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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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Antisemitism the second global pandemic, says WJC president

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There are two pandemics in the world, Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), told the South African Jewish Board of Deputies national conference on 17 October. COVID-19 is one, the other – antisemitism – has been with us for 2 000 years.

Speaking from the WJC’s headquarters in New York, Lauder said that he had witnessed these two “global viruses” coming to the forefront since attending an executive meeting in Johannesburg six years ago.

Described by the Jerusalem Post as “a rare voice of moral clarity in today’s world”, the American-born art collector has been the president of the WJC since 2007.

The WJC was founded in 1936 in response to the rise of Nazism and the growing wave of European antisemitism. It acts as the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people, and has international offices in six countries.

The WJC watches everything that happens around the world, including in South Africa, 24 hours a day, Lauder said. “We will be there for you if you ever need us.”

Today, the organisation is engaged in fighting the mighty wave of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. “I can promise you we will protect Jews everywhere. That’s why this organisation was formed in the first place,” said Lauder.

He said that the WJC was alarmed by the attacks on Jews in the streets of Paris, London, and Los Angeles, and mentioned that just more than two weeks ago, a bottle of water was thrown at a Swedish-based rabbi.

“These things shouldn’t happen at all,” he said. “Israel comes under constant assault through the United Nations and on social media, mainstream newspapers, and on college campuses.”

Lauder said the comparison between Israel and apartheid South Africa was an example of the “fabrications and complete falsehoods” that the world still believes because “unhinged hatred of Israel is simply the latest version of antisemitism”.

According to Lauder, Jews were hated for their religion during the Middle Ages. “In the late 19th and early 20th century, they were hated for their race. Today, we are hated for the national state of Israel.”

The former United States ambassador to Austria said such hatred was bizarre as Jews make up 0.2% of the world’s population. “Yet, Jews are the target of more than 50% of all religious crimes. These aren’t just isolated attacks. They have occurred in 89 countries.”

The WJC continuously notices baseless posts on social media being reported as truth by mainstream media, Lauder said.

“This was most evident with the attacks on Israel this past spring. If South Africa, France, Great Britain, or any other country other than Israel had been attacked by more than 4 000 rockets launched by terrorists, everyone would have hit back hard, and everyone would have every right to do so,” he said.

“Yet, the world’s press and social media charged Israel with crimes against humanity. That defies all logic. It’s ludicrous. It also gives you an idea of what the WJC is fighting every single day.”

Lauder said the WJC was seeking the people behind these “sickening” lies. “We will start making them uncomfortable. If I’ve learned anything about antisemites, it’s that they’re cowards. The only way to deal with bullies and cowards is to fight back even harder, and they get a taste of their own medicine. That is when antisemitism will start to disappear.”

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Minister hopeful about improved relations between Israel and SA

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Israel Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai is hopeful that the relationship between Israel and South Africa will improve soon.

“I’m hopeful that things will get better and even hopeful that the South African government will finally recognise that it made some mistakes vis-à-vis Israel,” he told the participants at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) national conference on 17 October.

“It’s time for the South African ambassador to return to Israel and to renew full diplomatic relations. We do everything we can to improve their relations from our end,” he said, speaking from Israel as a guest of honour at the conference.

Shai is widely remembered as the voice of national calm when serving as a spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces when Iraq fired missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.

He is a good friend of South Africa, and said he vividly remembers being part of a group of Knesset members who visited South Africa three or four years ago. “Needless to say, we appreciate your community, how much you devoted to Zionism and Israel, and of course to your Jewish life.”

Shai thanked the SAJBD National President Shaun Zagnoev and the SAJBD National Vice-Presidents Mary Kluk and Zev Krengel for their contribution to the South African Jewish community during the recent period.

“All of you have played a very important role, like Moshe,” he said. “If the Jewish people were in the desert without Moshe, where would we have been today?”

Shai noted that Europe had lost eight million Jews in the past 75 years. “On the eve of the World War II, nine and a half million Jews were living in Europe. Now there are just one and a half million. Six million were lost in the Holocaust. The rest just left Europe and went all over the world.”

Shai, who is the founder of the commercial Second Authority for Television and Radio in Israel, said Europe consequently lost a significant portion of its culture. He would like to help Jews return to Europe and foster Jewish life there.

He marvelled at how, first, a Jewish state was formed three years after the end of the Holocaust and, second, how Israel had led the world in combatting COVID-19.

