Gesher Fund a lifeline for Jewish businesses

  • GesherLogo
When Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein saw the devastation wrought by the coronavirus lockdown on South African Jewish businesses, he decided to do something to help.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 07, 2020

Working closely with community organisations and business leaders, he conceptualised a relief fund that will offer interest-free loans to small businesses in the community that are battling to survive.

The Gesher Small Business Relief Fund is now being launched to assist majority-Jewish-owned small-to-medium-sized businesses in South Africa. It will endeavour to safeguard businesses, protect stakeholders, and preserve jobs while enhancing the stability of the Jewish community during this challenging period.

“Gesher means ‘bridge’ in Hebrew. The aim is to help members of the community get to the other side of these ‘troubled waters’, and land on their own two feet,” says the chief rabbi.

The fund was established with generous commitments from the Donald Gordon Foundation (DGF) and other founding donors.

“In keeping with our father’s life-long philanthropic tradition and his commitment to the Jewish and business communities, my brothers and I are humbled to be able to continue his legacy through his charitable foundation,” says Wendy Appelbaum, representing the DGF. “Our capacity to do so, by supporting viable businesses and all those who depend on them while they are suffering unprecedented challenges, is deeply moving.”

Additional funding from like-minded philanthropists and foundations is being sourced. The other donors prefer to remain anonymous, and are all philanthropic South African Jewish families seeking to make a meaningful impact on the Jewish and wider community.

The chairperson of the fund is Martin Sacks, the chief executive of Westbrooke Group, and a member of the Chevrah Kadisha Board of Governors.

“We understand this is the largest amount of capital ever made available to the South African Jewish community in a business-support loan scheme,” Sacks says. While the fund’s donors and board have chosen not to disclose the amount, it’s believed to be in the tens of millions.

His fellow board members are Anthony Brittan (partner at Family Partners LLP), Lawrie Brozin (director Nando’s Group Holdings and Paycorp Investments), Mireille Levenstein (chief financial officer Long4Life), Sean Melnick (founder and chairperson of Peregrine Group and chairperson of Stenham), Adam Orlin (head of Investec for Business), Leonard Sank (chairperson Bradbury Finance), Jessica Spira (business development director Rand Merchant Bank), Ronnie Stein (non-executive director of The Foschini Group), Marco van Embden (founder and chief executive of Timeless Africa Safaris), and Mandy Yachad (previous director of Peregrine Holdings and a Rambam Trust representative). Most have held long-term senior leadership positions in the community.

Board member Jessica Spira says she heeded the call to join the board of the new fund because she has seen through her work how severely small and medium-sized businesses have been affected by the crisis.

“There is major hardship out there. Just because one isn’t below the poverty line doesn’t mean one isn’t struggling or desperate. This disease is non-discriminatory. It’s affecting everyone, clearly the Jewish community as well. Those that are able to contribute must do so.”

Fellow Gesher board member Lawrie Brozin says, “We’ve got a crisis, and if I can help in any way to alleviate it, it’s an honour. It’s a call to duty, and with the establishment of this fund, it’s all hands on deck. We are a blessed community – we are always looking out for each other. It’s unique, and it’s been a real eye-opener to see the talent that we have and the people that have thrown their hats in the ring to help.”

He estimates that there are at least 200 to 300 Jewish-owned companies badly affected by the crisis. “How badly, we don’t yet know. Being in business, I gather that it could be pretty serious, but we’ll get through it.”

“By safeguarding businesses during this period, we can preserve jobs for all South Africans and further our long-term mission of supporting the broader Jewish community,” says Sacks. “We hope to keep as many people as possible from needing welfare, and enable them to continue to be productive members of the community, operate their businesses, and support their staff and other stakeholders. Our donors are mindful of how these relief funds can have a positive impact on wider South African society,” he says.

The fund is an independent, national entity that will draw on the operational and administrative infrastructure and expertise of the Chevrah Kadisha in order to quickly and effectively assist qualifying businesses across South Africa.

