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2020 – the year of disruption

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Time magazine dubbed 2020 the worst year ever. On its latest cover, it features “2020” with a large red “X” through it, marking the end of an historic year, but not the end of a battle. The first time it did this was in 1945 to mark the death of Adolf Hitler.

“This is the story of a year you’ll never want to revisit,” writes author Stephanie Zacharek, pointing out that “most of us alive today have seen nothing like this one”.

As a community, we’ve experienced far worse in our past, but this has been utterly unforgettable. And while it’s never good to wish time away, 31 December cannot come fast enough for fear of what still lurks.

This week alone saw hundreds of matriculants convalesce in quarantine having tested positive for COVID-19 following the outrageous Rage festival – hopefully the absolute final rotten cherry on the top of this crazy year.

Cast your mind back to New Year’s Eve 2019, when you may have heard of Wuhan for the first time, shrugging your shoulders as you sipped champagne. As the clock struck midnight, you may have been thinking about that new job, that hard-earned raise, that trip of a lifetime, your child’s matric year, or about expanding your small business, planning a wedding, or having a baby.

In all likelihood, your plans and dreams went out the window.

It has been novel in every respect, giving rise to a new vocabulary and way of life. From Zoom funerals; elbow-bump greetings; drive-by simchas; stockpiling toilet paper; working remotely; endless webinars; online learning; social distancing; lockdowns; hand washing and sanitising (everything including groceries); to ridiculous, ill-fitting face masks; bizarre hotel quarantines; and empty football stadiums with surround sound pre-recorded cheering; to a delayed Olympic Games and Netflix becoming our “BFF”.

2020 can rightly be called the Great Year of Disruption, having taught us that nothing is predictable. As it nears its end, here’s a look back at some of the stories that grabbed our attention.

January was marked by devastating Australian bushfires which killed a billion animals and brought many to the brink of extinction. Images of desperate koala bears clinging for life on burning trees were etched in our memory for life.

We were shocked by the tragic drowning of Parktown Boys’ High School pupil Enock Mpianzi, 13, during a Grade 8 orientation camp at Nyati Bush and River Break Lodge near Brits in the North West. This resulted in schools across the community reassessing safety measures and protocols.

A United States (US) airstrike killed top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, which resulted in Iran retaliating with a ballistic missile strike on US troops in Iraq, causing mayhem in the region and Jewish communities worldwide strengthening security measures.

The impeachment trial of outgoing US President Donald Trump began in the US Senate which resulted in him being acquitted the following month.

In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic while the world watched aghast as the Italian government placed its entire country on lockdown. Haunting footage was shared of overburdened Italian hospitals and elderly patients dying alone in corridors as exhausted doctors and healthcare workers covered in personal protective equipment battled in vain to save their lives. This was followed by much the same misery in Spain and other parts of Europe, coupled with a deep sense of foreboding as the first COVID-19 patients arrived in KwaZulu-Natal from skiing trips in Italy.

It hit our community after that infamous 40th birthday party in Westport, Connecticut, in the US, where several members of the community unwittingly contracted the dreaded virus. This brought out the worst in some of us as we stigmatised anyone suspected of spreading it.

At the same time, it galvanised the community into action resulting in an extraordinary display of communal leadership and solidarity in a bid to safeguard the community.

There was a sense of national pride as President Cyril Ramaphosa lead our nation for what seemed like the first time announcing a national lockdown to “flatten the curve” (new vocabulary).

Initially it felt like a holiday as families came together and spent endless amounts of quality time walking dogs, sharing banana bread recipes, and making TikTok videos.

The 2020 Pesach seder will no doubt go down in the history books as both weird and wonderful, and will provide stories for future generations.

But soon the novelty wore off. While the WHO commended South Africa’s immediate response to the pandemic, the lockdown had a devastating effect on the economy and livelihoods, exposing gaping inequalities.

There was an endless drumbeat of morbid stories and pictures of pain and suffering, as well as heartwarming stories of communal organisations and ordinary people making an extraordinary impact during an unprecedented time of generosity and kindness.

Disturbing scenes of local soldiers enforcing draconian lockdown restrictions across townships and suburbs and the untimely gruesome death of Collins Khoza and others at the hands of the South African National Defence Force will forever be a blight on the national conscience. So too will the effect of lockdown on gender-based violence in the country as shocking statistics reveal the extent of the problem.

The ban on alcohol and cigarette sales took up much headline space as many resorted to buying cigarettes illegally. Although South Africans bemoaned the restrictions, people found lots to laugh about. Memes, parodies, TikTok dances (parodying Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her now famous “zol” speech) as well as huge doses of humour and feel-good stories united South Africans during the year. The proudly South African gospel song Jerusalema by Master KG became a global sensation and had the world dancing through the pandemic with the artist going on to win Best African Act Award at the 2020 MTV Europe Music Awards.

