The Jews Working to Leave Their Mark on Rainbow Nation

Some 80 social enterprises are part of the Mensch network, an organization that encourages Jews to help affect change in impoverished parts of South Africa

Women who work at Hangar 18 being pampered by Chabad ladies at the local Chabad house in Cape Town.
Tessa Barlin

CAPE TOWN — About a dozen women, all migrants from Malawi, sit in a circle at the back of this roadside café amid large bags of colorful yarn. Some are rocking sleepy babies in their arms, others are putting the finishing touches on their handwoven mats and baskets.

They use the leftover yarn to create funky-looking yarmulkes. Pronouncing this Yiddish word presents a bit of a challenge, so they call them “yum-yums” for short.

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Amanda Solomon, a Jewish South African in her late forties, opened this place nearly three years ago, together with her mother, Jill Lewin. Their objective was to find work for women with no education or skills and few options for gainful employment.

Amanda Solomon, chairman of the board at H18 Foundation. "Some of the social entrepreneurs I’ve met through this Mensch network have become my role models."
Gina Flash

But first they had to find a work space that met two conditions: It had to have enough room so the women could bring their preschool children along with them because they couldn’t afford day care; and it had to be walking distance from their homes so they wouldn’t have to waste any of their precious earnings on transportation.

They found this former storage hangar in an industrial zone on the outskirts of Milnerton, a suburb located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Cape Town’s city center. It is conveniently located within walking distance of Joe Slovo Park, the poor township where these women live, most of them in tin shacks. (It is named after the late Jewish anti-apartheid activist who was a leader of the South African Communist Party.)

As part of the deal, the mother-daughter team provides these women — about 20 at any given point in time — not only with a place to work but also with basic supplies and, most importantly, orders. Their payment is based on the number of items they make that get sold.

In the BDS heartland in-read banner.

The idea of combining a café with this type of workshop had been a dream of Solomon’s for many years. Traveling through Africa when she was much younger, she relays, she would often find herself mesmerized watching the local women engage in various handicrafts. “I’d find myself wishing there was a café around so that I could just sit with a hot drink in my hand and observe them,” she says.

The bad news is that she is about to shutter the café. The good news is that she no longer needs to use coffee to lure prospective buyers to this old hangar (the official name of her project is Hangar 18) — and that’s because more and more of the orders she gets nowadays are online. In fact, there is such a big backlog that she had no choice but to find a bigger workspace.

A group of women, all from the nearby Joe Slovo Park township, working at Hangar 18 in the Milnerton suburb in northern Cape Town.
Gina Flash

‘Stars have changed’

Solomon belongs to a relatively new initiative aimed at supporting South African Jews interested in affecting change outside their own religious community. Founded by Gina Flash, a South African-Australian with a background in both Jewish communal work and social activism, it’s called Mensch (the Yiddish term for a person of integrity and honor).

Hangar 18 is one of nearly 80 social enterprises that are part of the Mensch “network.” Flash explains that members can take advantage of a host of training, mentoring and partnership opportunities. “Being a social entrepreneur is a lonely life,” she explains. “Sometimes, these people feel that it’s them against the entire world. The idea here is to provide them with a community and let them learn from one another.”

A worker at Hangar 18 enjoying some rest and relaxation at the local Chabad house in Cape Town
Gina Flash

Most of the network members’ work is focused on disadvantaged black communities, where they provide sorely needed social, health and educational services, along with employment opportunities.

“Since we got involved in this program, our stars have changed,” says Solomon, bouncing one of the Malawian babies on her lap. “It’s given us so much more exposure and opened so many opportunities. Some of the other social entrepreneurs I’ve met through this network have become my role models.”

Mensch was launched five years ago under the auspices of the Cape Town branch of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, where Flash was employed as communications director. She had just returned to her native South Africa after spending more than 10 years studying and working in Australia, England, Israel and northern Thailand. It was in northern Thailand that she gained experience in social activism, running a nonprofit that assisted Burmese refugees.

She left the Board of Deputies three years ago and, since then, Mensch has operated as an independent nonprofit with most of its funding coming from private Jewish foundations.

Gina Flash at Hangar 18. “Most Jews in this country have no idea how the rest of South Africa  lives,” she says.
Judy Maltz

It is not the only nonprofit in South Africa — and is definitely not the largest — engaged in “tikkun olam” (“repairing the world”). The most prominent example by far is an organization founded 25 years ago by the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, Afrika Tikkun, which mainly focuses on assisting disadvantaged black children. Mensch’s emphasis on Jewish social entrepreneurs, however, is unique.

Another key objective of Flash’s organization is acting as a facilitator for Jewish organizations and institutions interested in volunteering in the black community but unsure how to go about it.

“What we try to do is create a sort of safe space so people can do what I call ‘passive volunteering,’” she says. “In other words, they don’t have to go out to a black township if they feel it’s unsafe. But they can do things here that can help people in black townships — for example, preparing sandwiches that we then go and deliver.”

Engaging the Jewish community in mass volunteering events such as Nelson Mandela Day and Mitzvah Day is, therefore, a top priority.

Amanda Solomon, left, with fellow social entrepreneurs during Mitzvah Day in Cape Town.
Tessa Barlin

But sometimes, it’s simply about coaxing groups focused primarily on helping the Jewish community into looking outside their bubble. “We push people to do things they might not otherwise do,” says Flash, “and sometimes people surprise you when you give them the opportunity.”

Chabad, for example, is an international organization widely known for its outreach efforts within the Jewish community. Flash proudly relays how she recently persuaded Chabad activists in Cape Town to think outside the box: She brought the women who work at Hangar 18, and their children, for a day of rest and relaxation at the local Chabad house. The women were treated to manicures and pedicures by the Chabad ladies, while the kids were taken off their hands by the Chabad children who provided free-of-charge babysitting services.

“Most Jews in this country have no idea how the rest of South Africa lives,” laments Flash. “But when you think about it, it hasn’t been that long since apartheid ended. People really do want to be part of a better country, and so this is about helping us get there.”

A woman working on a basket at Hangar 18.
Judy Maltz

Take a deep dive into 'the BDS heartland', with Haaretz's special project on South Africa's Jewish community:
■ Jews are leaving South Africa once again — but don’t blame BDS 

■ On the road with Africa’s only traveling rabbi 
■ These South African Jews hate the occupation as much as they hate BDS 
■ From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Drawing new lessons from the Holocaust in South Africa
■ This South African synagogue caters to Jews of all colors 
■ The Jews working to leave their mark on Rainbow Nation
 How do you keep Shabbat if you’re running after elephants?

Free-of-charge babysitting services at the Chabad house in Cape Town.
Tessa Barlin