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Action stations: Jewish politicians dedicated to making things work in their wards

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A number of Jewish candidates are running in the upcoming local government elections. SA Jewish Report journalist Saul Kamionsky speaks to them in the second of a two-part series.

Colin Morris

ActionSA

Johannesburg: Ward 72 (includes Linksfield, Fairmount, Sydenham, Glenhazel, Sandringham, Silvermont, and Sunningdale Bridge)

Captain Colin Morris is a man who has given his life to protect and serve the people of South Africa.

Earlier this year, he retired from volunteering, something he has done for more than three decades. While having a full-time job, he served as a police reservist for 33 years and an emergency medical practitioner for more than a decade. On top of that, he spent 20 years in the Child Protection Unit.

About five years ago, Morris became interested in standing for the Democratic Alliance (DA). He approached some senior people in the party, and they were interested in talking to him.

“But at the time, I was still actively involved in the South African police, so I couldn’t do both,” recalls Morris on 15 October 2021, his birthday. “As a result, I abandoned the idea of going down the political path, and relooked at it again about eight months ago after I had retired from policing at the age of 60.”

With municipal elections on the horizon, he once again approached the DA. “It said it had already made a decision [about its candidates]. I looked for a party with the same ethics and morals that I have, and ActionSA popped up.”

After conducting a process of elimination to identify the best candidate, ActionSA called Morris into a meeting with its senior members, and he was approved as its candidate for ward 72.

Since then, Morris has been in several online meetings hosted by the party. “Everything we talk about at the moment is focused on 1 November,” he says.

Morris shares a story that he tells regularly to explain why people should vote for him.

“Through the elections I have seen growing up in South Africa, I have noticed that the middle class, sort of northern-suburbs people, would always vote for the party that would be the best strong opposition. They didn’t vote for the opposition – a party like the Progressive Federal Party in those days – because they thought they could be in power, they voted because they wanted a strong opposition.”

As Morris describes it, “the beauty today” is that there could be a good party that not only stands as a suitable opposition to the African National Congress (ANC), but also stands a chance of being in power, certainly in Johannesburg.

“That party is ActionSA. It’s seen as a diverse party that’s able to produce results. Why should they vote for me, per se? I’ve brought to the community action that most other people standing in the area haven’t. I’ve got a strong community background and knowledge of what’s going on. And I’ve got a strong background in how to make things work. I’ve been involved with community matters for the past 30 odd years. I’ve also been an ambulance reservist, and I have worked for community-based organisations.”

Some of the highlights of his career include volunteering at the Holocaust & Genocide Centre and the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children.

“Is politics important? No, it’s about bringing results to members of the ward and members of the public. One of the mottos of ActionSA is ‘no politics’. We’re not politicians. We’re people who are committed to bringing action and change to Johannesburg, and certainly to ward 72.”

Gary Trappler

Freedom Front Plus

Cape Town: Ward 115 (includes Green Point, Zonnebloem, Vredehoek, and parts of Woodstock)

Lawyer Gary Trappler has become known as an outspoken activist in his area, ward 115.

In 2019, this martial-arts enthusiast acted as an amicus (friend of the court) against what he describes as the “broad and bold” applications that homeless people had brought against the City of Cape Town in the high court. Representing various ratepayers’ associations and other interest groups, he advanced arguments and won the case.

Trappler is currently involved in the second round of this matter but, this time, he aims to show that, according to the Constitution, homelessness is the city’s responsibility.

By being involved in these two cases, he gained significant insight into the success and failure of bylaws.

As a result, he became more interested in politics, and approached the DA a couple of years ago. “At that stage, it said I was too white for the party,” he recalls.

Trappler attended a few Freedom Front Plus (FFP) meetings with his friend, Paul Jacobson, who went on to be named as the party’s candidate for ward 54 in Cape Town.

In the first five minutes of one meeting, the questions Trappler asked resulted in one FFP member saying, “Gary, it sounds like you might want to be a ward councillor in your area.”

Trappler gave it 10 seconds of thought and said, “Ja, I’m interested.”

Dr Corné Mulder’s eyes went wide. The Western Cape FFP leader consulted with his second in command, and they looked through their papers to see who stood as their candidate in ward 115. Turning around, they told Trappler that he had got the position.

