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Building a circle of support in the travel maze

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While South Africa’s borders remain open during the current stage of the pandemic, other countries are essentially “closing our borders for us” by making it very hard for South Africans to travel, or for people to visit South Africa.

“So you may get ‘out the door and down the passage’, but then you’ll find a gate that only a few people can get through. The rest of the world has been spooked by the South African variant [of COVID-19], and they are shutting their doors to South Africans.”

This is the assessment of Kim Kur, a Johannesburg interior architect who founded and manages the Facebook group “Community Circle Home SA”. It’s a non-political platform for South Africans to help other South Africans who are stranded away from home because of the COVID-19 crisis.

The group was started on 8 November, and now has 6 300 members from 96 countries. It’s growing by about 50 members a day.

Kur was a volunteer for “Home Away from Home”, a similar platform that closed when South Africa’s borders reopened. However, she felt there was still a need for such a community, and began her new page as a service to others on the very same day.

“I realised people still have ties to South Africa, they want to be allowed to enter their home country, and they will go to great lengths to do that. People also want to help each other, even if they left South Africa decades ago. We have members who will drop everything to help someone they’ve never met, to share the information they know that this person needs.

“I’ve also seen a lot of ‘paying it forward’ – once someone is helped, they offer to help someone else, even if it’s by offering skills. The other day, two South Africans helped a woman get food to her son, and they were all strangers.

“With travel regulations, you are feeling around in the dark. Everyone is panicking but eventually someone finds the light switch, and it gets a little brighter. But then, without warning, the regulations change, and it all starts again. People are desperate to get to jobs, funerals, or to see family members before they die,” she says.

“People are battling psychologically with the sense of being locked out of their country. Before, it was mostly about being able to afford a repatriation flight, and there were a couple of hoops to jump through. Now, countries aren’t allowing South Africans to fly in. People get locked out or even deported. Money gets lost or wasted. We’ve had members who become suicidal, and we have psychologists in different time zones on hand to help them. It’s very real.”

At the moment, many of the questions on the group are about quarantine in the United Kingdom. Every day, people ask what airlines are flying. There are many queries about flights that have been suspended or postponed, and what visas are allowed.

As a busy professional with a full-time job, a husband, and two young children, it’s astounding that Kur has so much time and energy to devote to this cause, but for her, it’s worth it.

“Being instrumental in making sure someone gets to see their mother before she dies, or to reunite with their sibling, or get back to South Africa if there’s been an accident, you can’t put a price on that,” she says.

She’s never worked in the travel industry or in community management before, but she has just “jumped right in”. She runs the page on her own, and relies heavily on travel agents, officials, pathologists, and virologists, a network around the world, and group members themselves to help desperate travellers in the ever-changing maze that is air travel under COVID-19.

“When people panic, I often tell them to take a strategic pause while we feel around, speak to government officials overseas, and help them. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. But we won’t break any laws or help anyone break any laws.

“Also, with [the department of] home affairs being closed, it’s causing massive issues. We had a couple from England who needed to get here as her father was dying. She managed to see him and she had to give permission to turn off the machines. Then, while winding up his estate, her handbag was stolen, including all their certified documents to travel back to the United Kingdom. Within two days, we had organised both her British and his South African emergency documents, and got a travel agent to move their flight. The stress of travel went away, and she could focus on her father’s estate and her grief.”

Many travel agents whose livelihoods have been decimated give advice on the group, but Kur encourages them to charge for their services if the query gets taken further.

Kur also wanted to make her group a “safe space”. “There are many ‘Saffa’ groups online, but there is a lot of misinformation, speculation, and nastiness. It seems like people on many of these groups are looking for ways to trip each other up. That’s the antithesis of what I want on this group. We allow only information that has been verified.

“We don’t allow anything to be shared that is speculative – even if it’s a newspaper article. We allow it only if it includes actual government regulations. We ask people to wait for information, work out what it means, understand it, and then deal with it as a community.

“There have been many success stories and hardly anyone we couldn’t help. We had a woman in Yemen who needed to come back to South Africa to escape her abusive husband, and we got her and two of her children to safety in South Africa. But then she went back as she missed the kids that were still there. There’s only so much you can do. But when she needs our help, we will help her again.”

While many people experience a great deal of relief when they finally make it to where they need to go, “we also see a lot of sadness because when people leave, they don’t know when they’ll be able to return”. Kur is also witnessing many leaving or returning because of job losses. She recently dealt with a man who needed to get to South Africa because his brother committed suicide. “It’s frightening what’s going on behind the scenes,” she says.

Still, she remains positive and motivated. “Even after travel restrictions ease, this group won’t end. There’s never going to be a South African that doesn’t need help, and that’s what we’re there for.”

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Lifting up artists taken down by lockdown

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“Performing artists rely on gatherings of people. So in a sense, they’ve been hit hardest by lockdown. Any way you look at it, they have no options,” says performer, choreographer, director and Fame Academy owner Vicky Friedman.

Friedman and other professional performers in Johannesburg – Lorri Strauss, Shelley Meskin, Talia Kodesh, Caryn Katz, and Sharon Spiegel-Wagner – say they cannot stand by and watch their contemporaries suffer. The group have formed Noah’s Art, an initiative to collect food and money for performing artists negatively affected by the pandemic.

“The needs within our industry are unprecedented. Noah’s Art aims to help feed as many performers and their families as possible during this time of crisis,” says Friedman.

