‘Make Real Change’ – New Efforts Bring Tikkun Olam to South African’s Social Change Vocabulary

Courtesy Mensch Network
Courtesy Mensch Network

By Maayan Jaffe

How do you define tikkun olam?

According to a new organization, OLAM, tikkun olam is the Jewish people’s moral obligation to care for the stranger and repair the world. OLAM, a collaboration of the Alliance for Global Good, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Pears Foundation, is on a journey to promote stronger Jewish engagement in global humanitarian issues, according to Dyonna Ginsburg, the organization’s executive director.

However, Ginsburg says that as OLAM works to create a network of Jewish and Israeli organizations working to improve the world, what OLAM is finding is that this act looks different around the world. Tikkun olam plays itself out differently depending on a country’s unique history and current Jewish, economic and political landscape, she says.

In South Africa, though it has been more than 20 years since the official end to apartheid, the challenges of inequality and complicated race relations are an ever-present factor of the country’s milieu.

“Apartheid is the basis for a lot of conversations that still need to be had in South Africa,” says Amanda Stein, founder of Cape Town’s Rethink Leadership. “We sometimes push down these difficult conversations about race, religion, privilege. Tikkun olam is trying to keep those conversations alive.”

Rethink Leadership is fostering a next generation of South African leaders, attempting to change government from the bottom-up, inside-out. She says it is not about “saving the world,” but “looking horizontally and seeing how we can do our part.”

The South African Jewish community, estimated to be around 70,000 people strong, has had a very privileged past, says Gina Flash, founder of the Mensch Network. Today, younger Jews feel a need to “do something,” to help make change happen faster. Flash notes there are many grassroots organizations helping the non-white and aboriginal populations in South Africa. Though not labeling their work as uniquely Jewish or rooted in tikkun olam, she says these organizations and their volunteers are disproportionately Jewish.

Courtesy Mensch Network
Courtesy Mensch Network

The Mensch Network, a network of Jewish individuals committed to creating social change for all South Africans, is a first attempt to cultivate a social change space within a Jewish context of tikkun olam and other related Jewish values. Mensch creates opportunities for people to network, hear speakers, to grow capacity and more. It also offers Jewish learning opportunities.

“We all want to make the country better; that is very much a Jewish imperative,” says Flash. “I am very excited to see how we can capture the people who are interested in humanitarian issues in a Jewish way.”

It is also a PR move in a country that is heavy-handed anti-Israel and pro boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. For many young South Africans, after they graduate from Jewish day school, they attempt to disconnect from the Jewish community – sometimes out of fear of being ostracized for their Zionist connection.

“There is a challenge to convince our Jewish youth that we have to work hard to get into the space and make it a Jewish one, too,” says Flash.

Flash says even productive dialogue can quickly shift from anti-Israel to anti-Semitic. Many are skeptical of the good Jewish people do, too. She says this makes it hard to be an equal partner in the social change arena. Flash is confident that with added efforts the barriers will begin slowly to break down.

Others, such as Dr. Lydia Abel, director of ORT SA CAPE, a part of ORT South Africa, says, “We kind of keep our heads down and are busy with the work we do. We don’t engage in the politics.” ORT SA CAPE works with young people and educators from disadvantaged communities in the Cape Town region.

“We don’t walk around carrying the Israel flag. We just want to make society better,” Abel notes.

Adds Flash, “There is so much potential. We can make change. It is very possible to make real change in people’s lives.”