Whenever we pay attention, the needs around the world can seem overwhelming.
Sometimes it’s so tempting just to give up. It’s not as if any of us can really make a difference. That’s probably what most of us do, most of the time.
But sometimes, some of us don’t give up. Jewish tradition teaches us that to save one life is to save an entire world. So sometimes we do something — something that’s fairly small on a global scale, something that can’t change the entire world, but can make a huge difference, maybe even a transformative difference, for someone.
And sometimes we can do it through our connections, through the network we’re woven into.
That’s what Ilana Picker of Teaneck and her family are doing.
Ms. Picker and her husband, Saul, are South African by birth. They moved to the United States in 1998, for a business opportunity, following Ms. Picker’s older sister Heather Zar, and her brother-in-law, Dan Stein, both physicians, who lived in Englewood. A few years later, Dr. Za and Dr. Stein went back to South Africa and the Pickers moved to Teaneck; Ms. Picker fell so deeply in love with a tree in what is now her backyard that she decided to buy the house that came with the yard before she even walked over its threshold.
Bedazzled by the huge array of synagogues available to her, she chose Congregation Beth Sholom, the platonic ideal of Conservative shuls, a place unimaginable in South Africa. A gifted occupational therapist and preternaturally patient teacher, she works with special needs high school students at the Sinai Schools program at Ma’ayanot High School for Girls in Teaneck.
She’s also the mother of four daughters — Yael, Elisheva, Liora, and Talia — as well as a daughter, sister, and relative of “tons of family” in South Africa. Every year except for this last covid-struck one, she has taken her children back home to spend time with their family.
About 11 years ago, she hired a woman to help her care for her kids, then small children, during her stay in Johannesburg. She found someone extraordinary. “Musa is just so incredible,” Ms. Picker said. “She was naturally gifted at taking care of children. I could just tell that she had this gift.”
Still, Musa had a hard time finding work; in that, she was no different than most people around her. There was nothing at all available back home in Zimbabwe. There wasn’t much more work in Johannesburg — and she had to fight xenophobia, as a non South African, Ms. Picker said — but not much is far better than nothing. She had four children back home; as so many poor people have done, as far back as history goes, she made the wrenching decision to leave them so she could provide for them.
Ms. Picker urged Musa to take a course that would help her get a steady job at a day care or nursery school and offered to pay for it. Musa took the course, which Ms. Picker did pay for, but it didn’t help much. Jobs remained sporadic and hard to find.
“I came back to America, and Musa and I stayed in touch,” Ms. Picker said. “Her story is a story of no money and no real job. Her two oldest children had to drop out of school to look for work. And at that point I said no, we have to keep your kids in school.
“I’ve been keeping her daughter Ntokozo, who’s now 16, in school. I’ve been paying her tuition — it’s not tons of money, just a couple of hundred or so dollars a year. She would walk a couple of miles and from school, but what happened is that the rains came in Zimbabwe, and it became dangerous for her to walk there. She had to cross flooded rivers, and there was wildlife.” (Just stop and think about that. “There was wildlife!”)
“There is a boarding school there, and I said ‘Hey, she’s a good student. It would be better if she could board,’ so I asked Musa if she’d be willing to move Ntokozo there.
“I’ve been paying for that. I’ve been able to keep her in school for a couple of years.”
Ms. Picker has been sending both money and things to Ekusileni Secondary School, which lacks almost everything. “I asked what they need, and they said that we have nothing. We need notebooks, papers, pens, markers, readers — they have nothing.”
Ms. Picker’s youngest daughter, Talia, 11, has been walking a neighbor’s dog after school for a few years now; she gives some of the money she makes to her mother to send to Ntokozo’s school. “Talia knows how to sew on a sewing machine, and she started making pencil cases for these kids, and filling them up with markers and Sharpies that we had at home, and we started sending them,” Ms. Picker said. She decided that her bat mitzvah project would be to make and send a case to each of the school’s students, and her mother would try to fill them. “I would send them with loose-leaf paper, pencils, pencil sharpeners – nothing fancy, just basic school supplies,” Ms. Picker said.
