by Sarah Sassoon

I woke up with a beat-bopping, racing heart. It wasn’t Monday morning, having to face the week, although it could have been that, too – rather, it was the adrenalin still running through my system from 24 hours of attending the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering, a pioneering initiative spearheaded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation in conjunction with Sasfin Bank.

As an Australian transplant to South Africa, I come replete with my own brand of Aussie gold exuberance, but I have nothing on Americans like Lynn Schusterman and Seth Cohen, Chair and Director of Network Initiatives, respectively, for the Schusterman Family Foundation, both of whom just bounce with belief and possibility. Unite their energy with their commitment to the core Jewish values of tikkun olam – repairing the world – and being of service to those less fortunate, and you have a dream team that makes a real difference.

Living in South Africa, you want to, need to and (I would say) have to make a difference. Every hand outstretched on the street begs for it. The streets are clamoring for change – profound social change, healing and repair, from street potholes to feeding schemes and education.

Living in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg with three little princes and my own projects focused on improved parenting and writing, I have stuck my head in the proverbial sand to the statistics that were quoted over the weekend. Unemployment is high and rising in South Africa – a problem that is increasingly becoming a global issue – as Shaka Sisulu of Cheesekids pointed out. The youth population is growing by 10 percent per annum, while jobs are only growing by 0.2 percent.

In South Africa, as the renowned Dr. Taddy Blecher (pioneer of the free education movement) pointed out, 16 million people are on social welfare. Children struggle to get a high school certificate because of lack of food or enormous family responsibilities. Many grown men have nothing to get up for in the morning, and they often take their self-loathing out on the women and children around them. The lack of education and jobs leads to high crime rates. The situation can seem desperate and depressing.

Despite taking place in this context, the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering wasn’t about doom and gloom. The 50 delegates were all proudly South African, all active and all doing a lot to achieve ubuntu (humanity toward others) in South Africa, which is its birthright.

One of the themes that emerged for me was that of being of service to the Jewish community and the wider African community. This is a Jewish duty, calling and legacy. “We can build people, open doors for them and do it as the Jewish people,” said Helen Lieberman, founder of Ikamva Labantu, a massive welfare movement largely based in Cape Town, in her closing talk. In other words, we must pay our Jewish blessings forward.

And are we all not blessed, especially those of us South African Jews living in the northern suburbs? We have education, comfort and moreover a moral Jewish compass. Rav Ramon Widmonte, through Jewish text study, demonstrated dramatically that God wants us to have a voice in this world. To argue, as Abraham did, for a better world. To use that voice in demanding and creating change.

The weekend was full of these voices. Voices and hands that innovate urban gardens, promote Jewish digital education for children, place doctors in rural areas and create South African “good news” platforms, amongst many others. They demonstrate through their actions what any individual can do.

Of course, it is all well and good to be told, “You’re powerful,” “You have a voice,” but when it is crunch time, taking action on a trailblazing Jewish or social idea can be pretty daunting. For anyone out there who is as dumbfounded as I am on how to get started, here are three tips gleaned from awesome people who have succeeded in doing tremendous things:

  1. Naivete is the mother of all invention”: Dr. Taddy Blecher said that for him to begin his free university with four people (who acted as the lecturers, administration and cleaning staff) in an empty downtown building was a case of naivete – of following the German proverb, “Just begin to weave and God will provide the thread.”
  2. Start Small: This was one of the key closing points that Seth Cohen made at the conference. One small thing leads to another. Set small goals, do small acts and slowly but surely you can create change. Like Helen Lieberman, who a few months ago struck up a conversation with a well-spoken Congolese waiter in Cape Town, found out that he is a professor of pharmacology, made one phone call and helped him get a job as a lecturer as University of Cape Town.
  3. Network, network, network!: Of course, inter-connectivity was what much of the conference was about (check out the Schusterman Foundation’s uber-fun clip on this theme). You are not alone in wanting to change the world. Genuine social innovators are happy to help, mentor and share their experiences.

I urge anyone interested in making a difference to look up the conference, surf the websites of those social entrepreneurs creating change in the world and to join them. Start small. Who knows where it may lead you and the world. If there is anything I learned over the weekend, it is that together we can create the cradle of human kindness – which is perhaps the whole point of life after all.

Sarah Sassoon is a freelance writer and blogger living in Johannesburg. She runs the popular women’s blog, Mother’s Rights.

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