The US was convulsed by countrywide protests following the gruesome death of George Floyd by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for several minutes during an arrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Floyd’s death sparked global protests about racial inequality and police brutality, and renewed pledges by the Black Lives Matter movement and others to fight racism.

2020 was a year of hurricanes, typhoons, plane crashes, space explorations, fake news, conspiracy theories, and online shopping. It included historic agreements and Israel normalising relations with several Arab nations.

The most controversial and watched news item of the year was no doubt the highly contested US presidential election battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. This fought alongside the pandemic for domination of the news cycle.

Sadly the world lost more than 1.5 million people to COVID-19.

It has also lost many beautiful souls who left this earth for other tragic reasons, including people like professional American basketball player Kobe Bryant, US actor and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman, singer songwriter Joseph Shabalala, Zindzi Mandela, actress Elize Cawood, Dawn Lindberg and Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu, as well as actor Sean Connery. We witnessed the passing of the irreplaceable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, George Bizos, Denis Goldberg, and Diego Maradona.

This has been the Great Year of Disruption characterised by scuppered plans, a sense of loss about life experiences unfilled, loved ones not seen or embraced, and time that’s impossible to get back, but it’s also been the Great Year of Change and Reset. 2020 has tested us all beyond measure. We can only hope we will pass the next test with flying colours.

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How to create room to breathe while being constricted

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There is no doubt that our community and wider country are starting 2021 in a meitzar, a narrow place, filled with fear and anxiety. Caught in a second wave which we hoped would never come, we are waiting with trepidation for schools to start, for numbers to drop, for vaccines to arrive. Would it help us to reflect that in Parshat Vayeira this week, we find the Israelites caught in their narrow place, the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim!

While the parsha this week describes the unfolding of the larger-scale events of the plagues, it opens with insight into the state of mind of “the people”, b’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure enslaved people by telling them that He has heard their cries, and is going to save them. The people will be taken out of Mitzrayim, and will be allowed to pursue their destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, “The people of Israel would not listen to Moses, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage. (Ex, ch. 6, v 9).” Commenting on the words “they would not listen”, Rashi creates an equivalence between “to listen” and “to receive”, saying, lo kiblu tanchumin (the people weren’t able to receive words of comfort). It’s a deep place of despair where a person isn’t able to receive words of soothing and hope.

What stopped people from being able to be comforted? The avodah kashah describes the cruel bondage of slavery in which our people’s individual liberties and freedom were removed. Indeed, it may feel as if there is little agency or room to move when large forces of power are manipulating one’s life, such as in a pandemic.

However, we are also told that the people weren’t able to listen because of kotzer ru’ach (shortness of breath). The Midrash Aggadah plays on the words kotzer ru’ach, and claims that the people were “short on spirit” meaning emunah, and thus became involved in idol worship.

The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of this midrash, suggesting that the Israelites weren’t actually worshipping idols, but rather were so distanced from themselves and filled with the vanities of the world that they had no inner space to receive this message of hope. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root “tzar”. He links the two, saying anyone who is in constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of constriction that freezes a person, conjuring up Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of The Scream. When we are put under undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths. Thus, two factors prevent the people from receiving Moshe’s tanchumim: external factors linked to oppression and enslavement (avodah kashah); and an inner state of mind linked to alienation, distancing from G-d, and distressing anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).

Like b’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and all sorts of circumstances over which we have very little control. This is our avodah kashah, the larger forces which play out across our world. However, according to the parsha, our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the way in which we work with our own kotzer ru’ach. As we begin 2021 gripped by second waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to feel hopeless. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism, negative projections onto the year, and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our mind is filled with kotzer ru’ach, it won’t have the emptiness to be open to receive the whispers and ripples of hope when they come our way.

In the words of the Sefat Emet, “Hearing requires being empty of everything so that we can hear the voice of G-d.” In times like these, if we are sufficiently attuned, we might be able to receive comfort, connect to feelings of hope, or even feel moments of faith and upliftment. These moments may come as calm, as perspective, as wisdom, as kindness, in the form of poetry, Torah learning, or prayer. Perhaps, quite simply, we will feel less constricted by “shortness of breath”, and more open to neshimah, breath, and expansiveness.

This is a hard time in our world, but we have a tradition of people going through very difficult times and being redeemed from them. We learn from b’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting and is subject to forces beyond our control. However, we aren’t mere victims of circumstance. By working to heal our kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places. It might even be that our expanded ability to receive can help usher in the larger-scale transformation and redemption for which we hope and pray.

