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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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Reconnecting with rescuers on that dark, stormy night

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Many stories begin with the setting of a “dark and stormy night”. The difference, in this case, is that this story is true.

It was a cold and rainy evening in Johannesburg almost two decades ago when Kim O’ Hagan’s husband and son ran into trouble en route to a Shabbat dinner. Seventeen years later – in November 2021 – the family reached out to those who rescued them, bringing the story full circle.

Recounting the story to the SA Jewish Report, Johannesburg research director O’Hagan recalls how “the evening after my husband Simon’s 39th birthday [30 April 2004], Simon and my son, Liam, were en route to Liam’s grandmother’s house in Cyrildene for Shabbat dinner.

“Simon was doing a favour for my brother, Jonathan Selvan, by delivering his work vehicle [a fully equipped Peugeot Boxer with shelving in which one could stand up] to Cyrildene. I can just imagine Liam, who was 2½ years old at the time, excitedly sitting next to his dad in front of this huge vehicle. My daughter, Erin, and I had driven ahead in a separate car.”

There was a light drizzle, and the streetlights weren’t working. “On turning the corner into Houghton Drive, some of the shelving slipped, and Simon stopped the vehicle and stepped out to check what had fallen.” It was at that moment that he fell into a manhole.

“He recalled the event by saying, ‘I stepped on to the pavement, but the pavement wasn’t there’. The manhole was rectangular and luckily, not very deep. He smashed his shoulder and fractured several ribs, but fortunately didn’t hit his head. He was in excruciating pain and unable to get out to rescue Liam who at this point, was still strapped into his car seat.”

Simon tried unsuccessfully to flag down passing motorists who were unlikely to have seen him in the dimly lit area and even less likely to take a chance and stop on the side of the road.

“In the meantime, a couple was returning home and had driven into their driveway on Houghton Drive,” continues O’Hagan. “On seeing the commotion, the woman, who I was to learn was journalist Tanya Farber, rushed to rescue Liam from the car seat. Her boyfriend (now husband), Jeremy, made contact with me and my family in Cyrildene.

“By this stage, Simon had forced himself out of the manhole, clearly fighting the pain in a desperate attempt to get to his little boy. Netcare responded, and Simon was given morphine so that they could mobilise his shoulder and place him on a stretcher. He was then taken to Milpark Hospital, operated on, and discharged several days later.”

The family were grateful to be safe, and moved on with their lives. But tragedy struck when Simon died suddenly in 2006 of unrelated causes. Liam was four and his sister Erin was six.

“I have tried to instil memories of their father by relating stories to them and reminding them of the people their dad knew, and who played an important role in their dad’s life,” says O’Hagan. “Liam has even less of a concept of his father than Erin due to being younger at the time. So those memories become that much more important as one goes through life and begins to comprehend the part of your life that’s missing.”

In that context, the dark and stormy night when Liam and his father were rescued has become even more pivotal. “Liam says that he has few memories of his father, and the few memories that he does have become all the more significant,” says his mother. “Considering that he was 2½ years old, he clearly didn’t understand the gravity of the situation that night. Liam remembers seeing lights out of the front windscreen and being held by a really friendly lady. He says he has no doubt he enjoyed the attention! Liam questions what his dad would think of him now, and he suddenly thought to himself that this was a really big moment in his life that he has never really looked back on. He was curious as to how far back he could remember, and this was in fact one of his earliest memories.”

So, out of the blue a few nights ago, “Liam suddenly asked me if I knew the name of the people who had rescued him that night. We had never really discussed it before. It took me a few minutes to think, and I told Liam, but he didn’t tell me he was going to try to contact Tanya.

“Having told him that Tanya was a journalist, he started by looking on LinkedIn and Facebook. He found her email address and decided to email her. Part of Liam’s thought process at the time was that because of the many losses he had suffered recently [we recently lost Simon’s brother, Liam’s uncle, to COVID-19], he decided it was important to reach out to Tanya.”

The first O’Hagan knew of Liam’s email was when he read her Farber’s response. “We were both so deeply touched and the emotions took us right back to that night.” The two parties decided to meet, and “Liam, Erin, and I are all excited to meet Tanya and Jeremy as we feel that they are part of our connection with Simon. We were so touched by Tanya’s warmth and her memories of the night, as well as those of her husband, and her sister, Yael.

“Yael spoke to Simon while he was in the manhole. That’s something so special that I needed to hear, because by the time I got to the scene of the accident, my only vision was of Simon’s desperate struggle to get out.”

She has no doubt that they will maintain their new connection. “When someone dies, although their intentions are good, few people maintain contact. I have always tried to keep Simon’s memory alive by keeping up relationships with people who have touched our lives,” says O’Hagan. “The wonderful thing about our community is the connections we all have. It doesn’t matter who the hero was on the day, but the fact that Liam reached out, that there are such special humans out there, is what makes me proud to be part of this wonderful Jewish community.”

Farber says the reconnection has also been extremely meaningful. “I remember at the time understanding Simon’s panic of being stuck in the manhole while little Liam was stranded in the car. But it was only when I became a parent myself not long afterwards that I truly understood the depth of it,” she says.

“Receiving the email from Liam all these years later was a life-affirming experience for me. He and his family are incredibly special people. It has reminded me how strangers’ lives can intertwine in ways we don’t expect, and yet invisible connections persist.”

