Leaders step up for a community in need

  • Rands
Near the beginning of South Africa’s lockdown, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein heard about a member of the community “who owned a small business supporting himself, his family, and his widowed mother, and had to cash in a medical policy to get R150 000 to keep his business open. When I heard that, it highlighted for me how critical the situation is at the moment.”
by TALI FEINBERG AND JORDAN MOSHE | Apr 30, 2020

This is just one of thousands of stories of community members trying to stay afloat in the stormy seas of lockdown and the coronavirus crisis. The chief rabbi is one of many leaders who are stepping up to find the funds to support such individuals.

“Our sages teach us that the highest level of tzedakah [charity] is giving someone financial independence. The greatest mitzvah is to help someone before they fall. We need to come together as a community to address this extremely urgent need,” says Goldstein. He has been working tirelessly with a team of community leaders to launch a fund that will offer interest-free loans to small businesses. He hopes to provide more details soon.

“Judging from the appeals we have received from our community, there is palpable distress, and this is a reality that we will be experiencing for some time,” says Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

In Johannesburg, the Chevrah Kadisha has had a drastic increase in applications for financial assistance. “This week alone, we had 40 new applications,” says Chief Executive Saul Tomson. “Just one example is a single mom who is a hairdresser. She hasn’t been able to work for two months, and won’t be able to work for the foreseeable future. She and her two young children are now completely dependent on the chev.”

Others asking for assistance from the chev include those who aren’t earning an income or who have lost jobs, people needing help to pay for food, rent, and increased costs like home schooling. Then there are those who were getting financial help from family but are no longer getting it, or clients who had become independent requesting help once again. The organisation’s hotlines have also been inundated with calls from people saying they are fearful and lonely.

“These are early days, and we haven’t felt the full devastation. However, the chev has always been there, and will endeavour to always be there for Jews in need,” says Tomson.

In Cape Town, Hazel Levin, the director of Jewish Community Services (JCS), says, “We have had to deliver an extra 42 food parcels since 23 March. These are new clients who we have never heard from before, or people who were back on their feet and are now slipping through the cracks.” The JCS assists the vulnerable within Cape Town’s Jewish community.

“We have had many people say they can’t pay their rent. Then, there are financial needs for Wi-Fi and data, with children and parents working from home, and for providing 500 clients with masks,” says Levin. “We have also seen an increase in anxiety and frustration within families.” The organisation is still offering a full range of services, and is about to launch a tinned food drive.

The SAJBD has been working to assist those who are battling financially. “A high number of community members are self-employed, and this makes them particularly vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19,” says Kahn. “The board is working to point people in the right direction, whether it be government funding, banks, or some of the internal community offerings. We are also providing psychological support.”

Based on the feedback from the SA Jewish Report’s Tuesday night panel discussion on how to stay afloat during the crisis, “There is no doubt that the community is facing many financial challenges as a result of the lockdown,” says Herschel Jawitz, who chaired the event.

About 3 000 viewers tuned in, and many participated in the various live polls. In answer to the question if businesses had reach out for assistance, 13% said that they or their businesses had applied for government funding, 19% had applied to their banks for a payment holiday, and 7% had applied to one of the general funds for assistance.

In another poll addressing job and business security, 45% said they were worried about the future of their job or business, and 26% reported salary reductions.

Of those who responded that they could pay rent or bonds in May, 18% said that they had made payment arrangements with their landlords, 12% won’t be able to pay, and 11% have requested a discount. Many had already spoken to their banks about deferring a mortgage or other payments, and others were planning to do so in the next three months.

“When the virus hit four weeks ago, we created an emergency fund,” says Mandy Yachad, a trustee of the Rambam Charitable Trust, which has existed for 25 years to provide interest-free loans to Jews. With almost R15 million in capital (provided by various donors and initiatives), it lends out extensively across the community. “We committed R1 million of our own trust capital to the emergency fund, to which was added a further R1.2 million from donors,” says Yachad.

The maximum loan is R10 000, and includes a moratorium of two to three months on repayment. Repayment is over 12 months. The requirement for surety has also been waived.

“Our form has been shortened, and basically asks applicants how the crisis has affected them,” says Yachad. “We have trustees available daily to review applications allocated to them for processing within 24 hours. Within that time, the applicant is interviewed telephonically, the prospect of repayment evaluated and, if the loan is approved, the funds are paid out.” The trust has already received in excess of 180 applications. About R1.5 million of the available R2.2 million has been paid out.

“We should also recognise that the economic impact on the community will have a knock-on effect on communal organisations,” says Kahn, and indeed, others are reaching out to support our community at the tip of Africa.

“The Jewish Agency for Israel has created a fund of $10 million (R186.8 million) to support communities around the world,” says Liat Amar-Arran of the Israel Centre. “Umbrella organisations that work with the Jewish Agency can submit requests for loans, which can be repaid within four years with no interest or collateral. The fund is there to ensure that organisations around the Jewish world survive this crisis. If we don’t have organisations, there’s no community.”

She emphasises that this fund is for large umbrella organisations, which can then decide how to distribute the funds within their infrastructure. “It’s amazing, as the Jewish Agency is also struggling, but it has made this a priority to ensure that diaspora communities stay vibrant.”

Resources

Jewish Agency COVID-19 Crisis Loan Fund for Communities At Risk: www.jewishagency.org/communities-loan-fund

Rambam Charitable Trust: www.rambam.co.za

SAJBD: www.sajbd.org

Jewish Community Services Cape Town: www.jcs.org.za

Chevrah Kadisha: www.jhbchev.co.za or 24-hour hotline: 082 499 1010.

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