which determines what they need and how to help them. If they can’t prove they are Jewish, JCS helps them to access government and social services.

“We also had a man arrive on the doorstep of our offices on a Friday afternoon. He had nothing, and a drug test showed he was an addict. We got him into rehabilitation and a safe house, and managed to find him work. He is now clean, but we monitor him closely,” says Levin.

A third case arose when Levin saw a beggar at traffic lights in Cape Town that she knew was Jewish. JCS managed to place him in a job as a security guard, and three months later, he said he didn’t need them to send him money, as he was back on his feet. “However, we are still there for him,” she says.

The organisation also assisted a woman that had been living in her car for 11 years, and another woman and her child who were sleeping in a car in an underground parking lot. “The 10-year-old boy would go upstairs to a friend to have a shower and then meet his school lift at the front of the block of flats, so no one had any idea how this child was living. We took action, and now both the mother and child are safe and functioning.”

Often retrenchment or retirement leads to a person waking up one day, and finding they have nothing. One man was a multi-millionaire who lost everything, his marriage fell apart, and he is now living in a residential hotel. There were children involved, so JCS assisted them.

Another woman was a divorcee from Johannesburg who came to Cape Town, and landed up living under a bridge. “She has a multitude of medical conditions, but she is now living in a flat and making money on her own. She is incredibly resilient,” says JCS social work manager Anne Marx.

So how did these Jews land up on the streets? “Often it is one or a combination of factors, from mental illness to domestic violence, to lack of family support, to losing a job to addiction,” says Marx. “Sometimes it’s pride – they don’t want to ask for help, or they don’t know about JCS. Often it’s about gaining trust – going every day to the place where that homeless person is living so they allow you to help them.”

Then there are those who are not homeless, but desperately need support. “Last year [2019], we had 500 active cases [which often includes families], which means that 10% of the Cape Town Jewish community is in need,” says Levin. The organisation distributes 274 monthly food parcels to families in need, and has witnessed a 120% increase in drug-abuse cases over the past year.

In Durban, “There are 120 families on our books – people who have fallen on hard times, be it financially, emotionally, or medically,” says Janine Saperson, the director of Durban Jewish Social Services. The Durban Jewish community numbers between 1 200 and 1 500 people. “People must approach us for help, be able to prove that they are Jewish, and must be a permanent resident of Durban,” says Gaynor Lazarus, the organisation’s president.

They have never had to get anyone off the street, but they work daily to ensure these families have a roof over their head, and food on their table. This includes delivering up to 600 “meals on wheels” a month, and distributing food vouchers. They often help people pay rent, medical bills, and electricity and water bills. They have a permanent social worker and nursing sister, and a psychologist, psychiatrist, and physiotherapist on call. “The last year has been hard on many people. We have witnessed people who never needed help before now asking for help,” says Saperson.

In Johannesburg, there are practically no homeless Jews, says Shirley Resnick of the Chevrah Kadisha’s Financial Assistance Services. “On the rare occasion that one comes across some, they are inevitably well-known to the Chev [Chevrah Kadisha], and the reasons they are there [on the streets] are most-often addiction or mental-health related. Alternatively, there are some beggars who represent themselves as Jews although they are not.

“The Chev’s social workers work closely with all community organisations and rabbonim to ensure that everyone is looked after. Sometimes, we find older people who are destitute living in less-than-favourable conditions. While they are not homeless per se, they would be much more comfortable within the secure parameters of the Chev’s residential facilities.

“Our social workers visit these people regularly – bringing comfort, food, company, and compassion – and do their best to convince them to move, but there are those who refuse to do so for fear of change. The extent of the Chev’s legal powers to impose such moves on people is limited unless, or until, they become a danger to themselves or others.

“What the community can do to help is if they come across someone they believe to be a Jewish beggar, offer food rather than cash, and make contact with the Chev if they’re uncertain what to do. Offering food is preferable to giving money to someone who may use it to buy drugs or alcohol.”

It’s vital to support Jewish social services across these three cities to ensure that no Jew lands up on the streets, and if they do, they are assisted as soon as possible.

Emergency helplines:

Chevrah Kadisha (Johannesburg): 082 499 1010

Jewish Community Services (Cape Town): 073 706 8631

Durban Jewish Social Services: 031 202 6409

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