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A year into lockdown, Chev residents show fighting spirit

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Can you imagine 365 days without leaving your place of residence during a pandemic that plagues such facilities, and surviving not only with your health intact, but your sanity as well? This is the reality for 1 000 residents in the Chevrah Kadisha (the Chev) of Johannesburg’s seven care facilities. Their lives were irrevocably changed when the residences went into a sudden lockdown on Friday, 13 March, 2020.

“It was so sudden. The day before, I had been out for coffee, and then the next day, we were in lockdown,” recalls 84-year-old Clara Taub, a resident at Our Parents Home (OPH). “Not seeing family or being able to hug your grandchildren is like a feeling of homesickness … it’s hard to explain,” she says.

Taub contracted COVID-19 in July 2020. She was hospitalised and survived. “It was really horrid. I was scared. I can’t remember much, but the care I got was incredible. I’ve never felt alone while being at OPH. Lockdown isn’t easy, but you’ve got to have faith, and know that every journey comes to an end. It’s how you manage the journey that’s important.”

Besides this experience, she has thrived under the new circumstances. As a former speech and drama teacher, she continues to work. She coaches over Zoom, and has written books which she sells online.

She delights in playing Trivial Pursuit over the phone with a friend, has started a newspaper with the same friend, and writes limericks and poetry for the Chev’s poetry competition – which she won! She also shops online and watches Netflix, but most of the time she’s so busy “that the days just fly by!”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on 5 March 2021, one year since the first COVID-19 case was identified in South Africa, Chief Executive Saul Tomson recalled how fast things changed at the Chev. “We were one of the first organisations to go into lockdown in the community and the country. It was such a shock for everyone.

“Residents were planning to see their families on the weekend, and then we decided to lock down. There were people coming from overseas to visit their parents, so it really had the potential to become a major issue. The president was yet to address the nation, but given what was going on in care homes across the world, we felt we had no choice.”

It took strength and courage to make such a decision, but Tomson said the fact that he had been in London two weeks prior as the pandemic began to rage wildly across Europe helped to guide his thinking.

“My mindset was different because I happened to be there. I could see how serious it was. In South Africa, it was still such a foreign concept. People said I was crazy, overreacting, and overly conservative. But I had already been messaging from London telling the organisation to stock up on supplies – everything we thought we might need.”

Tomson wants to pay tribute to the 1 000 residents’ “sense of courage and conviction”. “They are desperate to hug and hold their families. They have had to adjust to a new way of living while knowing that they are the most vulnerable population. Residential care homes are ‘ground zero’ for this virus.”

To honour the residents for their resilience during such a tough year, the Chev has launched a campaign for 1 000 community members to donate R18, which will buy a cupcake and a rose for each resident – a symbol of the fact that the community is thinking of them. There will also be a very special Friday night dinner this Shabbat at each facility, catered by a community caterer who has also battled over the past year.

“Each dinner has been sponsored by the children of one of the residents at that facility. For the caterers, it will be their first 1 000-person event they are catering in a year. And the residents will be spoilt and celebrated.”

Looking at recent statistics, Tomson notes that in Spain, 59% of COVID-19 deaths were from residents of long-term care facilities. In Belgium, it was 57%; in Sweden, 47%; in the United States, 38%; and in the United Kingdom, 27%. Yet at this stage of the pandemic, the mortality rate at the Chev’s care facilities is tiny in comparison. In the second wave, there were just a handful of infections across all homes. “It’s nothing short of a miracle. We thank Hashem every day,” he said.

“COVID-19 has devastated aged homes, and we’ve seen it locally in organisations that don’t have the protocols, discipline, or finances. Without this community, there’s no way we could have mounted this defence. For example, we’ve conducted nearly 3 000 COVID-19 tests in the past year. That runs into several million rand.”

Possibly unique to the organisation is the fact that it saw the challenges of COVID-19 not only as a clinical issue, but a psychosocial one too. “Yes, this virus can be devastating to one’s health, but we also have to look at the alienation and depression that it has caused. Our community social workers have witnessed a huge increase in mental-health issues in the Jewish community, and from the start, we saw this as a dual challenge – to protect residents’ physical health as well as to protect them emotionally and spiritually.

“That’s why our social services and life-enrichment teams worked so hard to make them feel seen, heard and loved. Even at the height of our intense lockdown, when they were confined to their rooms, they would get two to three visits a day, comfort packs, phone calls, a gift for Shabbos, or flowers. And, living in a facility means that they always have each other.”

Tomson said that ironically, the Chev possibly had less deaths in the past 12 months than in a “normal” year, and it was “one of our healthiest years. Our four doctors have prescribed significantly less antibiotics compared to a usual year! This is obviously due to infection control, segregation, no visitors, and wearing masks.”

