Jewish innovators gather for South Africa

Conference aims to bring together environmentalists, bankers and social entrepreneurs in mix of ‘chesed’ and business.

February 11, 2012 22:59
3 minute read.
ROI SUMMIT participants at a ‘community brainstorm’ session.

ROI 311. (photo credit: Adi Cohen)


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When Guy Lieberman attended the ROI Community gathering in Jerusalem last year, an international conference created by Jewish American philanthropist Lynn Schusterman to help foster Jewish social innovation, he was impressed. So much so that the expert on environmental issues and Tibetan freedom activist was determined to set up a similar gathering in his native South Africa.

“I spoke to Seth Cohen [of the Schusterman Foundation] and I tried to get him to open a link with young innovators here,” he recalled in an interview over the phone from Johannesburg last Wednesday. “I said to him, ‘Come out, I’ll introduce you to my network and let me prove it to you.’”

Cohen flew out to South Africa, saw potential and the two started to put together a program. Less than a year since its inception, Lieberman’s brainchild – the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering – is about to become a reality. On Sunday, dozens of South African Jewish activists, innovators and businessmen are set to meet in Johannesburg to discuss ways of invigorating the local Jewish community in particular, and the country as a whole.

“It’s a good cross-section of the young Jewish community in South Africa: Environmentalists, bankers, social entrepreneurs,” he said. “A mix of ‘chesed’ and business.”

Participants include Nicky Newfield, the founder and director of Jewish Interactive, an outfit that markets the idea of Shabbat to the world; Danielle Ehrlich, the cofounder of LIV Design, which helps promote urban sustainability; and musician Farryl Roth, who developed a way of Torah learning that involves African drums.

Lieberman said the concept behind the meeting was to take some of the brightest Jewish minds around, put them together in a room and hopefully new ideas would emerge.

His initiative has received the support of both the secular and religious Jewish establishment in the country. South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein and David Jacobson, the executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town, will both be in attendance. So will Lynn Schusterman, the wealthy oil magnate from Oklahoma, who funded the event together with Safsin Bank, which is owned by the Sassoons, a South African Jewish family.

The gathering comes at a momentous time for the country. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, South Africa has made significant progress. It has become a vibrant democracy, is working hard to improve race relations and continues to have one of the strongest economies on the continent. In 2010, it successfully hosted soccer’s World Cup. At the same time it has had to deal with entrenched poverty, widespread corruption, a spike in violent crime and an HIV epidemic, which the World Health Organization in 2007 said at least 12 percent of the population had contracted.

South African Jewry has been strongly affected by these trends. While the community remains one of the most tightly knit and affluent in the world, fear of violent crime and better financial opportunities in places like Australia and the US have taken their toll. In addition, Zionism has attracted many of country’s best and brightest to Israel. Subsequently, the Jewish community in South Africa has shrunk from about 120,000 in the 1970s to roughly 70,000 today.

Lieberman said people abroad tend to exaggerate the problems facing South Africa. He said most Jews live “very privileged lives” and leaving the country was simply not on their agenda.

“Honestly, the issue doesn’t come up at the dinner table on Shabbat,” Lieberman said.

Nonetheless, he said part of the reason he believed his conference was important was that it could help strengthen the social fiber of South African Jewry and that of the country as a whole.

“There’s not going to be any lamenting,” he said. “We’re going to be optimistic. We’re looking for ways to think creatively and give back.”

Lieberman cited the support many Jewish South Africans gave to former South African president Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement as an example of how it could help bring about change.

Not accidentally, the keynote speaker at the Jewish gathering will be Shaka Sisulu, 32, the grandson of the late Walter Sisulu, a founder of the African National Congress, who is being groomed for a senior leadership position in the ruling political party.

“The Sisulu family has maintained the name with great dignity,” said Lieberman. “And he’s going to speak about the Jewish community’s help to Mandela.”

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