If Trappler is voted ward councillor in the upcoming municipal elections, the self-described “relentless fighter” is willing to fight for two causes in particular.

First, he wants to get the rates for electricity and water reduced.

“How the city determines these rates is shrouded in secrecy, murky water, bureaucracy, and closed-door administrative decisions.”

Second, he promises to address what he describes as an “egregious” sight only 300m off the shore of Camps Bay. “It’s a sewage pipe in which raw effluence goes directly into the sea, and it’s harmful to the marine environment and beachgoers.”

Although the pipe cannot be removed as it falls within territorial waters, Trappler envisions building sanitation plants inland to clean the effluence.

But Trappler’s main dream is for the Western Cape to become an independent country, and he says the FFP is dedicated to achieving that.

“I’ve been drooling about the idea of secession for years. It’s difficult to manage a country with so much diversity as we find in South Africa, and the wishes of the people of the Western Cape should be taken into account.”

Trappler believes that with sufficient pressure, the government will be forced to give Western Cape residents the opportunity to vote for secession in a referendum.

“The likes of me really want that to happen. I can no longer live with any degree of optimism in this country unless I feel free from the tyranny of the ANC, which I believe will soon form a coalition with the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters]. The future for myself and my children is bleak with that as a prospect.”

Daniel Schay

Democratic Alliance

Johannesburg: Ward 72 (includes Linksfield, Fairmount, Sydenham, Glenhazel, Sandringham, Silvermont, and Sunningdale Bridge)

Politics has always interested Daniel Schay, who matriculated from King David Linksfield in 2006.

With a professional background in structural engineering, he has worked in the private sector over the past decade, watching how fewer and fewer people were investing in South Africa as a result of its politics.

Schay would regularly say to himself, “We’ve got to have better leadership, we’ve got to get more involved and capable people involved in running as politicians, because if capable people aren’t willing to put their hands up and be willing to change this country, we’re not going to see the change we need.”

Unable to bear the sight of South Africa on its current trajectory, Schay decided to enter politics to make the country better.

Having done a lot of research, as always, he chose to join the DA in 2016.

“I have a very capitalist view on life, and the DA’s values align with my values pretty well,” Schay says. “Also, it’s a party with an effective and proven track record in government. On a policy and implementation level, I completely agree with it.”

In 2017, Schay was elected deputy chairperson of the DA’s Youth Johannesburg Committee. Within a year, he was asked to be campaign manager for Johannesburg East in the 2019 election.

“I have stood on the branches since then, and ahead of the upcoming municipal elections, I put up my hand for the first time to be a public representative.”

Schay says people should vote for him as, in addition to his engineering background, he lives in ward 72.

“I understand the infrastructure issues that currently plague our ward. That’s my area of expertise. I can contribute to solutions for the area.”

He believes the ward will improve only if capable people stand up and commit to making it flourish.

“Literally, we need to drive the growth and renewal of this ward, otherwise there’s nothing left, and we’ve got nowhere to go. But I’m passionate about seeing the ward succeed, and I’ve got a vested interest in making sure it happens.”

One of the highlights of his career is “a very small thing” – hosting members of the DA youth from every constituency in Johannesburg for Shabbat lunch as part of a cultural-exchange event.

“To sit around the table and discuss our backgrounds, our religion, and learn from each other was such an amazing experience.”

Other moments that stand out for him are general day to day activities.

“Even now during this campaign, meeting people from all over the ward, learning about their background, seeing what we have in common, and having resident meetings in which residents put up their hand and ask, ‘How can we make this ward better?’, we have people taking ownership and wanting to grow and develop the area. They are being positive, and making sure that we succeed. These are huge moments. I mean, they can seem almost insignificant, but the fact that residents want to get involved in making things better is a massive moment in this ward.”

Joshua Apfel

Democratic Alliance

Johannesburg: Ward 64 (Berea)

Joshua Apfel is a man of action, not words, which explains why his responses to our questions are so short.

To encourage people to vote for him in the upcoming municipal elections, he would gladly take them on a tour of Berea, ward 64, where he is running for ward councillor.

“We could also go past the old shuls in the area,” he says.

The director of Joshua Apfel Attorneys worked for the DA as a volunteer before a friend of his convinced him to run for councillor. “I chose the DA because it’s the only party that represents the diversity of South Africa, and it’s the only party that I believe is capable of delivering services to the city.”