So, what’s changed, and what has stayed the same? “Today, we are less anxious. COVID-19 is less of an unknown. I remember the first six months, just waiting for ‘that call’. I don’t feel that way anymore because we have experience,” said Tomson.

“The way we work has had to change. Everything from fundraising to staff team building, to keeping people motivated and inspired. What has also changed is that residents with family overseas have had more frequent contact thanks to technology and innovation. We have dedicated staff members facilitating video calls, connecting residents with their loved ones.

“But our commitment hasn’t changed, nor has our relationship with the community. People haven’t turned their backs, even in difficult times. They have dug deep, and found ways to show their support. So I say a massive ‘thank you’ to our residents for their courage and conviction, to the community for its unfaltering dedication, and to our staff for being the heroes they are.

“They say a society is judged by how it treats its elderly and for us, every life is treasured. It’s a feather in our cap as a community.”

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. marlene grossman

    Mar 12, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    After reading the above and that Mrs Taub plays Trivial over the phone with her friend. I have a box of Trivial Pursuit and would like to know if I give it to Our Parents Home (my long time partner is a resident there), will it be useful and enjoyed? I am not sure if the residents are allowed to mix with one another, my partner is not, he is isolated.
    Marlene
    083 528 5753

  2. Joe Marx

    Mar 14, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    I take my hat off to Saul for his foresight and dedication to the people in his care.
    To have parents is one thing, but to have a father figure looking after our elderly and frail
    community is just fantastic. May he be blessed to continue showing his dedication and assistance
    to the elderly of our community, KOL HACAVOD.

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Lost Barmitzvah boy finally finds his way home

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When Stephen “Sugar” Segerman started searching for the Barmitzvah boy whose photograph was on his mantlepiece, he didn’t imagine he would find out from someone half way around the globe that the boy had once lived a few houses away from him.

Last week, the SA Jewish Report described how Segerman – who once searched for and found the musician Sixto Rodriguez

– was now trying to identify the boy in a photograph he found at the Milnerton Market in Cape Town a few years ago.

Within a few days of publication and the story spreading around the world, the identity of the barmi boy as the late Arnold Kleinberger was revealed. Segerman had an emotional meeting with Kleinberger’s daughter, Aura Zartz, who lives in Cape Town, on Tuesday (13 April) this week.

“In the days following the story appearing in the SA Jewish Report, it was shared all over the world, judging from the enthusiastic responses I immediately received,” Segerman said.

“I started receiving a lot of emails from people who thought they recognised the barmi boy. One said, ‘My name is Cedric Reingold. I grew up in Highlands Estate and matriculated from Herzlia in 1978. I recently read the article, and recognised the person in the picture. His name is Arnold Kleinberger. He was in our third-grade year and if I’m not mistaken, left [Herzlia] sometime thereafter.’”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Chicago, Reingold said that he was scrolling through the online version of the paper, when he saw the photograph and immediately recognised Arnold. He then confirmed it with others in his matric year Facebook group. “But actually, I was 100% sure, even though he wasn’t at Herzlia for long [he then went to Cape Town High]. I can’t explain it – I just knew.”

Said Segerman, “I was elated. I then started an online search, and found that Arnold Kleinberger was born in 1960, which meant his Barmitzvah would have been in 1973, fitting with the timeline. Sadly, he passed away at the young age of 37 in 1997. I found a photo of his tombstone from the Cape Town Chevrah Kadisha website, and studied it to find any clues.

“It said that he was mourned by his family, but only his mother Sadie was named. I found out she had passed away in 2015. Her tombstone said that she was mourned by her daughters Marlene and Anita, son-in-law Maurice, and granddaughters Nadine and Aura.”

He searched the name Kleinberger on Facebook, and found a Doré Kleinberger, whose mother had been Eva Wolovitz. That led Segerman to Wolovitz’s tombstone, where again, he saw the name Aura. Further googling lead to the birth announcement of Aura and Adam Zartz’s son on the Herzlia Alumni Association site.

At this point, Segerman turned to his daughter, Natalia, and son-in-law, Ryan Rabinowitz, who were visiting from London, and asked if they knew them.

“Ryan looked at me with great surprise and told me that not only did he know Adam very well, but they had sat next to each other at shul that very morning,” said Segerman. “He immediately contacted Adam, and we spoke to his wife, Aura, who confirmed that the barmi boy was her late father, Arnold.

“She said that Doré was her mother, and her aunts were the late Anita Shenker and Marlene Kleinberger. Marlene had lived in Milnerton and passed away a few years before. Anita had cleaned out Marlene’s house and sent numerous items to the Milnerton Market.