“We were the first to be fully vaccinated,” he said. “To the great credit of this [Israeli] government, we decided neither to quarantine nor close down the entire country any longer. We did this to keep the country moving, not to lose billions of shekels. Now, the economy is still on track, and we are determined to return to normal life, including schools.”

As a parting gesture, he said,” We hope to see you in Israel. We are gradually opening borders and easing restrictions.”

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Heroes, mentors, and cancelled plans: the stories behind the SAJBD awards

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Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, Uriel Rosen, the Kirsh family, and Viv Anstey were all honoured for their unstinting work for the good of others at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Conference at Investec in Sandton on 17 October.

The Eric Samson Mendel Kaplan Communal Service Award went to Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland. “Barry has been the person in our community who, over and above the incredible nachas that we receive from his global scientific accomplishments, has done so much for us,” said Mary Kluk, SAJBD national vice-president.

When the SAJBD leadership was grappling with how to protect the Jewish community during the early stages of COVID-19, it was Schoub’s quiet wisdom and vast scientific experience that steered them through.

“He’s become this household name, constantly appearing not only on our news, but also on international news networks,” said Kluk. “Yet, Barry has taken every call and every query from every one of us and all our organisations for the past 18 months. And he has made himself available to South Africa, but in particular to our community.”

Speaking after receiving the award, Schoub recalled how he and his wife were about to travel to Storms River Mouth in the Eastern Cape in March 2020, when his phone rang.

“Look, there’s no way you can go on holiday,” said Zev Krengel, SAJBD national vice-president, on the other end of the line. “Do you know that there’s a COVID-19 pandemic on its way to the country?”

With that, Schoub unpacked the bags, cancelled the booking, and began what he described as a “remarkable” journey.

“I’m indeed overwhelmed, honoured, humbled, and gratified to receive this very, very prestigious award named after two extraordinary philanthropists in our community,” said Schoub. “It will occupy a treasured place for me and on my study wall.”

Schoub paid tribute to his co-awardee, Friedland, describing him as a “tzadik” and saying he had learned so much from his former student.

Indeed, Friedland was lectured by Schoub during his third year of medicine.

“He [Schoub] was a mentor then, and he’s a mentor now,” said Friedland. “One of the great privileges of working now was to sit at the feet of such a master.”

Friedland was awarded for the contribution he made to the Jewish community during the pandemic.

He has spoken on many public platforms, participated in a range of consultative forums, and fielded innumerable queries from all sectors of the community about COVID-19. Through this, he provided up-to-date information, advice, and considered guidelines that the Jewish leadership could safely rely upon. Furthermore, Friedland took a personal interest in those community members who contracted the virus.

After receiving his award, Friedland said Schoub’s praise “greatly overexaggerates the role I played, which was merely a janitor”.

The Chief Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Humanitarian Award went to the Kirsh family for their contribution to South Africa, in spite of being overseas. Natie and Frances, their son, Philip, and daughters, Wendy and Linda, were praised by Krengel as “one of the unique families that did unbelievably well all over the world and never forgot their roots”.

Krengel said the family embodied the proverb popularised by Spider-Man comic books: “With great power comes great responsibility”. He said the family looked after the most vulnerable in South Africa and, during the pandemic, it stepped up to help young people and schools across the country.

The Eric Samson Mendel Kaplan Communal Service Award for a Professional went to Viv Anstey and Uriel Rosen. A board member of the Cape SAJBD, Anstey possesses an immense depth of communal knowledge, gives selflessly of her time, and constantly rolls up her sleeves to help with tasks of any size. She has a passion for including and reaching out to youth in the South African Jewish community.

“You have epitomised the model of a Jewish civil servant,” said Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape SAJBD. “Numerous organisations have benefited from your qualities of vision, innovation, and initiative, combined with the highest standards of professionalism that you have consistently brought to every position you have held.”

After collecting her award, Anstey said, “As a serial social entrepreneur, I’m proud of all the initiatives I have spearheaded alongside lay and professional teams. For me, leadership is about vision, implementation, and people.”

Rosen is the man behind the Hatzolah Wellness Programme, recognised across South Africa as the epitome of community care. The programme has been a critical resource in tracking and managing COVID-19 in the community.

“Everybody who works with Uriel has nothing but praise for his unbelievable willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to assist those in need,” said Professor Karen Milner, the chairperson of the SAJBD.

Rosen accepted the award on behalf of his team, which “dedicates every breathing moment to the welfare and healthcare of the Jewish community”.

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