On Equal Ground

by David Ogul October 29, 2011


“Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow.”

Isaiah 1:17


Helen Lieberman wasn’t looking to become a South African legend when the then-speech therapist set out nearly a half century ago to check up on some of her clients living in a township of squalor during the dark days of apartheid.

But today, Lieberman is credited with building Ikamva Labantu, the largest non-governmental organization in South Africa, a nonprofit that has helped hundreds of thousands of black South Africans through the creation of schools, daycare centers, senior programs and health clinics. More importantly, Ikamva Labantu, meaning “the future of our nation,” has empowered thousands of black South African women, guiding them on a path of self-sufficiency by supporting their efforts at running businesses from bakeries to clothing manufacturers.

“It started by my just going in and working with my patients,” says the soft-spoken, 70-something woman who eschews publicity but has nonetheless been referred to by one author as a South African Mother Teresa. “People saw me coming in and out, and they came and approached and said, ‘Won’t you help us? We need schools. We need someplace to take our children to be cared for…we need somewhere for seniors.’”

Lieberman, who says she is not religious but nonetheless takes the Jewish concept of tikkun olam to heart, recently visited the University City home of her sister and brother-in-law while making a West Coast fundraising swing that included presentations in San Diego. After a brief stay in Los Angeles, she was off to New York for a session at the Clinton Global Initiative, which describes itself as an effort founded by the former president “to inspire, connect and empower a community of global leaders to forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.”

Although she is loath to take any credit, Lieberman’s work has been recognized by governments and organizations across the globe. Among the accolades are the 2001 South African Human Rights Award, the 1994 Melvyn Jones International Fellowship Award from the Lions Club International Foundation, the 1992 International Fellow of the Year from Rotary International, and the 2009 Roger E. Joseph Award from Hebrew Union College in New York.

So how did a nice Jewish girl from Cape Town, someone who calls herself apolitical, end up having such a positive effect in her homeland?

Her life changed when she made her first foray into a township to check up on patients whom, she felt, were discharged prematurely from the hospital where she worked, Groote Schuur, simply because of the color of their skin. Until that time, she had no idea that black South Africans lived a life that kept them from escaping poverty.

“I was naïve, and impressionable, and young, and unaware of the real South Africa.”

During that visit, Lieberman found people living in unsanitary, third-world conditions, trying to eke out a living with no resources.

“It was the most horrific experience to see how people lived,” she says. “The fear, the brutality, the poverty, the stench. The hell. It changed everything about me…I knew that what was going on was evil and unjust.”

It would have been inexcusable for her to return to her segregated world and go on as though nothing was out of the ordinary. That’s not who Helen Lieberman is. “We as a Jewish people, we care,” she says. “We must try to raise the levels of our fellow human beings.”

Despite being harassed by authorities intent on subjugating the country’s black majority, and despite being fired from her job because of the work she was doing, Lieberman not only continued to help her patients but expanded her efforts.

“She was like a salmon swimming upstream facing a great deal of danger,” says Yona Goldberg, a Los Angeles resident who went to the University of Cape Town with Lieberman.

“She developed a real understanding of what was happening in her country,” says Ruth Messinger, a New Yorker who is president of American Jewish World Service, an international development organization motivated by Judaism’s imperative to pursue justice, and which supports hundreds of grassroots efforts around the world. “Instead of turning her back on it, she devoted her life to doing something about it.”

Says Lieberman of her early days visiting her first black township: “It was like a magnet, you know. I was drawn to it.”

Soon, residents provided her with a shack where she could treat those who came to see her. She organized mothers into groups of those who were better suited to taking care of and teaching children in school and those who were better suited to making toys or clothing. She started training mothers how to make the most of the day with their children. How to feed and care for their children. How to encourage language development.

“Just make the day as beneficial for everybody as possible.”

Over time, residents organized to create preschools, health clinics and other social services. From there, residents were organized to create senior centers to care for the elderly suffering from dementia, blindness or other disabilities. Money came solely through fundraising, with Lieberman crisscrossing the country seeking help from anyone who would listen.