Apfel says people should vote for him “because, at the end of the day, that’s the only way they will receive a voice in council, and I’m busy doing the basic services which the municipality is supposed to do. I’m also the only one to care enough for residents to get what they want – a voice in council.”

He believes in representing all residents, including foreigners, and focusing on issues like safety, accommodation, employment, and litter.

For Apfel, helping his community is frustrating as he has to bear the brunt of the lack of service delivery and history of neglect in Johannesburg but, at the same time, it’s rewarding as there’s a lot of groundwork he can do to uplift others in his area. From a Jewish perspective, he has been able to encourage the Union of Jewish Women to contribute to events in Berea.

Moments that stand out for Apfel are when he tries to get things done for residents with service delivery complaints. “If I’m the effective cause of getting those services delivered, then that’s a highlight.”

Justin Kruger

The Civic Movement of South Africa

Johannesburg: Ward 72

Justin Kruger has never been involved in politics, yet he’s standing as a candidate for the Civic Movement of South Africa (CMOSA) in the upcoming municipal elections.

Established in 2018, CMOSA isn’t a political party. Its candidates have volunteered their services out of goodwill.

However, they can potentially have some sway in the council thanks to one of the organisation’s founding members registering it with the Electoral Commission of South Africa.

Kruger, a dog-lover, joined the CMOSA in 2019. “My reason wasn’t political,” he says. “It was purely out of goodwill.”

He started off by helping the organisation to assist the community. “We were mainly involved in townships and black communities, helping people who had neither received service delivery nor the houses the state had allocated to them.”

Ahead of this year’s by-election in Eldorado Park, where they were crying out for efficient services, Kruger used his own money to run an election campaign there.

“We didn’t win, but we did beat the ANC. So, I got a bit of a feel for the whole election vibe and the great work a councillor can do. And then, two other blokes told me, ‘Well, you know, you’ve done a bit of work in your area. Why don’t you run your area?’ So, we can give it a bash.”

Kruger says people should vote for him as he’s done a lot of voluntary work over the years. “The most voluntary work I ever did was to be a police reservist for more than 12 years. For most of that time, I’ve been working in Sandringham, where my ward is. I know Zulu quite well. I can speak the language, and understand it, so it’s a communication tool I have.”

Moreover, his time in the police has taught him to be strong, brave, and a leader. “I know how to navigate within state departments, and I understand the red tape involved – I’ve dealt with it for years and years.”

By nature, he’s an entrepreneur. “So, I’m quite a versatile fellow and I’m not married either, meaning I’ve got the time to serve the community.”

Asked about where he stands next to the other candidates vying for ward 72, he says, “When a community works together, you can solve any problem. I believe if I can organise other people who live in the ward to assist the area, then I’m doing a good job.”

To Kruger’s mind, “the winning formula” is to utilise the knowledge of cleverer people to solve various issues.

“I’m willing to use the brains within the community to get problems sorted out,” he says.

Kruger receives no funding. In fact, he’s using his own savings to pay for his campaign posters. “Not many people put their money where their mouth is,” he says.

One of his highlights as an entrepreneur was Builders Warehouse selling a kitchen product he invented at home in 2011. “It ran with it at their stores around the country for a couple of years.”

His proudest feat in the police is having managed to stick it out and still be an active member.

“When the new regime came in, a lot of guys fell away and couldn’t cope. Having Zulu as a tool gave me a lot of success. I’ve received a few awards.”

Joanne Horwitz

Democratic Alliance

Johannesburg: Ward 81 (includes Lyndhurst, Bramley View, Corlett Gardens, Rembrandt Park)

Joanne Horwitz was seated on a couch when the results of the 2016 municipal elections were announced.

“As the DA had come so close and I’ve always voted DA, I decided that instead of sitting on my backside, I wanted to be involved in helping out.”

Wanting to use her skills and work experience to assist, the attorney joined the party as a member. During one of its annual general meetings, the DA was looking for a branch secretary. “I put up my hand, and I was elected uncontested. I hadn’t been attending DA meetings with any thought about becoming a politician, but every time something needed to be done, I would put up my hand just to help.”

Horwitz went on to become the DA’s secretary of the constituency and poster champion for the 2019 general elections.

About six months later, the constituency asked her if she was interested in becoming more involved and outspoken as a representative of the DA.