“Aura was nine when her father passed away. She confirmed that his Barmitzvah was on 13 January 1973, and she had recently been given his Barmitzvah book by Anita’s husband, Maurice Shenker, which contained the same photo I had. She then told me that her father had grown up in Oranjezicht.”

Segerman and his wife have lived in Oranjezicht for the past 24 years, and it turns out they live just four houses away from where the Barmitzvah boy grew up.

In addition, Arnold’s parents’ domestic worker, the late Lettie Gal, would sometimes work for the Segermans. This is just one of many other coincidences linking all the people connected to the story.

Zartz, whose first-born child, Allegra, is named after Arnold, said that her father was always “elusive” to her. Her parents divorced when she was three, and she didn’t see her father much in the years before his death, which were marked with difficulties.

She said that when Segerman phoned, she felt like she was on some kind of ‘Candid Camera’ show – it didn’t feel real. In some ways, she felt heartbroken that her father’s photo had landed up in a stranger’s home, “but then I felt a huge amount of comfort that he was so close to where he grew up”.

She spent much of her childhood in her late grandmother’s home, and feels closely connected to it. Segerman emphasised that he has always felt very protective of the photograph, which meant a lot to Zartz.

Her mother, Doré, is the last remaining Kleinberger. She said Arnold’s father, Ernest, came to South Africa from Germany in 1936 when he was 13. “He had his Barmitzvah on the boat!” His mother, Sadie, was born in South Africa. She understands that Arnold was quite a “troubled child”, but also had many happy moments in his parents’ home and general goods stores, where he would help himself to chocolate.

“Their home was always warm and welcoming – a central meeting place that people gravitated towards,” Kleinberger said. “Arnold had a tough exterior, but was the kindest person. I think he had a difficult time in the army. But he loved Formula One racing and motorbikes, and would time keep at Killarney. He also loved to braai and surf. For our honeymoon, we went up the coast with his surfboard.”

Segerman was deeply moved by these revelations and in the days after finding all of this out, he went on his regular walking route, which passed the house that Kleinberger grew up in.

“Today my walk was different – more special and emotional than ever before. I stopped at both gates and thought about Arnold and all that has happened these past few days.” He has decided that he will say Kaddish for Arnold on his yahrzeit.

Zartz said that when Segerman first called, “I thought, ‘What is my father trying to tell me?’ And when I heard Stephen say he lived in Forest Road, I realised that he was just trying to make his way home. I don’t want to keep the photograph. I give it to Stephen with a happy heart. This story means that my dad is exactly where he needs to be.”

Correction: In the 9 April edition of the SA Jewish Report, we wrote that Stephen Segerman’s Mabu Vinyl store had closed. This is an error – it has not closed but has moved to new premises at 285 Long Street, Cape Town. We regret the error.

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Community

Change is vital, Sydenham rabbis say

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On Shabbat morning over Pesach, Sydenham Shul passed the leadership baton from the incomparable Rabbi Yossy Goldman to his successor, Rabbi Yehuda Stern.

For the first time in the history of the shul, there was a lectern on either side of the pulpit, and the two rabbis gave a joint drosha on the theme of transition.

They spoke of the need to hold onto our history and tradition, yet innovate. They spoke of building on what they had learnt so well until now to create an even more successful future.

“Just like the Jews of Egypt, we must always hold onto our history and traditions, and we must ensure these qualities remain with us for future generations,” Stern said.

“But while we cherish our history, we must continue to build our destiny. Innovation and creative planning for the future is vital if we are to continue to be the premier congregation in this country,” Goldman said.

He recalled a conversation with Issie Kirsh, who started Radio 702, and changed the format a year after launching the successful station. “I remember asking him, ‘Issie, if it’s not broken, why are you fixing it?’ You know what he answered? ‘In this business, if you don’t innovate regularly, people get tired and move on. As good as it may be, it needs to be refreshed frequently. It’s very easy to change stations.’

“I don’t think it’s as easy to change shuls as it is to change radio stations. But we, too, need to innovate.”

Goldman told the community it had “nothing to fear” as he would still be around for many years, but he asked it to “embrace the change”.

“Nothing is broken here either,” he said. “We’re strong, and will only grow stronger.”

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Community

UJW announces winners of mobile meals donation drive

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Jane Klein won first prize in the Union of Jewish Women’s Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM) Donate and Win Pesach Appeal – a three-night stay at Savanna Private Game Reserve valued at R75 000. The prizes were awarded by the UJW outside Kosher Pie Works in Sandringham on 6 April. KMM supplies cooked meals to 110 mostly elderly and often very lonely members of the community who are unable to cook for themselves. These meals, packed and delivered by volunteers once a week, are made possible by donations and fundraising initiatives. Second prize went to Melanie Burman; third prize to Ann Smith; fourth prize was won by Yvonne Rimer; and fifth prize went to Shelly Stein.

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