“Wherever she saw a need, she went in that direction,” says longtime donor Loren Levine.

Before long, “I looked around, and there were thousands of projects. I was running all around the country, working with different groups and people.”

Her efforts earned recognition from world leaders, perhaps the most important of which came from former West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. As Lieberman tells the story, a news segment about her work in the face of government interference was shown on European television in 1983. Kohl was watching. He contacted West Germany’s embassy in South Africa and asked officials to track down Lieberman. He wanted to help.

When a long, black limousine pulled up and a West German diplomat came knocking on her door, Lieberman was more than a little uncomfortable. “He was German,” she says. “I’m Jewish.”

Even after reassurances from the Embassy, Lieberman sought out Israeli diplomats for advice. They encouraged the partnership.

With help from the West Germans, the nonprofit was created. Word of the effort expanded. Donations began pouring in. Services spread. A key, everyone familiar with the organization says, is that it is not a charity.

A typical program, as highlighted by the nonprofit (www.ikamva.org.za), involves two sisters in the town of Gugulethu who look after 17 children. Ikamva Labantu provides the sisters, identified only as Thoko and Vivian, with financial help, enabling them to buy toiletries, clothes and electricity at a home for the children. The group also provides school uniforms, books and food. The result: the nonprofit is providing two struggling South African women with the means to care for a large group of orphans. The women learn how to run a service organization; the children learn how to read and write while receiving life’s basic necessities.

The organization’s effect on the region has been profound. It serves more than 1,000 orphans, 12,000 preschoolers and 540 senior citizens across the country each day.

Lieberman says that when she began, she adamantly opposed forming a traditional charitable organization, “where the giver has the receiver as a slightly subservient element.” Instead, her initiative was set up so that “we were all totally equal…The community was given the power.”

Too often, Lieberman says, nongovernmental organizations tackle issues with good intentions, but end up taking charge. “They take ownership, rather than letting those who need the help take ownership,” she says. And, too often, someone takes credit for all the work.

“They lose that magic of understanding that the effort belongs to the community, and that they can do it themselves.”

Those in the United States who are familiar with Ikamva Labantu say as impressed as they are with the nonprofit, they are even more amazed by Helen Lieberman.

“What is important to know about Helen is she really, really believes in what she does,” says Levine, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their 5-year-old daughter and whose family foundation has given generously to Ikamva Labantu over the years.

“What stood out about Helen is her humbleness,” Levine says. “What stood out about the work was that it wasn’t a charity, but it was about building communities from within.”

Goldberg agrees.

“She has used the Jewish model of building communities in helping the South African people, and she has done it for well over 40 years now,” she says. “She has changed the lives of thousands and thousands of people every day.”

Lieberman, Messinger says, has been responsible for “changing the face of her country.”

And how has Lieberman profited from her efforts? She hasn’t. She has never taken a dime from the organization, despite the thousands of hours she devotes to it annually. She decided early on that she would have no financial interest. “To this day I am a volunteer.”

She is supported by her husband, a Cape Town businessman.

“You could live many ways,” Lieberman says. “You can live in a way that you need a lot of things. You can also live in a way that you don’t need as much. I’m not one that needs many material things. And myself and my children have learned to live a certain way. We get more pleasure out of giving.

“I really believe when you live in the right way, many good things are showered on you. We’ve shared everything we’ve had, but each day brings blessings.”

Too many people, she says, have misplaced their priorities.

“It’s a mindset,” Lieberman says. “It’s about how you look at life. Humans have become very material. We judge based on material worth instead of human qualities…Turn on the television. It’s all about buy more, look better. It’s all about material stuff.”

Yona Goldberg is confident that the more that people who learn about Ikamva Labantu and Lieberman’s efforts, the more their attitudes will change.

“I find her an inspiration,” Goldberg says. “The Jewish community is always looking to honor our heroes, and she is one of the greatest Jewish heroes there is.”


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