“I had joined the party to become active in helping the DA and suddenly, I was being asked to give more of myself, and it rang true for me that this was something I could do. Now I’m a candidate for ward councillor.”

Horwitz believes her qualifications and work experience are reasons why people should vote for her. “I studied law, majoring in fundamental human rights. So, I’ve always had an interest in upgrading people’s quality of life and providing better services to people across the spectrum.”

She uses the non-profit organisation she ran for about 18 years as an example. Based in Alexandra township, it gave people an opportunity to earn an income and deal with everyday life problems. It helped a few to buy fridges, roof their houses, and pay for their kids’ school fees.

“I see being a politician as that kind of help in a more concentrated way, taking much more of my attention.”

If elected, her priority will be to get residents to confide in her about what they need and want. “I will push their agenda in council. I’m looking forward to being the connection and link between the council and everyday people on the street in our ward.”

Horwitz has already started developing relationships with DA candidates who share a boundary with her – Daniel Schay of ward 72, and Belinda Echeozonjoku of ward 74. “It makes sense to leverage the resources that are made available to us across boundaries. We will get better coverage of service delivery that way.”

One of Horwitz’s highlights was when she was asked to take herself from the background to the forefront of the party. “Becoming a representative and face of the DA was absolutely huge. Shortly afterwards, I was asked to be constituency chair.”

In that role, she helped every ward in the constituency to campaign, host events, and be efficient on the ground.

Graduating with a South African law degree was a memorable moment for her. “I studied law in the United Kingdom before returning to South Africa and basically had to redo the entire degree. The graduation ceremony was a crowning achievement, especially since I had missed two previous ceremonies in my studying journey.”

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Mental illness – ‘a pandemic of its own’

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“My brother was like a boxer, he took many knocks and would always get up. In the end, there were just too many, and he gave up the fight.”

These are the words of a grieving sister whose brother, an observant young man in the community, took his life two weeks ago.

Her name is being withheld to protect his identity.

“He took one punch too many, and the ongoing challenges got the better of him. Now, our family is left behind to grieve and mourn this tragic loss,” she said.

The untimely passing of this father of two has shone the spotlight on suicide and mental health in the community at a time when the suicide rate has risen dramatically in the country in the shadow of the pandemic.

“I know of four people within the community who have taken their lives in the past four weeks,” said Rabbi Eitan Ash. “This is a pandemic of its own, and I’m petrified that this is just the start.”

“I’m not a doctor or a virologist, but I spend a lot of time speaking to people in the community, and people of all ages are struggling emotionally and psychologically,” he said.

He said the community needed to address mental health as a matter of urgency “from the leadership all the way down” and make sure people knew that there was plenty of help at hand and nothing to be ashamed of.

“People aren’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, which is making them feel more desperate, leading them down a dark spiral of hopelessness and causing them to make terrible decisions,” he said.

Ash said people needed to see this side of COVID-19 – that depression is a disease, an illness that needs to be treated just like any other and above all, destigmatised.

“People are caught up in the medical side of COVID-19, but we need to pay attention to the psychological and emotional side as well. The psychological damage caused by quarantine, lockdown, and isolation is huge.

“Single people in the 25 to 40 age group believe there is something wrong with them when actually they just haven’t had a chance to jol and meet people,” he said.

It’s vital that the community embrace those suffering from depression, and give them a sense of belonging.

“We need to create a community brand that says no matter who you are, you are totally accepted, and we will help you no matter what your challenges are,” Ash said.

“My beloved son was driven to the point where he felt he had no way out. Something in him snapped. He had so much to give, and this is what makes it so tragic,” said the bereaved mother.

Reports this week indicate that Gauteng recorded 1 325 cases of death by suicide since April 2020, an increase of about 90% from the 695 cases reported during the 2019/20 financial year. A large portion of these include young people between the ages of 30 and 39.

According to Faith Mazibuko, the MEC for community safety, contributing factors include depression, anxiety, loss of income during the pandemic, financial difficulty, death of family members, and domestic violence.

Though the suicide numbers aren’t clear in the Jewish community, there has been a definite rise in those affected by anxiety and depression, say community-based social workers and experts in the field.

“The Chevrah Kadisha has 26 dedicated social workers dealing with hundreds of mental-health cases every month,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the Chev this week.

