The wheels of the South African Jewish community go 'round and 'round…


Yehuda Raff is the Founder of Open Door Agency in Cape Town, South Africa and an ROI Community member. Yehuda is interested in systems of things, how magic happens when the right connections are made and how businesses grow from ideas into manifest value-adding operations through human insight, inspiration and hard work. Yehuda’s background in urban planning and years of entrepreneurial activity synthesise to focus on the big picture and getting it done. Yehuda wants to build businesses that have relevance to the markets they serve and to the ecosystem in which they operate.

Yehuda reflects on his experiences at The Change Charter, a Schusterman Connection Point "in motion" to foster stimulating dialogue between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds to drive sustainable change in Africa. For the event, Yehuda traveled with 75 of his fellow attendees across South Africa on a moving train for three days of learning, discussion and collaboration.

South Africa is a remarkable place full of stories that intertwine, between cultures and peoples and time. It is not obvious what you would find here if you came looking for something, but many people have found ‘it’ here and made this place home.

This is a land of many moving people, populated by an array of migrant and indigenous communities that grow in clumps of more and less integrated, connected and disconnected, moneyed and impoverished, panels of a quilt that drape this diverse landscape. The Jews in South Africa, a statistical rounding error of the population, have contributed disproportionately in many deep and meaningful ways to this tapestry that is our complex and changing rainbow nation. Mostly in ways of which we are very proud.                                 

But something is happening in our beautiful land of diverse fauna and flora and people and cultures. The storm clouds are brewing as we realise and slowly acknowledge to one another that we are living in the time of the cauldron at the end of the rainbow. It is a cauldron that is filled with our unresolved but fast disappearing past, a present that must ride a track made of the ever-widening dual economies that are wedged apart by multiple (mostly failing) education systems, which together conspire to scatter peoples’ fates on the way to a future that looks bleaker and bleaker for the average South African.

On this land, under which sleeps every kind of valuable mineral in abundance, lives a globalising emerging market cauldron overflowing with a frothing mix of inefficient and corrupt government, massive youth unemployment and one of the highest Gini-Coefficients in the world; juxtaposed to pockets of world class health and learning facilities, incredible infrastructure, world-class banking and accounting standards; and cars, planes, and shopping that makes Johannesburg the Dubai of Africa.

It is from and in this place that our local Connection Point master conductors chose to craft an experience that would travel us out of the world of the probable and serve us, with silver service, an opportunity to dream, plan and activate solutions for our various communities that would be meaningful and achievable. Powered by the Schusterman Family Foundation, Guy Lieberman and Ryan Canin gifted each of the delegates on the Change Charter an opportunity to re-evaluate the role we wish to play in our country and at what level; to work out how we might contribute the most, most effectively and efficiently; and ultimately how we would make these contributions to our world as Jews.

The Blue Train has been the envy of generations. My father almost platzed when I mentioned that I would be spending two nights on this most vaunted prize in the bouquet of the extra-ordinary (oh, and of course my father never really platzes, it was kind of a subtle thing, you had to know to look for it).

This five-star railway hotel bucket-list experience winds itself from the 5000-meter-high plateau on which gold was found and Johannesburg founded, through the quiet, slowly transforming deserts of the Karoo down to the lush Mediterranean winelands at Cape Town’s gorgeous mountain and sea level. This is where we found ourselves, passengers clippity-clopping amongst 60 other young Jewish change agents, asking the one most important question—how can I help and how can we contribute?

You see, the Schusterman Foundation has this way of sprinkling on a programme and its participants the same fairy dust that transformed Cinderella’s evening, only with Schusterman you’d best upgrade your parking facilities because you’re not getting the pumpkin back.

We had a posse of truly unbelievable mentors from across business, social impact, education and design who worked with the delegates over three days to understand the various skillsets on the train and hone ideas in groups that could be pitched, funded and brought to life in the world.

There were a series of incredible projects proposed, some of which will be funded and which will change the world that we left when we boarded the train. But as with any still-unfolding story, the true impact is yet unknown. The Change Charter changed the way a significant set of young Jewish leaders think about what it means to be Jewish, what it means to contribute and what it means to collaborate with peers—Jewish peers who are also driven to bring their best game and leave the world a better place.

For me personally, the slow 3-day train ride across the country, which I cover by air in 2 hours a couple of times a month, left me with many more questions than answers. What is my social impact ratio? How much am I doing for my community? How useful is the work I do? Are there ways I can divert some of my time, skills or resources to social projects? Who would I collaborate with? I had forgotten about the world in my pursuit to conquer it.

The Change Charter was an attention to detail train ride reminder. It was a moment in a life, like the silent walk in the desert we stopped the train to take. It was a restock and a take stock, a look around at the incredible depth and talent we have amongst ourselves. It was an inspiration to be reminded about the possible just through spending time with this motley bunch of remarkables. 

We live in ‘interesting times’, globally and certainly in South Africa; a matter that has daunted many before us but which charges the modern innovator and change agent to look around and contribute. We were a group of (mostly) South African Jews who left time and reality behind and travelled together in the spirit of contributing to the change we want to see. What we created on this train ride to the extra-ordinary were the initial sparks that it takes to get the fire started.

South Africa lives on a precipice. I think it always has. I think that maybe this is its place. What this means is that every one of us are tipping points. Maybe that’s why contributing to the positive in this country feels so meaningful. It is like every action, good or bad, swings the balance and outcome. Tikkun-Olam means fix yourself, get your world in order and through that make this a better place. The Change Charter was a Merkaba to get us there, a carriage to another way of perceiving. It was a knock on an interior door. It was an unbelievable excursion to living with more meaning. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.