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Kallenbach honoured at apex of Linksfield Ridge

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He was an architect, a developer, a sportsman, a philanthropist, a Zionist, and supporter of the Indian resistance movement (Satyagraha), but Hermann Kallenbach is best known for his close friendship with Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi during his time in South Africa.

Now, two new Johannesburg Heritage Blue Plaques have been erected – on Linksfield Ridge and in Mountain View – to honour this extraordinary Jewish Joburg pioneer.

The plaques, unveiled on 17 November, were sponsored by the Lithuanian Embassy in South Africa as a part of a project to honour prominent “Litvaks” who contributed to South Africa. The year 2021 is the 150th birthday of Kallenbach, who was born in Žemaičių Naumiestis in 1871. The Lithuanian government declared 2020 as the year of Lithuanian Jewish history, making the celebration of Kallenbach’s legacy especially appropriate.

Lithuania has also sponsored further research into Kallenbach’s life. Kathy Munro, the chairperson of the Heritage Association of South Africa and the blue plaque committee of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, is partnering with Dr Shimon Lev in Israel to “bring Kallenbach out from the shadows of the Gandhi dominance”.

“It was Kallenbach’s karma to befriend Gandhi, but it was both his good fortune and perhaps his misfortune that this should have been the intense and best known relationship of his life,” Munro wrote in her review of Alkis Doucakis’s book, In the Footsteps of Gandhi An illustrated history of Johannesburg’s Linksfield Ridge and environs.

“His significance lay in his success as an architect between 1896 and 1912, and again from 1921 to 1945. His friendship and sponsorship of Gandhi was a special relationship, but my argument is that it did considerable damage to his reputation and work as a fine architect,” Munro said.

As well as being a successful property developer, including of Linksfield and Linksfield Ridge, and donating the land for Sylvia Pass in the 1930s, Kallenbach is known for designing some well-regarded period buildings ranging from churches to synagogues, office blocks to retirement estates. As a philanthroper, he is famous for funding the creation of Gandhi’s communal living experiments in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal, for Tolstoy Farm (near Lenasia), and for donating the bulk of his estate to Keren Hayesod for the formation of Israel.

“Kallenbach is an interesting figure, far removed in outlook and temperament from the mainstream of South African Jewry of the time,” said Kallenbach’s grand-niece, Isa Sarid. “He not only adopted Gandhi’s ascetism, but proposed fresh austerities.” It was Gandhi who urged that Kallenbach devote his resources to saving his own people, the Jews, after the Holocaust.

The blue plaques were erected at “The Tents” at 8 Grove Road, Mountain View, and at Kallenbach Drive on Linksfield Ridge.

Kallenbach bought “The Tents” in 1909, named for the bell tent that he and Gandhi camped in on the hillside before he built a thatched stone rondavel, which is still there today. In 1913, “The Tents” was a gathering point for Satyagrahis during the third Indian civil rights campaign, led by Gandhi.

The steep, winding Kallenbach Drive was cut through Linksfield Ridge as a part of Kallenbach’s development of Linksfield Ridge in the 1930s. The plaque was placed on the dry stone retaining wall which Kallenbach – a skilled stonemason – built with the help of African workers. Kallenbach also built stone steps in numerous places along Kallenbach Drive, which provide access to the mountainside properties at the top of the ridge in New Mountain Road.

Kallenbach’s imprint on the ridge isn’t limited to construction. He established a vegetable garden and an orchard on the slopes of Mountain View, and many of the magnificent trees on the ridge today were planted by him, including the huge Jacarandas in the gardens of Nos 5 and 7 New Mountain Road, and a great pepper tree at 8 Grove Road, so symbolic of the pre automobile age when transport to Orange Grove from the city was by horse and buggy down Orange Grove Hill.

Kallenbach died in 1945 in the house he built at No 5 New Mountain Road, and his ashes were interred in a stone crypt on the property of No 4 New Mountain Road – which still exists today – before being taken by his relatives to be interred at Kibbutz Degania in Israel.

Though he didn’t marry and had no children, he was close to his siblings. The plaque unveiling was attended by numerous members of the extended Kallenbach family, including Michael Kallenbach (great nephew), Jacqui Friedlander (great niece), Ronnie Silberman (cousin), and Charles Kallenbach (cousin).

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Pretoria honours community heroes

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Steven Klagsbrun has been honoured with a meritorious service award in recognition of a lifetime of expertise and service as honorary attorney to Pretoria Jewish community organisations, and for the leadership roles he has undertaken over many years.

Klagsbrun was given the honour last week by South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev and Vice-Chairperson Carol Baron at the biennial general meeting of the Pretoria Council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

They also handed out four special recognition community service awards to those who went above and beyond the call of duty during the COVID-19 pandemic, namely:

Rabbi Gidon Fox for his wise council and fortitude in difficult circumstances, as well as his dedicated and exceptional assistance to all members of the Pretoria Jewish community during the COVID-19 pandemic;

The Pretoria Chevrah Kadisha, under the leadership of President Nolan Karp, in recognition of its exceptional service in assisting members of our community with continued fundraising, providing burial services, and rendering additional welfare assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic;

The management and staff of Jaffa Jewish Aged Home under the leadership of Executive Director Mark Isaacs in recognition of their fortitude and guidance in difficult circumstances while ensuring the safety of Jaffa residents during the COVID-19 pandemic; and

The Union of Jewish Women (UJW) Pretoria, under Chairperson Ciska Lewis and Vice-Chairperson Tracy Myer, in recognition of their exceptional service, continued fundraising, and welfare assistance to the needy in our community and the broader community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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