“We are keenly aware of this mental-health crisis in the community. It’s staggering. Though suicide numbers haven’t risen dramatically during the pandemic, depression and anxiety has.”

Dr Sheri Hanson, mental-health co-ordinator at Hatzolah, said this time of year is always difficult for those going through hard times.

“It’s always tricky and coupled with COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the fourth wave, it can seem relentless,” she said.

“We’re dealing with people across the board. Every age is deeply affected by anxiety and depression which is a phenomenon that has come off COVID-19. The elderly are facing challenges of isolation and loneliness, middle-aged people have lost jobs and income, and the youth has lost out socially.

“There’s a fine line between acknowledging your feelings and not being consumed and overwhelmed by them,” she said, pointing out that it’s important to engender a sense of hope, not judging, and to make sure that people know there’s lots of help within the community.

“We need people to know that all they have to do is reach out and help is available,” she said.

In September, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group reported that there were 23 known cases of suicide in South Africa every day, and for every person that committed suicide, 10 had attempted it. Before COVID-19, the organisation fielded 600 calls a day. As of September 2021, that number had risen to 2 200 calls a day – an increase of nearly 40%. Ongoing isolation, uncertainty, economic strain, bereavement, and loss have resulted in heightened anxiety across most ages including school-going children.

Ash said COVID-19 created a total disconnect. “People live their lives in a bubble. There has been little socialising and hardly any functions. The lonely feel lonelier, and people who would ordinarily reach out don’t even know when there’s a problem.”

For this reason, he and several rabbis in the community are encouraging people to reach out.

“Call a friend, reach out to your wider circle, make that call. That WhatsApp can literally save someone’s life.”

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Heartbreak and loss as the world slams doors on SA

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Sarah Cohen* was woken by banging on the door at 04:30 on the morning of Friday 26 November. She was visiting from the United Kingdom (UK) with her one-year-old son and looking forward to enjoying all that her former home city of Cape Town had to offer. But there was a taxi driver at the front door sent by her father in London. He was to take her to the airport so that she could get on a plane that her husband, also back in London, has just booked. In light of the new COVID-19 variant, South Africa was going to be put back on the UK’s red list, and she had to go – immediately.

“It was intensely stressful and terrifying. It happened so fast. When I went to sleep on Thursday things were normal. Then I was suddenly woken up by a cab driver pounding on the door. I checked my phone to find about a thousand missed calls and WhatsApps. My husband had booked us a flight home via Munich. We just chucked everything in bags and legged it to the airport, worried we’d miss [the flight]. It was the last international flight out of Cape Town!”

She is one of thousands who have been directly or indirectly affected by the new Omicron variant discovered by South African scientists. The heartache and loss resulting from the international knee-jerk reaction is unquantifiable. Family reunions forfeited, simchas cancelled, stranded travellers forced into quarantine, and businesses bearing the brunt of the travel bans are parts of its ripple effects around the globe. Many South African Jews and their families have been affected.

Cohen counts herself among the lucky ones. “My flight was literally the only one and it left two hours before they [the UK] officially put South Africa on the red list. That’s why I can isolate at home rather than being stuck in a hotel room with my toddler.”

Carole Levin and her family were looking forward to celebrating her son David’s wedding on 16 December. But that dream was shattered in the space of 24 hours.

“David and his fiancée Daniella (Dani) Hayman have been living in the Caribbean for the last 18 months, as he got a job there. They left Cape Town in July 2020. We all thought by December 2021 we would be able to safely have a wedding.

“In the meantime, Dani’s grandmother had a fall, and she came to see her at the beginning of October. Her plan was to stay until the wedding. David was booked to arrive on 6 December. On Monday last week the COVID-19 numbers started to rise. By Thursday we realised a fourth wave was imminent. We woke up on Friday to news of the UK travel ban.”

Amid frantic phone calls from family cancelling, they tried to bring the wedding forward so that they could celebrate with those who could still make it. The only date available was 6 December. It wasn’t possible, and so their summer wedding dream was over.

They then heard that the United States (US) was banning travel from South Africa from Monday 29 November. From enjoying the lead-up to her long-awaited wedding, “Dani had to get on a flight and leave. She was distraught, devastated,” said Levin. Amid tears, they helped her pack late into the night. The next morning she was gone, on a flight to Washington via Addis Ababa and Dublin.

