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Op-eds

Are we biting the hand that helps the community?

  • Howard Feldman 2018
There is no doubting the financial pressures that South Africans are experiencing across the country. Years of slow economic growth, a weakening currency, and the looting of resources has created a perfect storm. The cash crunch is tangible.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jan 24, 2019

For the Jewish community, this has been compounded by the cost of tuition at private Jewish schools, programmes to Israel, and the inherent cost of leading a “kosher” lifestyle. Shabbat, chaggim (holidays), larger families, Barmitzvahs, Batmitzvahs, and weddings all contribute to a community seemingly straining under the pressure.

Just over a year ago, I spoke to two entities who were attempting to reduce this burden. Friends Restaurant lowered the itemised prices on its menu and tried to make eating kosher more accessible. Maharsha School reduced the cost of tuition significantly in order to reduce the number of students who required assistance, and to give dignity back to parents.

Friends has closed for financial reasons.

The Maharsha model, on the other hand, seems to be working. To understand the reasons for its success, I chatted to Rabbi Menachem Raff, who has championed the cause. He believes that because he has made school fees accessible to his parent body, non-payment – and therefore the need for subsidies – has become rare.

He insists that parents set up “stop-orders” on the beginning of each month so that payment is more or less assured. More importantly, it allows for a dramatic reduction in the cost of interest, a saving that can be passed on to parents.

But like any school, no matter what parents are charged, there is always a shortfall, and this is something he continues to deal with.

A recent social-media post listed the cost of all the Jewish schools in Johannesburg. More revealing than the chart was the comments that followed. Most interesting was the fact that there seemed to be a need to “discount” why the Maharsha model could not apply to other schools.

It reminded me of years back when car jackings were commonplace. There was always someone who would ask what car the victim was driving, and then sigh audibly when told it was a car that they didn’t drive. There might even have been head shaking and victim blaming, because blaming the driver means that it can’t happen to us. We needed to find reasons why it can’t apply to us.

The financial strain on the community is significant. Anyone who does not see clearly chooses not to. The cost of leading an observant Jewish life places additional strain on people, and not dealing with this crisis places our community further at risk.

We can no longer pretend that “car jackings” happen only to those who drive cars that are different to ours. If the Maharsha model doesn’t work for another school, then that school needs to find a model that does. Choosing to find reasons to distance ourselves is to ignore one of the most fundamental challenges our community is facing.

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