The school also needed blankets; she tried sending them too, but soon she realized that it cost too much to ship them. It made more sense to send money earmarked for blankets.
“My grandmother had been a brilliant crocheter, but she couldn’t teach me to crochet, because I was a leftie,” she said. “I always wanted to crochet, though, so during covid, I taught myself from YouTube, and I started making woolen caps for the students. It gets cold there in the winter.” She’d like to make a cap for every student.
The school is in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe; “the sticks of the sticks, in a very remote part of the world, with no resources, no money, and covid has been a double whammy,” Ms. Picker said. “I got. The school was supposed to open at the beginning of January but they really have nothing.” She’s started getting texts from Musa asking for food.
All along, some friends have been donating to help her send supplies to the school; now, she’s starting a GoFundMe campaign to send $15,000 of supplies by truck from Johannesburg to Bulawayo. It’s at Musa’s Story — Educating One Kid at a Time.
Helping other people is a characteristic that runs through the Zar family. Her sister, Heather Zar — the sister who lived in Englewood with her husband, a psychiatrist — is a South African physician and research scientist who is active in social justice work. She’s the chair of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health and the director of the South African Medical Research Council Unit on Child and Adolescent Health at the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Health Sciences. In 2018, Dr. Zar was recognized as one of five winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO award for women in science. The award was given for “establishing a cutting-edge research program in pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma, saving the lives of many children worldwide,” according to group’s website.
The sisters have worked together, across continents.
“My kids learned how to sew to make little stuffed animals for kids in the hospital where my sister works, and for kids in the very poor areas, the squatter camps, where she also works” Ms. Picker said. “They call them comfort monsters. By doing that, they really learned to sew.”
Everything connects. Ms. Picker’s children went to the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County; a few years ago, the school sent a group of administrators to South Africa as the culmination of its drive to start a library in a school there.
Two of Schechter’s former administrators — Ruth Gafni, who then was its head of school and now is the head of nursery through eighth grade at the Ramaz School in Manhattan, and Leah Silberstein, who headed Schechter’s communications department and now is the director of strategic initiatives at Ramaz — talked about Dr. Zar and her work showing the connections between poverty and literacy. That led directly, in a chain from Ms. Picker and another South African, Schechter’s librarian, Beryl Bresgi, to the libraries in South Africa.
“It came from Heather Zar,” Ms. Gafni said. “We sponsored our library, and the training that went with it” – because, as Ms. Silberstein explained, a library is not an unmoving, unchanging monument but a living organization, that has to be grown if the readers and information seekers it nurtures are to grow as well, and so they and Dr. Zar, working together, set up training programs for future librarians. “Heather is very down-to-earth and modest, and she is a giant,” Ms. Gafni said. “She is able to stretch beyond university academics and involve the government and NGOs and educators,” Ms. Silberstein said. “She’s the linchpin.”
And then there’s Sinai at Ma’ayanot, where Ms. Picker works with her students carefully, patiently, gently, lovingly. “We really try to integrate the students into the community, and teach them social skills, so I take them all over with me,” Ms. Picker said; that was pre-covid, of course.
“I took them to the post office, to be there as I was mailing the parcels with the pencil cases. I wanted to show them what we were doing. So I showed the students, and the other people there, what we were doing. And they all asked how they could help. My assistant, who is awesome, said straightaway ‘I am giving some money to help cover the costs.’ It was amazing.
“My students have huge, huge hearts,” Ms. Picker added.
She feels strongly about how helping in whatever way you can, is both a Jewish and a human value, as is the need to hold on to the value of every life.
“Musa is still in Johannesburg, looking for work, trying to find part-time piecework,” she said. “She had a job as a nanny that she lost because of covid.
“She’s just one person out of a sea of billions of people. The school is like one little grain of dust in a giant sandstorm. But I am just glad that my kids can get the lesson of extending themselves in the world, and helping even a tiny little bit. The whole world isn’t Bergen County.
“It’s all about chesed and taking care of each other and community. Isn’t this our purpose – repairing the world? This is all about tikkun olam.”