Building An Empire of Givers
Most of us care. We have warm empathetic hearts that hurt when we see poverty, homeless people and the like. We may feel helpless to do more than send an occasional check or volunteer at a soup kitchen. But one woman has built a giving empire, been a catalyst in creating a whole community of dedicated active givers.
And it happened in Perth, Australia – one of the most isolated Jewish communities on the planet.
It started simply, some ten years ago. Vivienne Bensky made a difficult trip, traveling with her late father, a survivor of Auschwitz, to “say Kaddish to the ashes of my family, blowing in the wind.” Right after her return, shaken out of daily complacency by the heartrending experience, she got an email. Could she donate a bag of carrots and potatoes for several local Jewish families? She felt the question in a deep way.
“Now I had been born and raised here in Perth, Australia – and I got quite a shock – I never appreciated that there are people struggling to put food on their tables, that such extreme poverty existed in my own community. I started finding out more, and met an incredible man, Phillip Saddik, who had been quietly helping the poor for many years. I told him that I could ask my friends for money but then I’d have to ask them again next week, and the week after that. I felt we needed a more substantial solution. Most people were completely unaware of the magnitude of this problem.
“You know how you cry out to G-d, well, that’s what I did, one night before I went to bed. I felt desperate, I just didn’t know how to tackle this situation. I went to sleep, very emotional. At about three in the morning I woke up with a jolt. I had my answer. I woke my husband up, and said ‘David, I know what I’m going to do. I can’t ask people for their money but I’m going to ask them for their unwanted goods because everybody’s got surplus in their homes.’ Within a couple of months my garage was full. People made me realize I should reach out for help. So I had volunteers come to my garage. And that’s how our organization, now called Menora, grew from there, step by step. In fact I just had a meeting with my Tuesday group and they said ‘Vivienne, we need a bigger warehouse!’”
And there are crisis accommodations needed, too, something her board has been working on for situations like the one she just heard about: a woman living in a car with her two kids. “We need to be there for families, when things happen.”
Speaking to Vivienne you can see clearly that she feels the weight of the responsibility yet doesn’t claim any of the credit for the success of Menora. She insists it’s the volunteers who should be profiled here.
“We have hundreds of wonderful volunteers now – so we’ve come a long way. There’s an International Mitzva Day that emanates out of England. Our group made it Mitzva Month. We have team captains who get up at 5 o’clock in the morning – a huge group of people coordinating different aspects of what we do. We give out food parcels for Chanukah, Purim, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah – there are so many people doing so many things now.”
In the process of helping so many people with a safety net and immeasurable caring, Vivienne has created a community of givers. “Now we’ve got a far more educated community. They’re very generous about giving so with Hashem’s help we’ll continue to grow. We also provide vocational training, so a breadwinner can become independent. We do lose clients of course – because we help them that little bit and they continue on their way. That’s very rewarding.
Vivienne proudly describes how professionals in Perth do hundreds of thousands of dollars of pro bono work now. Dentists and doctors, lawyers, accountants, people who service vehicles or put on new tires – all helping. And the education in chesed and loving kindness is a wonderful benefit that Menora has offered Perth’s youth, with Jewish school and youth groups participating.
Vivienne sums up the life lessons she’s gleaned over the past busy and miraculous ten years. “I think we often feel that something is too big for us to do. Too hard for us to handle. As it says in Pirke Avot, ‘the day is short, the work is long,’ and ‘it’s not your responsibility to finish the task but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.’ I think we have to have the courage to start something. If we see something that we can be part of, we should have the courage to do that.”
Ten years of intensive dedication is a long time. What keeps her going? Vivienne laughs, “It actually feels like five minutes. Look, I was working full time in the family business. And then I got this email asking for food. I asked my children, as it would take away from our business, and they said, ‘Mom, do it! Go for it!’ I was also blessed with a very supportive husband who in the first years was my financier in all the things that I did. I have to thank G-d, because He put me in a position in life that I actually could do what I wanted to do. Five years ago my husband A”H started a very serious medical journey, and when I look back over his medical records, I feel clearly he was blessed with another four and a half years of his life because he took care of the less fortunate.”
“I can see we are making a tangible difference in people’s lives and that is a wonderful feeling. And building ruach and commitment and we’re embracing more and more of the community, from all walks, it’s not a particular segment of our community. It gives strength to the community so it’s never made me tired.”
“We’re trying to keep the flame of Yiddishkeit growing in our community and this is another way to express it, to look after the welfare of those who are less fortunate.”
Meet the other remarkable Lights here.