Rambam Trust assists those with nowhere else to go

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The lockdown has left many of us financially insecure and worrying about basics like how to feed our families, pay school fees, or service a bond. The Rambam Trust is a vital source of financial support for those navigating this rough terrain, lending funds of just less than R3 million to more than 275 families since 27 March.
by TALI FEINBERG | Jul 23, 2020

“All applicants are facing a common storm. Some are closer to shore, and others are lost at sea. People are scared and dealing with a lot of uncertainty,” says trustee Craig Sacks.

Shirl Ginsberg, is just one of those who borrowed from the Rambam Trust after her business was decimated by the lockdown. “I’m in the events-decorating business. In a matter of 36 hours, more than 61 of my functions were cancelled,” she says. “I had bought everything for the events, so I had lots of stock but no tangible cash. It was absolutely terrifying. I didn’t know which way to turn.

“I saw adverts for loans from Rambam, and approached it. From the moment I reached out, the compassion and empathy I received was one of a kind,” says Ginsberg, who had had a negative experience with another Jewish organisation a decade ago.

“I was treated with such dignity, kindness, tolerance, and understanding. I realised I needed to use the funds wisely to generate an income.” While she couldn’t utilise her stock, she could use her skills and creativity to pivot her business. She realised that a “no contact”, drive-through service of individualised, beautifully curated balloon bouquets were just what was needed as people still celebrate simchot under lockdown. She has since expanded this to a safe delivery service.

“It wasn’t a huge amount, but I’ve done a huge amount with it. I was able to get a cylinder of helium, and balloon supplies. I put an advert on Joburg Jewish Mommies and my own Facebook page, and the orders started streaming in. I’m now keeping my head above water while working very long hours.”

There are many challenges – Ginsberg has had to absorb the costs of sanitisation and safety, which are her priority. She spends hours communicating with a client to get their order just right. Loadshedding has meant that she has had to expand balloons with hand pumps. But she’s grateful and overjoyed that her work is bringing so much joy to others.

Established in 1995 with a mere R2 500 in donations from five individuals, the Rambam Trust has grown into a highly successful lender of last resort for members of the South Africa Jewish community. More than R165 million has been lent to individuals and public-benefit organisations such as schools.

On average, the trust assists more than 150 people a year. The loans are interest-free, and are typically repaid over a period of two years. “With a bad-debt rate of less than 0.5%, donors can rest assured that the funds entrusted to the trust will keep circulating and having an impact on the South African Jewish community,” says Sacks.

The organisation’s mandate and reach expanded dramatically after COVID-19 arrived. “With news of the impending lockdown, we were aware of the financial catastrophe and other effects on the country and Jewish community in particular,” he says.

“We had an urgent impromptu trustee meeting on Zoom on the Wednesday [when Zoom was still a novelty], one day before the start of lockdown. We agreed that we were living in unprecedented times, and that anyone in financial trouble would require urgent help. If there was ever a community-wide financial emergency, this was it.

“We agreed to allocate a limited amount of surplus funds in the trust towards a new ‘coronavirus campaign’, and to allow for loans of up to R10 000 per family. This was later raised to R15 000 due to the extension of the lockdown. These loans would ensure that we would have the greatest community-wide impact. The loans would have a one-year repayment term starting a few months after the beginning of lockdown, and the requirement of surety would be waived.

“The lockdown has had a serious financial impact on the Jewish community,” Sacks says, with four broad categories of applicants affected:

First, there is the self-employed who face the prospect of months without an income, for example hairdressers and beauticians. Second, there are those with diminished income like electricians, plumbers, builders, and pool services, or professionals like therapists and accountants.

Then there are those who were employed, but whose salaries were cut anywhere between 25% to 50% as the businesses they worked for couldn’t cover their full salary. Finally, there are part-time employees like mashgiachs or contract workers who now have no income.

“A key success factor of the coronavirus campaign has been our ability to assist those with nowhere else to go,” Sacks says. “Much has been said about the ‘forgotten middle’ – people ‘too wealthy’ for a handout, but ‘too poor’ to eat. The Rambam Trust has attempted to fill that gap. It gives a breather to people who are usually able to sustain themselves, and assistance to get back on their feet.”

The campaign is continuing. “We are seeing people who are really struggling in the current economic environment. Loan application forms are available on our website. We also have ways to assist applicants who don’t have internet access or a printer. The campaign has been formulated to make the borrowing process as simple as possible. For example, there is a simplified two-page application form to speed up the process.

“A key criteria for approval is assessment of the borrower’s ability to repay the loan,” Sacks says. “We are custodians of generous donations received over many years. We review each loan application, and interview each potential borrower to assess the need and ability to repay.”

The Rambam Trust is different to other funds or support systems in the community like the Gesher Fund. “While Gesher is an initiative to assist Jewish-owned SMMEs [small and medium-sized businesses] with interest-free loans, the Rambam Trust focuses on individuals,” says Sacks. “Gesher shares a trustee with the Rambam Trust.”

“Those people who are in a fortunate position to be able to give, please continue to support all the Jewish organisations that assist our community,” Sacks says. “We’re in a time of great challenge and distress.”

“Rambam was the hand that picked me up. I couldn’t have survived without them,” Ginsberg says.

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