bringing it home

South African Jews create foundation to bring education tools to underprivileged youth

Education without Borders operates in three primary schools in South Africa, with plans to open a high school site

Cecil and Ruth Hershler grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, during apartheid, but only awakened to the extent of the injustice around them in their early 20s. It started when they read an article in the Cape Times on Feb. 10, 1972, highlighting the “cramped” and “badly lit” classrooms in the only local Black high school at the time, Fezeka, where instead of proper toilets, students were given a temporary structure of “galvanized iron sheds with pail system toilets.”

A Cape Argus article shortly afterward detailing the 5.2 million South African rand annual increase in government funding — equal to $298,647.79 today — to build schools for white students brought the disparity home, the Hershlers told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“It was like a light bulb went off in our heads, and we just said, this can’t carry on,” Cecil Hershler said. “These two articles, they just blew us away because it was so obvious … whatever the politicians were saying, that the playing field was completely skewed.”

Although he didn’t know anyone directly in his family affected by the Holocaust while growing up, Hershler said he has been deeply affected by those stories and what they revealed about the nature of discrimination. 

“If you read up on the beginnings of fascism in Germany in the ‘30s, it all started with small discriminations… similar things to what was happening in apartheid South Africa, which eventually became a total imbalance permanently. We are working with the legacy of that injustice to this very day,” said Hershler. “I think this issue of injustice to people, whether you actually are conscious of it or not, as a Jew, it’s burned into you.”

Today, the Hershlers are the founders of Education without Borders, which supports 400-500 underprivileged youth in South Africa per year through after-school programs in mathematics, science, English and leadership, as well as mentorship opportunities at schools in disadvantaged communities.

In February 1972, the Hershlers approached the principal at Fezeka High School, Eric Ndadani, to see how they could help. With support from local Jewish businesses, the Cape Town mayor, R.M. Friedlander, and R500 from City Hall, the Hershlers told eJP they were able to fix the fence and roof, start a library and build a hall, which the school named after their young daughter, Abby. 

Two years later, shortly before emigrating to Canada, the Hershlers heard a knock at the door of their apartment in the Green Point area of Cape Town. Ndadani, Banzi Lubelwana, Fezeka’s vice principal, and their wives stood outside bearing gifts. The furniture already gone, the Hershlers sat on the floor with their guests, who blessed them for their coming journey.

“It was the only time we had made true Black friendships,” Cecil Hershler said. “We made a promise that we wouldn’t forget them. “

When they returned to Cape Town 30 years later in 2001, the Hershlers discovered the school had been relocated to the Western Cape township of Gugulethu after it burned down in the Soweto riots. The new school was housed in cardboard portables with holes in the walls, ceiling and floors. 

They approached the principal at the time and asked if they could again help. Told that the biggest need was to rebuild the school, the Hershlers returned to Canada, and subsequently created the Education without Borders (EwB) foundation in 2002.

“A lot of our friends in Canada are Jewish, [so] that was the first constituency we appealed to, to our South African friends to come onto the board and help us,” said Hershler. “Gradually it’s of course become much more diverse, and we’re now at least 50/50, non-Jewish and Jewish, working together on the same cause.”

Plans to rebuild the school came together faster than anticipated, and the Hershlers decided to take out a second mortgage to be able to continue the process. They then began to organize fundraising activities, starting with the performance of the Athol Fugard play, Valley Song, which Cecil acted in, and after six years, paid back the debt while growing their base of EwB supporters. Today, EwB has branches in South Africa, Canada, Australia and, most recently, the U.S.

“There’s one family who came by chance to the original play. The wife is from South Africa, the husband is not, and they were so moved by what we were trying to do that they have remained solid donors for the past 20 years,” Hershler told eJP.

A significant portion of EwB’s fundraising has come from the South African Film Festival (SAFF), launched in 2011. Run annually by volunteers, SAFF aims to entertain people while educating them about South Africa. 

Hershler told eJP that the first festival sold out. “People were standing around the block. And everybody loved the film, ‘Skin’,’” he said. “We had a little wine and cheese in the foyer. And I couldn’t believe so many Black ex-South Africans who had gone into exile were hugging us and crying and saying, ‘We had no way to congregate and share stories about our life in South Africa.’” 

With the outbreak of COVID in 2020, the Vancouver and Toronto festivals were combined into an online festival streamed across Canada. The festival has now expanded into Australia and the U.S.

The funds raised by EwB to support marginalized youth has grown from CAD $20,000 in the first year to CAD $166,000 in 2022, Ruth Hershler told eJP. The past year’s total includes revenue from SAFF Canada ticket sales (CAD $31,000), SAFF Canada sponsorships and corporate donations (CAD $39,000), individual donations (CAD $86,000) and a bequest (CAD $10,000).

After rebuilding Fezeka, EwB began to run after-school programs, prompted by a volunteer Canadian teacher who was working onsite and advised the Hershlers that rather than try to fix the problems within the school system, it would be more beneficial to start a supplementary program for students who wanted to learn.  

“It was a great idea to do an after-school tutorial system. But who’s going to do it? The teachers are already burned out, they’re overloaded. They’ve just got to try and get through their syllabus. Our learners are so far behind, it’s an unwinnable situation for them,” said Cecil Hershler. “So, we stumbled on the idea of using students, especially those university and college students, and graduates from school who have managed to get out of the township and succeed …. We went to them, and we said, ‘This is the way you can help your country. We will pay you a stipend. But more importantly, you’re giving back and [even] more importantly, you’re giving hope.’”

EwB currently operates in three primary schools in Mfuleni, Bellville South and Gugulethu, and aims to add a high school site. 

Natasha October’s children, Erin and Reuben, are in fifth and seventh grade, respectively, at Bellville South Primary and have been attending EwB programs for around two years. October told eJP that because sessions cover content the students will later learn in class as well as put them in leadership positions, “it’s almost like they’re one step forward.” She said this has helped her children build self-confidence, and that Reuben has developed his listening skills. She appreciates that the program is free of charge, and it’s also enabled her children to participate in extracurricular activities. “I can be proud because Erin can surf now,” said October. “For me, it’s fun that she is surfing.” She said she is also grateful that involvement in the program keeps her children off the streets.

Tassin Williams, a tutor in Bellville, is currently studying to be a teacher for students in the Reception Year, before they enter first grade. 

She contacted EwB last August after seeing an advertisement for tutors.

“Sometimes our learners don’t have that encouragement, and they don’t have that support system. So, EwB actually provides them with that,” Williams told eJP. “This is not just education … it’s more than that. It aligned so much with what my mission and vision was because when I was a learner, I longed for something like that.”

According to Williams, the one-on-one attention and opportunities for self-reflection that students receive helps them to achieve high grades compared to their peers, and many become “prefects” (student leaders) in grade 7.

Learning to work with kids and other tutors from different backgrounds has also facilitated Williams’s personal growth. “Being a tutor at EwB has really pushed me out of my comfort zone and it has challenged me in a very good way,” she said. “It really builds you up as a person because you discover so many little things about yourself that you didn’t know, like maybe you had this skill, and you didn’t even know you had the skill.”

For her, EwB is “like a family. You always feel so welcome and included.”