Mitzvah School to close after 40 years
The Mitzvah School, which has taught disadvantaged students in their final year of school for nearly four decades, is closing its doors at the end of the month because it no longer has premises to operate.
It marks the end of an era for the school, which has provided a quality education, transforming the trajectory of hundreds of matric students’ lives over many years.
“Sadly, we’ve been asked to leave our beautiful premises in Morningside, Sandton, to make way for a corporate educational institution,” said the school’s co-founder and director, Lesley Rosenberg.
Rosenberg, 79, said she was “heartbroken” to see the school close after 37 years of dedication and passion. Alternative premises haven’t been sourced, and it was a fait accompli, she said, leaving the school with no option but to accept it.
“This special place has been my life for nearly 40 years,” said the mother of four and grandmother of eight, reflecting on a journey which began during the dark, dying years of apartheid.
Established in 1986 by trailblazers Molly Smith, since retired, and Rosenberg, the Mitzvah School emerged in response to the educational challenges fuelled by political unrest. Disturbed by the widespread denial of education to matric students, especially during a period marked by the mantra “liberation before education” in townships, the pair provided a lifeline for about 25 pupils from Alexandra, enabling them to pursue their matric exams.
“There were kids desperate to write their final matric exams at the end of 1987, and we wanted to make a difference,” said Rosenberg, who grew up in Yeoville and matriculated from Barnato Park High School.
“We wanted to do a mitzvah and run a school for a year with Molly as the principal and me as the fundraiser and student liaison.” Little did they know that they were embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. In a world where opportunities for pupils were scarce, the Mitzvah School was a guiding light to a brighter future.
It started out on the property of Temple David synagogue, now Bet David, previously the house of the rabbi.
“What we did in those days was totally illegal,” said Rosenberg, “People thought we were crazy to bring black children from a township into the then all-white suburbs. The pupils were registered with Alexandra Secondary School and it was a turbulent time,” she said.
Initially most of the students came from a youth centre in Alexandra called Thusong. They were attending a crisis class being run at the old Sandton Civic Centre.
With the assistance of companies, donors, and the Bet David congregation, the school opened with its first 25 pupils. Since then, more than 1 000 pupils have passed through its doors.
“From doctors, lawyers, accountants, and teachers, we’ve produced them all,” said Rosenberg with pride.
Many students return to inspire other pupils and chat to the teachers that changed their lives.
“My greatest joy comes from those who tell me about how they have given back to their community,” said Rosenberg.
Smith and Rosenberg originally thought they’d assist pupils to complete their final year of schooling only until things improved – maybe for a year or so. “That was nearly 40 years ago, and education is still in crisis,” said Rosenberg, who is proud of the fact that the school often achieved a 100% pass rate.
Recalling those first few years, Rosenberg said they came with seemingly insurmountable challenges.
“Every day was a learning curve. The kids were growing up in an atmosphere of turbulence and distrust. We needed funding, teachers, transport for the kids, textbooks, stationery, the syllabus, the list was endless. Most importantly, we needed to work with the Alexandra community to gain its approval and trust.”
They made several trips into Alexandra to meet community leaders to ask for help.
“That first year, the students were a mixed bunch, some much older as they had stayed away from school and were highly politicised. Some had never met a white person before, and were suspicious of us. Many were hungry, so we would do sandwich making at first break.”
While township unrest or teacher strikes paralysed other learning institutions with countless stayaways, the Mitzvah School stood resilient. Amidst a serene landscape, impassioned educators guided young minds to surmount academic challenges.
The Mitzvah School established itself as a permanent, fully accredited institution staffed by highly qualified, dedicated teachers, with selected pupils numbering at one time 50-odd annually. Today, it has 27 undergoing their final examinations.
It soon started a feeding scheme in Alexandra in 8th Avenue, which runs to this day.
“I would go to local Pick n Pay stores in the area and stand outside myself asking shoppers for groceries which they’d kindly contribute,” said Rosenberg.
The students continue to assist in collecting food for the kitchen. With the help of the Bet David Sisterhood, the school has consistently been involved in many upliftment projects in Alexandra.
“The Mitzvah School has had a profound impact on the lives of countless young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s a sad day to see it close,” said Principal Cheryl Crossman, who has taught at the school for 27 years.
Registered with the Gauteng Education Department as a non-profit organisation that received no funding from government, pupils paid a small monthly fee, with most of the funding coming from the community, businesses, and individual sponsors.
One of Rosenberg’s greatest achievements was when she and Smith were awarded the Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Human Rights Award by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for “going beyond the confines of the community to help fellow South Africans achieve their dreams and fulfil their potential”.
In a letter to the school, past pupil, Ntsoaki Ngwenya, who went on to become an admitted attorney wrote, “We were raw diamonds that you shaped through academic opportunity, instilling discipline and commitment. We saw life outside of Alex, and were able to realise who we were created to be.”