It’s mandated to lend to majority-Jewish-owned small businesses that were intrinsically healthy prior to the crisis, but which are now facing financial hardship, and are likely to recover after the crisis once they get back on their feet.

“This is about combating an immediate cashflow crisis and helping to fund their operating and working capital requirements until their normal, pre-COVID-19 operating levels begin to return,” says Sacks. “We have co-opted a group of 30 business people, bankers, and legal advisors to work with us in assessing the applications. All applications will be treated in the strictest confidence.”

Any South African Jewish majority-owned SMMEs will be eligible to apply for a loan. “We know that not only SMMEs have been impacted by COVID-19, but bigger businesses may have elsewhere to turn. We are a last-resort lender, and advise applicants to consider their eligibility for the government led loan-guarantee scheme, which may be able to offer them loans on more appropriate terms and size before applying to us,” Sacks says.

“However, we will consider giving applicants a bridge until they are in a position to receive longer-term replacement funding elsewhere. We are deeply aware of and sensitive to the immediate funding needs these businesses have.”

Asked about businesses that were viable before the pandemic but may not be able to operate for a long period of time, such as those involved in schools, events, travel, and hospitality, Sacks says, “If that business is from a sector that has been hardest hit, it doesn’t rule them out. At the same time, if applicants are better suited to Chevrah Kadisha assistance or Rambam Trust advances, they will be assisted in that direction.”

Applicants can now visit www.gesher.org.za, and apply for interest-free loans of R50 000 to R750 000. These will be issued for 12 to 30 months to fund short-term working and operating capital requirements including staff salaries and wages. Loans may not be used for other purposes including the repayment of legacy borrowings or to fund new initiatives.

“We have set up the most efficient process we could in the short time allowed,” Sacks says. “We hope it will be a seamless application exercise, and that applicants will hear back in about a week. Our teams are ready to go, and we are looking to move quickly. Emergency funding is useful only if it arrives timeously, and we understand the urgent requirements for cash.”

Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the Chevrah Kadisha, says, “When the Chev was approached by some remarkable donors to assist, we immediately appreciated the urgency and value of such an initiative. In spite of our team being extremely stretched [in the protection of vulnerable residents and increasing assistance to families in need], we allocated significant time and energy into making Gesher a reality. It’s our fervent prayer that Gesher will succeed in its mission to keep viable businesses going. In those instances where Gesher can’t assist, the Chev will be here waiting to ensure that no Jew gets left behind.”

The chief rabbi says he is particularly grateful to those who contributed their time and expertise to the initial phase of getting the concept off the ground, as well as the generous donors, community leaders, and industry experts who have made the fund a reality. He clarifies that his aim was to establish the fund, but he won’t be involved in the assessment of applications or the distribution of funds.

“We have the most amazing community: business leaders, philanthropists, and people who really care and want to make a difference,” Goldstein says. “Whenever there is a need, people come forward. There are many examples over the years of our community offering their talent, generosity, skills, and vision to overcome challenges. This is one of those times.”

7 Comments

  1. 7 Robert Kalish 07 May
    I am one of 4 directors of Streamlight Pty Ltd a lighting company based in Kramerville Johannesburg   and if available  would be interested in acquiring a loan 
  2. 6 Robyn Meltz 07 May
    Please advise how I apply to the Gesher fund?
  3. 5 Denise Bremridge 07 May
       Please advise how I can apply to GESHER for business assistance.
    Thanki you
    Denise Bremridge
    Cape Town  
  4. 4 Selwyn Harris 08 May

    I want to apply for a loan of R20,000
    I am self employed and my one client is in lock down
    where I receive most of my income.My wife's employer
    is in lock down and she never received a salary for
    April 20,she only received R5,327 from UIF.

  5. 3 Sheralyn 10 May
    How do I apply 
    many thanks 
  6. 2 Benjy Klein 14 May
    How do i apply.
    Many Thanks
    Benjy
  7. 1 Louann Klein 14 May
    How do i apply
    Kind Regards
    Louann

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