It was touch and go, and she sent a heartbreaking message from the airport in Ethiopia saying she had made it onto the flight to the US. “It was a very emotional moment,” said Levin. She recalls so many times in Jewish history where crossing oceans meant getting to safety, and how holding off simchas in times of trauma is a part of our story. She remains hopeful that the wedding will take place in 2022.

Tessa Snitcher, who made aliyah in 2007, said, “My mom was coming to Israel to see her grandchildren, whom she hasn’t seen for two years. She booked on Turkish Airlines. She flew on 25 November at 17:00. By 20:30 there was a cabinet meeting in Israel. By midnight they had decided to close the border to South Africans. When I woke up 05:00, my mom called me hysterically, saying she wasn’t allowed to get on the plane to Israel from Turkey.

“I truly thought that they can’t stop somebody in mid-flight,” continued Snitcher. “I was in shock. They didn’t even give a few hours’ notice to allow people to get to a destination. I had no one to talk to. I called the airport, no one could help me. I called the health ministry, they couldn’t help me. The only person who has been truly helping olim is Dov Lipman and his organisation Yad L’Olim. He did everything he could to get my mom to Israel. But after many hours we understood that it wasn’t going to happen.”

Amid the chaos, they had to get her back to Cape Town. “It was extremely difficult, but she managed to get a ticket home. I think she was in the airport for 24 hours. We were so defeated and heartbroken. When she stepped onto the plane they said, ‘This is the last flight out of Turkey.’”

Snitcher says that Israel’s response to the new variant has hurt the very people who care about the country the most. “I made aliyah, I’m a Zionist, and I feel extremely embarrassed at how Israel treated South Africans. I don’t know when I’m going to see my mom again. I could cry from that feeling of desperation.”

Carla Stein and her husband Jared have had a tough year, losing two family members in a short space of time. They were counting down the days to a trip to Mauritius. But their dream turned into a nightmare of hours waiting in airports and on planes with small children, until finally they were allowed to fly. They landed on the island and were excited to be on holiday. That is, until they were told they weren’t allowed to leave the airport. This was even after they and their children had had multiple PCR tests, and the fact that they are fully vaccinated.

They watched in horror as passengers from other countries were allowed to head to their resorts, but as South Africans, they were forced to stay put. “There were about 15 or 20 police officers in uniform blocking the [exit]. It was traumatic. They had announced only 10 minutes before that all people flying in from South Africa were required to do 14 days’ quarantine,” said Stein. Negative PCR tests and vaccines didn’t matter.

After more hours in a hot airport, they were told they would have to quarantine. “We didn’t want to get shipped off to an unknown destination. The flight before us didn’t have to quarantine, but that’s what we were told to do.”

They were eventually taken to a hotel about 45 minutes away. Although their booked accommodation could ensure their isolation, they were transported to another hotel inland. “The next day my husband was told by someone, also in quarantine, that we were moving hotels. We weren’t even informed.”

They were moved again, but still not to their booked accommodation. The hotel room they are now in has a tiny veranda – a small saving grace. “We were eventually told that we will be here for seven days, and can be released after negative PCR tests,” said Stein. “But if someone is positive from the flight we will have to quarantine for 14 days.” They plan to continue with the holiday when they are let out. “It’s very hard being stuck in a room with a 19-month-old and an almost seven-year-old. But we have made it this far, and will try make the most of this experience.”

*Not her real name.

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Tackling tough topics with teens needs ‘courageous conversations’

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At some point in their lives, most parents will probably type “How do I talk to my kids about sex?” into an internet search engine. However, experts at a recent webinar warned that depending on the internet is not enough when it comes to talking to teens about sex, sexuality, pornography, drugs, alcohol, prejudice, violence, puberty, and other difficult topics.

More than 600 people registered for the webinar, hosted by the Chevrah Kadisha social services department, with many more watching on Facebook. This shows how many parents are looking for answers when dealing with these difficult questions. The Chevrah Kadisha also launched its new e-book, Courageous Conversations: Helping Teens to Talk and Listen, which includes advice from 22 local and international experts.