  • Adina Roth is a Jewish educator at B’tocham Education, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is studying online at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

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Second wave like a tsunami

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We have emerged from the eye of the storm to confront a second wave that is significantly worse than we anticipated. It feels like a tsunami.

Once again, SARS CoV2 has proven to be unpredictable, and has mutated to a new strain which is more contagious, involves a higher number of people, and is less discriminating. We have easily slid back into our roles in a well-remembered dance.

Once again, we are working long hours and spending a lot of time on our feet. Stress levels are very high again, and there is a constant feeling of anxiety as one waits for the next crisis.

Last time, the patients were older, and it was easier to be more philosophical in accepting their deaths. In a complete deviation from pattern, this wave of COVID-19 has affected younger people to a much greater extent. They are often younger than us, and we all know a lot of people who have COVID-19.

As with the first wave, there are more men in hospital than women, with 60% of the patients being male and 40% female. This time, however, all population groups seem to be represented.

When looking at intensive-care units (ICUs), which are a critical resource under huge pressure, it’s startlingly obvious that not only have we had to accommodate more patients in ICU, but that they are significantly younger and much sicker this time. Fifty percent of the ICU cohort are under the age of 60, and 80% are on more than usual oxygen therapy.

Our ICU is full, and we are using all our ventilators for one form of ventilatory support or another. It is a surreal experience to look around and see the vast majority of our patients with masks of various shapes and sizes strapped tightly to their faces in an attempt to keep their blood oxygen levels adequate. It’s difficult to communicate, and all one sees are the eyes looking at you with fear, anxiety, distress, and sometimes calm acceptance.

The mood is sombre, and there’s little humour this time around. Patients with comorbidities still raise a red flag in that they are more likely to have severe COVID-19 with a higher mortality rate, but this time around, there are significant numbers of young, fit, healthy individuals with no comorbidities who are desperately ill. The staff are more fearful because of this. After all, you can’t allay your anxiety by listing the patient’s comorbidities which have resulted in severe COVID-19 if there are none.

Another unique feature is the number of young individuals presenting with severe cardiac disease that has proven to be rapidly fatal. There are also a few confirmed cases of reinfection now, some far more severe than the initial episode of COVID-19.

In addition, we are called for far more acute deteriorations in clinical condition, and seem to be running to many more resuscitations than we ever dreamt we would be. Often, patients have young families, and a desperate desire to live for their children.

There is definitely a higher number of patients who require mechanical ventilation and as such, there is enormous pressure on ICU beds. We are contacted on a daily basis by hospitals looking for ICU beds for young patients with severe COVID-19 pneumonia.

It’s not only the beds that are under pressure, but the units are often understaffed as the healthcare workers contract COVID-19 themselves or simply burn out.

This past weekend, I was told of a physician who contracted COVID-19 and landed up on a ventilator in his own unit and was cared for by his friend and colleague. This is all very hard to deal with.

The fact that many of the patients in hospital are well into the pulmonary phase with significant inflammatory changes in their lungs means that it’s a juggling act, with ICU beds being filled as soon as they are emptied and patients yo-yoing between ICU and the wards, and back to ICU.

There are times when ambulances wait patiently to offload their patients while space is made in emergency, or they are diverted to another hospital.

We are aware of private hospitals which have actually run out of oxygen for a time period. We are aware of hospitals in which they have started using anaesthetic machines to ventilate patients in their theatres.

We have seen photos from a hospital in Gauteng which has set up tents in its parking lot to treat patients with COVID-19.

Resources are limited, and a strict criteria for ICU admission will have to be implemented, a task we are dreading.

In the meantime, as we deal with this unprecedented surge in numbers, elective surgery has been cancelled and, other than COVID-19 cases, we are admitting emergencies only. People are scared to come to hospital and as such, are waiting until they can’t wait anymore, being admitted in extreme conditions.

Our physical discomfort is worse with long hours in personal protective equipment in the summer heat with no air conditioning in the wards. Our fingers are cracking open again, and the emotional toll is huge.

This past weekend, we witnessed the compassion with which our staff cared for a patient with Down’s Syndrome and how happy they were when it seemed that she would survive. We have taken wives to say goodbye to their husbands who are dying of COVID-19. We had to tell five patients that their parent/spouse had died of COVID-19 while they were lying in a hospital bed. I also had to call a lady who was isolating at home with COVID-19 to inform her that her husband had passed away on their 56th wedding anniversary. We also celebrated two birthdays here.

