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Building a community of Jewish change-makers

  • Mensch4
Jews have always been deeply involved in improving the lives of fellow South Africans, but until recently, there hasn’t been a network to bring all of these “change-makers” together to support each other and heighten their impact. In addition, many Jews in civil society don’t promote the fact that they are Jewish, while those who do often limit their activity to the Jewish community.
by TALI FEINBERG | Dec 13, 2018

This is where Mensch steps in. “It is a space to be proudly Jewish and promote diversity at the same time,” says the organisation’s founder, Gina Flash, who started Mensch as the Mensch Network, a project of South African Jewish Board of Deputies (Cape Council) when she was employed there.

Flash was tasked with looking at how Jews are involved in transformation in the country, and it was then that she realised that a network to bring these people together would be valuable for their work and our community.

Mensch has now evolved into a fully fledged independent organisation. “It is a registered South African non-profit organisation and public benefit organisation with Section 18A status (for donations purposes),” Flash says. “It has two full-time staff members, its own governing board, constitution, budget, fundraising, and donor base.” Needless to say, the organisation prides itself on upholding the highest standard of governance.

Underlying Mensch’s vision is a “theory of change”. “Our overarching aim is to engage the Jewish community in creating social change in South Africa. We do this through capacity building, networking, profiling and community engagement,” Flash says.

On the ground, this has meant engaging the community in acts of “doing good”. On Mandela Day in July, Mensch invited the Cape Town Jewish community to a day of fun activities hosted by non-government organisations so that they could interact with them directly and hopefully build long-term relationships. For example, people of all ages could attend a yoga session with the Earthchild Project, which teaches yoga to children in the townships.

Mensch also joined the global Mitzvah Day in November, inviting community members to roll up their sleeves and help others in any way they see fit. “We’ve found that people really get what we are trying to do when they attend one of our events,” says Flash. “It’s all about exercising that ‘muscle’ of doing something, instead of feeling paralyzed.”

As an umbrella body, Mensch is open to any Jewish person who is involved in making a difference in South Africa, or anyone who wants to contribute to wider society but isn’t sure where to start. It’s an inclusive space that has drawn people back towards their Jewish roots while at the same time allowing others to reach out beyond their comfort zones.

“We’re a proudly Jewish space for people to take part in transforming wider South African society,” says Flash. “We’re focusing on South Africa and the role we have to play as Jews according to our Jewish values.”

Mensch offers extensive support to its members, including interaction with mentors, top quality speakers and events, and practical training on building social enterprises and businesses that are focused on people, profit, and planet.

The organisation faces a number of challenges, not least funding. It is a small beneficiary of the United Jewish Campaign, the Cape Town Jewish community’s umbrella fundraising body. But for the rest, it must attract its own funding.

In addition, many people confuse it with other organisations like Afrika Tikkun. “What we’re doing is different. Mensch is a platform for supporting a range of transformation activities, people, and organisations. We celebrate the great achievements of change-making in South Africa’s history, but we feel an urgent need to support the next generation to continue and expand this legacy,” says Flash.

In addition, some people feel that Mensch focuses Jewish people’s attention and resources away from Jewish concerns, as it promotes tikkun olam (healing the world) with a focus on the poor and needy in greater South Africa.

“The truth is it is the complete opposite! We are creating a Jewish space for something people are already doing and want to do,” says Flash. “This space actually brings people back into the community where they have previously felt unrepresented or excluded. It also ensures that the community remains relevant to future generations.”

The organisation’s vision for the future is centred on growth, including more networking, more education, experiential learning, and meaningful communal social action. Mensch would also like to encourage the corporate world to step up and form partnerships with community organisations. Mensch has a small presence in Johannesburg, but has big plans to expand in 2019. However, it will need support, including funding a part-time employee.

In the meantime, anyone can get involved. “We are a platform, a community, so it is a space to step in and up to. Join the network, check out the members on the site, and find a city and area of work that interests you. Offer to volunteer directly with an organisation, or to create a Mensch event; take part in an isiXhosa or isiZulu language course which will help us communicate; break down barriers by offering your professional skills, financial support, and/or by being an ambassador by encouraging others to support us.”

In the broader South African society, she encourages people to take part in civic action, politics, and leadership opportunities, to champion democracy, and to “take your place proudly, not backing away from the task at hand”.

For more information, email [email protected] or see the website www.mensch.org.za

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