Local Heroes Helene Bortz and Myrice Goldberg ‘Give Good’
Jewish American Heritage Month 2014 Honorees
Friday, May 2, 2014
Helene Bortz has just arrived. She’s in high spirits, exuding a joie de vivre and a sense of purpose, the kind that undoubtedly got her to where she is today. As she warmly greets her business partner of five years, Myrice Goldberg, a woman who seems reserved and low key in comparison, one can soon see how well they complement each other.
Bortz and Goldberg, 2014 Jewish American Heritage Month Local Hero honorees, run the Jewish Gift Closet, a non-profit organization which isn't so much a closet as it is a full service that helps those in need in a multitude of ways. The first of its kind in San Diego, its purpose is rooted in the Jewish tradition of "g’mach," an acronym for a Hebrew term meaning “deeds of loving kindness.”
“G’mach has to do with the Jewish values that tell us how to give, and this is something we do that is very different from other charities,” explains Bortz, director and founder of the organization, who is of French origin. “The Jewish philosophy—and it's written in the Torah—says you must give the person whom you're giving, more than you would give yourself. You have to give better than what you'd keep for yourself. We take pride in that. Not just give. Give good.”
The Jewish Closet helps Jewish families with whatever they need--whether it be clothing, toiletries, toys, and assistance with paying the rent, getting the car fixed or even in finding a job. Bortz and Goldberg also organize outings for children to local theme parks and attractions.
Each year, over 250 people come to the Jewish Gift Closet, despite a cultural disinclination to seek assistance.
“Jews are very reluctant to ask for help,” observes Goldberg, the Jewish Gift Closet’s treasurer who hails from South Africa. “For a lot of them, it's recently that they've needed help but it's not in the culture to ask for it. You provide for yourself. You do the best that you can. They don't feel comfortable with it but when they come here, there's a sense of comfort. We don't want them to lose their dignity. They tell their stories and they cry. ‘This isn't me. This isn't how I lived,’ they say. I feel so badly and we try to make them feel at ease. Things happen, you know. We're only human.”
“Some who come have a learning disorder and haven't been very well provided for by their family,” adds Bortz. “They are vulnerable and there's no safety net to catch them. We also get a lot of single moms. We see a lot of abused women who have left abusive marriages and need help—clothing for their kids, furniture—and this way we can help in a big way.”
“We do anything,” continues Bortz. “This woman came the other day and she was crying. She was a single mom without a job and new to San Diego. So I made some calls to people I know and organized for her an interview for today. Whatever people need we will find it, including medical assistance and emergency help. How do we do it? Well that's the thing. We just do it.”
Through their program, Goldberg and Bortz fill a void, and sometimes that means helping someone feel that they’re not on their own and that somebody cares.
I have one gentleman who comes here regularly,” says Goldberg. “He has enough money for food and shelter, but he is totally alone.”
“So he sits in a chair, and we give him tea and he stays, watching the people who come here,” continues Bortz. “They call us the Giving Place. People come here to hang out. It's got this good vibe, and we're not judgmental.”
The idea for the Jewish Community Closet came to Bortz when she was visiting her mother in France and noticed she was in the process of taking a donation of clothing to her own g’mach. Bortz realized that here, in San Diego, the Jewish community didn't have such a service, so she set out to start one. She called a meeting to explain her vision. About 10 people showed up, but only Goldberg ended up staying beyond that first meeting back in 2009. This is because Bortz’ goal of creating a place devoted to acts of loving kindness resonated with her.
“I've always wanted to do an act of kindness and volunteer because I care,” says Goldberg. “I grew up in South Africa and saw how the blacks were treated. It bothered me seeing them walking on the side of the road while we were driving in our car. I'd see elderly people and think that's not right. It always bothered me. South Africa always made me aware of such differences.”
Though the Jewish Gift Shop is only open twice a week, as well as on the first Sunday of every month, Bortz and Goldberg seem to work around the clock. Yet, neither collects a dime for their efforts, as they have families that provide for them. Rent is paid for by a grant from the Leichtag Foundation, and the Jewish Federation of San Diego County also provides support and donations of goods.. They also hold fundraisers to support their work.
“We work 24/7 and it’s a lot of work,” admits Goldberg. “But to see that I'm making a difference in someone else's life is extraordinarily rewarding. To see the joy in their face means so much, and when you hear someone say, ‘You've given me a trust in life again,’ it validates what we do. It's a lot of work, but it's a drop in the ocean.”
“I do this because I have to,” notes Bortz. “I am a deeply religious person so for me, it's not a question. I do it because it's needed and making a difference is a driving force in my life. It’s what I live for.”
Goldberg concurs, noting that her reasons for giving are also motivated by gratitude.
“I always wanted to live in the United States,” she explains. “I honestly believe it's a privilege to live here, particularly in San Diego which is such a beautiful city. For me, it's a way of giving back to the United States for all that it's given me.”