We are familiar with the vagaries of this disease, and write the treatment charts by rote, monitoring individuals intensively. We make therapeutic adjustments according to various clinical and blood parameters, desperate to prevent severe pneumonia or the cytokine storm.

We feel enormous relief if it looks as if the inflammatory process is reversing. And yet, in spite of all the knowledge gained over the past few months, there are patients who you know cannot pull through. At those times, kindness and compassion are all we can offer.

The stories are familiar. A minority of our patients (often the elderly) contracted COVID-19 through no fault of their own. But the vast majority know exactly where they picked it up – a dinner party, a function, on holiday, at a picnic, in a friend’s home, etc. The equation is simple to me: socialising without respecting the COVID-19 rules of social engagement = COVID-19 (for yourself or some unlucky individual that you come into contact with).

If you’re lucky, you get away lightly, and if you’re unlucky, you become critically ill (with the attendant risk of dying) or you develop long COVID-19 or one of the unusual late complications.

It’s going to get a lot worse, and we are going to run out of hospital beds, medication, and potentially oxygen. There’s no magic cure, and the vaccine is on the horizon. It behoves everyone to be respectful of COVID-19 and behave responsibly, respecting the sanctity of life.

  • Dr Carron Zinman is a pulmonologist at the Linksfield Clinic.

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Why it must be cool to be a Jew on campus

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My first year at the University of the Witwatersrand was in 2017 and it was a strange year.

There was no Jewish establishment. Each student came with a radically different background and perspective, almost none of them had ever met a Jew, seen a Jew, or even heard of a Jew. But many had heard of “apartheid in Israel”.

I remember how 500 people filled the lecture hall. There I was, a naïve 18-year-old Jewish guy sitting with my new Muslim friends. The professor was running 15 minutes late. We were all chatting until one girl, Akeela, came to the topic of Israel, and that’s when things start getting heated. With a slight hiss in her voice she whispered, “You’re not a Zionist, are you?”

Shocked and intimidated, I looked away and didn’t know what to say. She pressed me, and repeated “Are you?” Without thinking, I quickly mumbled ”no” just as the lecturer walked in and began the class. I begin questioning who I was, and what I believed.

I can tell you countless stories of antisemitic/anti-Israel attacks, but this vignette sums up what Jews are dealing with on campus in some shape or form. Students feel unsafe to express themselves. There is no sense of pride in being a Jew, only fear or even shame. Like a friend of mine in her Philosophy 101 module who was literally laughed out of the class when she said, “Of course I believe in G-d! I’m a Jew”.

Internationally, Jewish students and their leaders are insecure about what they stand for, be it their unique cultural values or their indigenous homeland. At every corner, there is external pressure, which has created a deep sense of doubt about who we are and what we represent.

Throughout the Book of Kings, the g-d Ba’al plays the foil of the Jewish nation. King after king, they each fall to this Ba’al. It’s like a cycle. A new king of Shomron (modern-day Samaria) takes over, he is fair and good, next he gets too close to Ba’al, and loses everything. His throne, friends, family, and eventually his life. Out of the 19 rulers of Shomron, this sequence happens a lot. What does this mean?

The simple understanding is that the leaders at that time were serving the idol Ba’al. But our sages saw a more relatable message, and explain that translated literally, the name Ba’al means master. So the problem was that those generations were allowing a Ba’al-master, in other words a force other than their own internal set of ethical guidelines, to dictate their actions. Or it could be thought of as external pressure – this “master” was forcing a foreign lifestyle on the kings.

It was only when the leaders of the time rejected the false g-d and embraced their natural moral compass that they succeeded in ruling.

A similar idea might be applied today. It’s unpopular to be a Jew/Zionist. It’s hard to stand your ground when the world is blaming and shaming you. And it’s easy to give in to all the negative rhetoric which is thrown at you. But we cannot compromise our moral and ethical high ground to please the external pressures of pop culture.

We must fortify ourselves by embracing what makes us unique – our Jewish heritage. Students shouldn’t feel ashamed to say they are a Zionist or believe in G-d. We should be confident in who we are and what we represent.

We must empower the global student community by reminding it that it’s cool to be a Jew and do Jewish things, to stand out as a proud member of our supernatural nation.

That’s a future worth fighting for.

There couldn’t have been a better place for this work than the 47th annual World Union of Jewish Student (WUJS) Congress that took place in the last week of December as we said goodbye to 2020. No flights necessary, no headaches or hotels, we simply signed up on the website and were amazed by the inspiring sessions, broad networking capability, and a fair dose of fun. WUJS Congress 2020 – “inside your home & outside the box”.

  • Shimshon Fisher is the vice president of the South African Union of Jewish Students.

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