All of the experts on the panel said that avoiding ‘taboo’ topics with children and teens was a recipe for disaster, since the youngsters would then turn to other sources for information, which could lead them onto dangerous paths. Furthermore, “addressing the tough stuff makes our kids feel safer, it strengthens our bond, and teaches them about the world,” said educational psychologist Ashley Jay. “If these conversations begin at home, it lays a foundation for children to recognise situations that may be inappropriate. This makes them able to speak up.”

She emphasised that feelings don’t scare children – it’s being left alone with those feelings that scares them, no matter how old they are. These conversations must not be lectures, but rather a space where ideas are exchanged and the parent becomes an ‘active listener’. “This means lot of eye contact, follow-up questions, limited interruptions and communicating as clearly as possible.”

In addition, it’s important that you “be clued up”, as children and teens often have more knowledge than the adults do. At the same time, “it’s okay to not always have the answers in the moment. Be honest that you’re learning too, and challenge your own generational biases and prejudices.”

Clinical psychologist Yael O’Reilly said that “studies show that having honest, open, appropriate conversations with our kids about difficult topics actually leads to safer behaviour. Silence gives our kids the message that we’re not a ‘safe landing’ for them.”

When approaching these issues, “we first need to understand the needs of the generation that we are parenting,” she explained. “Teach through connection – that’s the golden principle for this generation. The approach of ‘you will do as I say’ no longer has the weight it used to. We have to be actively curious, engaging, and always working on meeting our kids where they are in order to form a trusting relationship.”

Have a “stacked approach”, she advised. “Information is buildable – so start small, start young, and build it up from there. When it comes to pornography and drugs, we need to be starting these conversations when they are seven, eight, or nine years old, and building on them slowly and organically. This means we use everyday events as connection points with our kids. For example, when you see someone smoking a cigarette, ask them what they think. At a simcha, ask what it means to them when they see people drinking,” and so on.

When they are young, it’s about introducing the distinction between safe versus unsafe behaviour. As they get older, parents can start to introduce ideas in more detail. “With pornography, older tweens (10 to 12) need to have a basic understanding of what it is. This means that they have to have a basic understanding of what sex is,” she explains.

“The conversation can look something like, ‘We need to make sure that we know what isn’t safe online. Have you heard of porn or pornography? These are online sites for adults where there are pictures or videos of adults doing sexual things. These sites are for adults who want to look at them. They are never for children, but there’s no control over who clicks on them. So if this happens, what do we do? We close the page straight away and show it to mom or dad. Or if it’s being shown to us by someone else, we walk away and tell a trusted adult.’ So explain briefly what it is and what to do if they are exposed.”

Later on, this discussion can open up others about the negative messages embedded in pornography – “that it’s often violent or disturbing, sets unrealistic expectations of what sex is really like, and disregards the intimacy that comes with sex,” she explains. “When it comes to drugs, follow a similar format.”

Importantly, parents must create a ‘way out’ pact, where they tell their child that “you can call me at any time of the day or night and I will come and get you, no questions asked. This doesn’t mean you’re letting them off the hook, it just means that in that moment of vulnerability and potential danger you’re able to be a safe space for them.”

In addition, ‘no’ is only effective when balanced with ‘yes’. “Take stock of the ratio between yes and no in your home. Have some non-negotiables that are clearly communicated, but be open to negotiating everything else,” said O’Reilly. We need to remember that teens are going to make bad decisions. So expect it, “then set your relationship so that you can be the person that they can rely on in times of distress”.

Psychologist Dr Hanan Bushkin said that it was never too late to have these conversations, and that they should be part of general conversations about life. “Have conversations about values. When you say you should respect your body or others’ bodies, explain why. What are the values underpinning these instructions? The moment you explain the ‘why’, it makes the instruction much more palatable. Parents need to feel comfortable [about the topic]. If you’re uncomfortable, can you imagine what the message looks like?”

However, even if you’re not comfortable with the discussion yet, a factual conversation is better than nothing.

It’s important to portray sexuality as a natural part of being human – as natural as eating. “Explain that we all get hungry, and that’s not a problem. But we can direct that hunger at healthy or unhealthy foods or decisions. There should be no shame.”

“Teenagers are the most misunderstood people on the planet,” said Bushkin. “We treat them like children, but expect them to act like adults. Being a parent to a teenager is very hard, but being a teenager is hard too. This is an incredible opportunity to mould a child into an image you feel proud of. Having a front-row seat to your children growing up is an incredible gift and opportunity. Make your time count.”

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