The stark reality of life without work

  • BaruchZandFamily
“I’m scared for my future. I want to work and to provide for my family,” says 44-year-old Baruch Zwarenstein, just one of those in the South African Jewish community who are battling to survive without an income in the current crisis.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 09, 2020

He represents the often untold stories of those who are trying to make it from one day to the next. “The Chevrah Kadisha [Chev] helps about 3 000 people a month with things like accommodation, food, healthcare, and education costs. This ranges from older couples to single moms to young families,” says the Chev’s financial intake consultant, Shirley Resnik. This is just in Gauteng.

Zwarenstein lives in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where Durban Jewish Community Social Services is assisting close to 130 Jews across the province. This number continues to increase, says the organisation’s director, Janine Saperson. “Many Jews with their own businesses have been affected by the pandemic, or those who find themselves without jobs are being forced to ask for assistance.”

“It’s very hard. My nine-year-old daughter looks at me and wants a chocolate from the shop, and I have to say no. My wife can’t work as she has cornea problems and can’t see well. I’m the sole breadwinner, and as a father and husband, I can’t give them what they need,” Zwarenstein told the SA Jewish Report, his voice filled with emotion.

Even with 25 years of working in the fast-moving consumer goods, wholesale, and retail sectors, he’s battling to find a job.

He’s grateful to be living at his wife’s parents’ home in Richards Bay, and to still have a car. His in-laws help to pay for food and other basic expenses. He has had to give up his medical aid. As a man who has always been proactive in finding work and will do any job, the current economic situation has been his biggest challenge yet.

“Soon after my first wife [who passed away in 2009] and I got married, we moved to Israel. I was frustrated just learning Hebrew all day, so I went out to get a job, which was as a cleaner in a restaurant,” says Zwarenstein.

From washing dishes and cleaning drains, he eventually rose in the ranks to manage the restaurant. He also worked for a data-storage company in Israel. He returned to South Africa in 2003 because of the intifada and because he wanted to be close to family.

He took up a variety of jobs in South Africa, first as an operations and warehouse manager, managing 30 staff and employees for four years.

From 2007 to 2013, he was branch manager of a photography store in Killarney. “I was told ‘you will either make or break this store’,” he remembers. “I ended up dramatically increasing the turnover in just a few months. I did this in simple ways, for example, opening up earlier in the mornings, and building a connection with the American Embassy across the road.” He was eventually promoted to regional manager, overseeing all the stores this company owned in Gauteng.

When his family moved to KZN, he worked as a branch manager for Pick n Pay on a year-long contract, managing 120 employees as well as the daily running of the store.

When that came to an end, he worked as an accounts sales manager for a company selling liquid petroleum gas around the KZN coastline.

In 2016, he took up a position as branch, factory, and warehouse manager for a tableware and souvenir company, but was retrenched in September last year. He has been searching for work ever since.

Clearly unafraid to get his hands dirty and pursue any opportunity, he has always landed on his feet. But this time, it hasn’t happened. “I was about to be offered a new position when the pandemic hit, but since the lockdown, I haven’t heard back,” he says.

This is in spite of the fact that he has a wide range of skills, from warehouse and trucking logistics, to managing staff and food safety regulations, to technology.

At the moment his daily routine entails waking up early and browsing a multitude of job websites, as well as applying to 20 to 30 of them. He also spends time following up on previous job applications. “I believe in communication, and would rather get an answer than not know,” he says.

While he will take any job, he would love a role in sales management, company management, or any leadership role in the retail industry.

In the current climate, few companies are hiring, and even hitting the streets to find a job isn’t a possibility. “My in-laws are in their 70s, so I have to take their safety into account. And even if I were to go looking, most of the stores here are closed.”

So even though he spends many hours in pursuit of employment, many more hours are spent waiting around at home, an extremely frustrating situation for someone who has always gone out to make things happen. He tries to help his in-laws with errands and his daughter with her schoolwork.

He knows that there is financial support within and without the community, but is hesitant to take it. “I want a hand-up, not a hand-out. I would much rather give than get. If I’m working, I can help my family and others. I’m even embarrassed to take R10 from my in-laws. I don’t feel like I should take something I don’t deserve, as I do have the ability to work.”

Says Resnik: “It’s always difficult to approach a communal organisation for assistance, but the Chev does everything it can to make our clients feel comfortable and respected. This, while ensuring that we adhere to high standards of governance, follow processes, and make objective decisions.

“This means we do a lot of homework to understand a family’s financial position and ensure that we assist at an appropriate level. As you can imagine, we cannot sustain a fancy lifestyle, but we will always ensure that people have somewhere to call home, food to put on the table, and that their basic needs are met.”

Zwarenstein asks people not to “judge a book by its cover. You don’t know what that person can offer, and what they have been through. Everyone has a story to tell.”

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