The Mensch Network: a special Expo @ South African Jewish Museum

By philip
29 November 2014

The Mensch Network is a collection of Jewish individuals creating social change for the systemic and sustainable upliftment of South Africa for all it’s people. The Mensch Network was launched with a special Expo at the South African Jewish Museum.

A simple idea, some hangers and second hand clothes, was all it took for Kayli Levetan and Max Pazak to create the first ‘Street Store’ in January this year, the world’s first rent-free, premises-free, free “pop-up clothing store for the homeless”. Since that day 106 pop-up Street Stores have been created across the globe. This is just one example of how social entrepreneurs are shifting paradigms, and changing peoples’ lives one project at a time. The Mensch Network’s aim is to bring together these incredible people and their ideas to the fore.

“Mensch”is a Yiddish word meaning ‘good person’ and the Mensch Network is a project of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies aimed at bringing these ‘Mensches’ together as part of the Cape Board’s commitment to working for the real transformation of our city and province. 

Barbara Miller, of the Etafeni Day Care Centre Trust, explains that, “there’s a lot of work to be done. The Jewish sages proclaimed in the ‘Ethics of the Fathers’: “It is not your task to complete the task but nor are you free to desist from it.”” In the context of a country that has massive unemployment rates, huge socio-economic divides and racist, divisive residues from a brutal apartheid regime, the expectation that our government will cure all these social ills is not only a foolish pipe dream – it is patently irresponsible. If we want to our children to inherit the kind of country we envision, then it is up to each one of us to get our hands dirty and go to work. Marlene Silbert, of the Interfaith Intercultural Twinning and Exchange Programme, insists South Africans “Must follow the platinum rule: Do unto others what you would like them to do unto you.”

This is the essence of the ‘Mensch Network’. The Jews of South Africa, white and, by and large, very privileged, have always played a role in social change. It is part and parcel of the fabric of being Jewish with the prophetic cry of ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue!’ being the Jewish refrain for some 3000 years. As individuals, Jews were disproportionately involved in the struggle to end apartheid and now Jews, of all types, are heavily involved in the new struggle – the struggle to create a just and equitable society for all South Africans. The Jewish community, often criticised somewhat unfairly for being too insular and only caring about its own, actually produces an inordinate amount of individuals, heeding the prophetic call to create a more equal and just society, whose individuals are working in a wide array of fields affecting real social change. These change-makers create organisations, from Afrika Tikkun to Ikamva Labantu, and are leading figures in variety of NGOs, such as Equal Education and the Social Justice Coalition.

The ‘Mensch Network’ aims to increase the power of these individuals by creating a network of social change agents. By mapping the world of Jews working in social change, ‘The Mensch Network’ acts as a giant ‘Social Change GPS’, allowing greater collaboration between organisations, cross-pollination of resources and the creation of new projects and initiatives. Can a redesigned shack from Andy Bolnick’s Ikhayalami and an urban garden from Ben Getz’ Urban Harvest Edible Gardens be one of the collaborations that comes about from The Mensch Network? In a word, yes.

The Network will be launched in the Mother City, but the aim will be to increase its scope nationally in due course. Its goals are lofty – to assist the Jewish community to be tangible agents of positive change in South Africa to ensure a sustainable and profitable country for all South Africans. But its effect is real – each of these ‘Mensches’ are doing life-changing work every day, transforming the fabric of our society piece by piece. Barbara Miller epitomises the whole idea of being a Mensch, and calls on all South Africans to be involved in the new struggle we face: “This is only one of the places that we are encouraged as Jews to practice universality, not only particularity.  Do not be afraid to get involved – your lives will be enriched by it, as has been mine.”

WHAT & WHEN: The Mensch Network is being launched with a special Expo at the South African Jewish Museum, 88 Hatfield St., Gardens. The Expo will run from the opening on Monday 24 Nov at 6pm – Sunday 7 December.

Written by
Li Boiskin, Executive Member, Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies
Gina Flash, The Mensch Network Co-ordinator
This article first appeared in The Cape Times