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#IncreaseTheLight campaign honours Zetler brothers

  • ZetlerBrothers
Just one month after Stellenbosch strawberry farmer Jeffrey Zetler was brutally murdered, his brother, Herschel Zetler, passed away from illness. The two men were pillars of the community, and cared deeply for Jewish students at Stellenbosch University, who have responded to this loss with a positive and powerful campaign, named #IncreaseTheLight.
by TALI FEINBERG | Aug 16, 2018

Jeffrey and Herschel were two of five Zetler brothers who are the patriarchs of the famous Mooiberge Strawberry Farm. Michael Zetler also passed away some years ago, leaving only Leonard and Dennis Zetler alive. Their grandparents, Mendel and Devorah, first came to Stellenbosch from Belarus in 1904.

“The Stellenbosch Jewish community would not exist without the Zetlers,” said Chabad on Campus’ Rabbi Nissen Goldman. Ann Harris, the President of the African Jewish Congress, agreed with him. “All country communities need a family to take the lead, otherwise they won’t survive.

“From what I can understand, the Zetlers are those people in Stellenbosch,” said the widow of the former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Gabi Zetler, the daughter of the late Herschel, said that over their lifetime, the brothers had “all taken a turn” in leading community and family business, and had stepped back in times of need. She said her father had been ill for many years, but a kidney transplant “gave him an extra twenty years of life”. This was so different to Jeffrey, whose life was taken in an instant, leaving the family devastated.

She described her uncle Jeffrey as “her mentor in the strawberry fields”, as she took on her role at the farm. She recalled that her father had been asking for strawberries on the day his brother was murdered. But, despite all that the close-knit family have endured over the past few months, she said they remained strong, and committed to Stellenbosch and its Jewish community.

The Jewish students in the town have felt the loss keenly. “Jeffrey meant a lot to us, and would always ensure that there were events for students. When I started at Stellenbosch University, there were only four to five Jewish students who came to these events, but even with so few people, he made sure that we had the resources to have a braai or dinner,” said William van Wyk, who is studying electrical engineering.

There are currently about 30 Jewish students at Stellenbosch University, and Chabad on Campus hosts a Lunch and Learn shiur there once a month. “At the last one, we learnt Torah in the memory of Jeffrey and Herschel,” said Rabbi Goldman. “Supporting Jewish students was particularly close to Jeffrey’s heart. He would always encourage Jewish students to come to shul, check in with them, and ask them how their tests and exams were going. He had a heart of gold, and they are really missing him.”

Jeffrey was the Chairperson of Stellenbosch Shul for 27 years, and in 2014, he and his wife Beverly ensured that a new, modern hall was built to celebrate chaggim and simchot. The shiur was held in this very hall, and it was here that the students decided to launch a campaign to empower themselves in the face of such loss.

Called #IncreaseTheLight, the campaign “seeks to increase light in our world through the performance of additional mitzvot pledged in merit of the souls of the Zetler brothers – Shimon and Hirsch ben Yosef”, said Rabbi Goldman. “In the face of tragedy, we usually feel so helpless. We wanted to use this time to increase the good in the world, and make it an impetus for growth.”

Jeffrey ensured that the students were catered for, so this campaign is an opportunity to thank him and give back,” Van Wyk said.

Rabbi Goldman said that some more involved students were concerned that the campaign would not be taken up by their peers, “but so far we have never had more involvement than in this campaign!”

In a powerful video shared on social media, the students have pledged to take on simple but powerful mitzvot for a particular period of time. This includes helping to form a minyan at Stellenbosch Shul, placing mezuzot on their dorm rooms, laying tefillin, lighting Shabbat candles, supporting Jewish student life in Stellenbosch, and studying Torah. They have invited the entire community to do the same.

The video, which was made pro bono by Cape Town-based filmmaker Tessa Barlin, is intended to take the campaign beyond a small group of students into the wider community. It is also a call to support Jewish student life in Stellenbosch, which was so important to Jeffrey and Herschel.

To take part in the campaign, you fill out a form pledging your mitzvah, and commit to a time period to do so. All the pledges will be presented to the Zetler family when the campaign ends. Rabbi Goldman and his wife, Rebbetzin Ariella, have pledged to follow up each pledge, providing reading material and strengthening each person’s connection to that mitzvah.

“My dad and Jeffrey were always calling on students to come to shul to help create a minyan, so this would have meant so much to them,” said Gabi Zetler, who found the video extremely moving. “It means so much that young people are doing this, and that they care. It’s a wonderful initiative, and the more people take it on, the better.”

Visit the Chabad on Campus CT page to watch and share the #IncreaseTheLight video, which has a link to the following page where you can make your pledge: https://mailchi.mp/3363cbad74e7/zetlermitzvahcampaign

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