In a moment of powerful synchronicity, Meskin happened to mention to performer and studio owner Jonathan Birin that they had formed this initiative. Birin said that he thought Glynne Wolman and The Angel Network would love to get involved. At the same time, Birin was organising the Saturday Night Unplugged webinar with Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. Within minutes, these various forces came together, and the webinar, which had an estimated audience of 9 000 from all over the world, became an avenue to support South African artists who are literally starving.

“Working in the performing arts is already hard. Most people are freelancers, and they survive from gig to gig, corporate event to corporate event,” says Friedman. “Add lockdown, and they are truly stuck. For example, you may be a dancer, but you can’t teach a dance class online because you have no data. There is a mountain of problems. There was one dancer who was losing so much weight from going hungry that his friends had to club together to help him even though they also had nothing.”

Friedman says that although everyone in the performing arts has suffered, those in the Jewish community have mostly been able to get by because of support from family, friends, the community, and communal organisations. But others aren’t so lucky, and these are the performers that Noah’s Art aims to help.

“They are people who we’ve performed with in hundreds of productions. They’re the ones next to us on stage, lifting us up into the air! We couldn’t just stand by as they told us their stories. We hoped to collect food for a few weeks, but then it just snowballed. We are so grateful that so many “ears” picked up what was going on. It was a huge surprise on Saturday night when Glynne handed over R104 000 from The Angel Network. We were flabbergasted. We couldn’t believe what we were hearing. And then we were shocked and awed by the generosity of the community, which raised R200 000 on the night of the webinar.” One hundred McDonald’s vouchers were also generously donated.

The funds raised will go towards nutritious food parcels packed by The Angel Network, as well as food vouchers, supporting at least 715 families. Wolman says that they hope to raise even more. This isn’t the first time that The Angel Network has supported those in the performing arts, and Wolman agrees that the situation is “dire”. She emphasises that every cent raised will go towards food parcels and food vouchers. “The webinar was beyond our wildest dreams, in terms of entertainment and fundraising,” she says.

“These are skilled, talented entertainers. They’re not used to living in poverty,” says Friedman. “They have made their way very capably in the world. They are our friends.” Many people who work behind the scenes, from crew members to runners to lighting designers, have also been hit hard, and many small businesses have had to close down.

“The other element is that the arts feeds our soul. There is the emotional and mental implication of not being able to do what we love,” says Friedman. “This webinar made people realise the importance of the performing arts to us as a community. Look how we rely on performance, music, and the stories in movies and series on Netflix to keep us going during lockdown. So, people’s hearts just opened.”

Birin says he has been performing virtually for a year at the Mike’s Place Open Mic Night every Monday night, after the famous Israeli venue hosted musicians from all over the world to perform and keep their momentum during tough times. It was the inspiration for the SA Jewish Report webinar. Then, when Birin got heart-wrenching voice notes from well-known entertainers saying they didn’t have enough money for food, he got The Angel Network involved.

“I know an artist in Israel who has 90% of his salary covered by the government. Here, artists just starve,” says Birin. “And they’re the top names in the industry. If there was a major event, they would be the ones on stage. They’re so embarrassed to say they’ve got no food. And they’re not asking for steak and chips, they need an apple and some muesli. They’re like a forgotten tribe. But this community is so special, and the donations and comments came flying in. It’s amazing how a few small actions have led to this avalanche of goodness. And we aren’t even doing this for our own community, we’re doing it for others. Because that’s who we are.”

Meskin says, “We had to get on the ground and actually do something to help our fellow artists. They haven’t earned a cent since last March. They can’t feed their families, pay rent, buy basic medicines, or get electricity, airtime, or even water. The ‘pit’ is endless and deep. We hope to keep the momentum going. We’re just a group of girls who want to help, so thank you to the SA Jewish Report, The Angel Network, and the community for allowing us to do something. There is so much to be done. This has helped us to pick up where the government has let us down.”

Noah’s Art is also collecting non-perishable food. See its Facebook page for more information. Drop off items at: Voodoo Lily Cafe, Migali, Photogenic (Norwood), Bowring Levin School of Dance, JATA Johannesburg Academy for Theatre Arts, Stageworx, Andrea Beck School of Dance, Osrin Goldsmith Dance Academy, Jade Tannous Dance Academy, Rosenberg Dance Studio, Claire van Niekerk 5678 Productions, Joanne Bobrow, or King David High School Victory Park.

Donations can be made to: Noah’s Art; Investec; account no: 50016898206; branch 580105. Reference: your name.

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Never too early to teach about prejudice

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In an era in which division and “othering” are rife, topics like racism and equality can be difficult to discuss with children. Jews are no strangers to discrimination, but how can we broach the subject with our youngsters and ensure that they are sensitive to differences between people?

“The majority of children in our country are aware of differences between themselves and others and, due to our history, are particularly sensitive to differences in race,” says Catherine Boyd, the education manager at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre.

“While some children are more exposed to ideas and language around identity politics than previous generations, others aren’t able to articulate what they see and feel until they are encouraged and guided.”

Boyd, along with education officer Mduduzi Ntuli and educator Rene Pozniak, make up the education team at the centre, dealing with the subject of prejudice among youngsters. The centre runs an identity activity to help young people articulate their differences and perhaps even their prejudices.

“Of course, family culture is a dominant influence in what they think, but they are as vulnerable to hate speech as adults are,” says Boyd. “That hate speech can be equally reinforced by family, peer pressure, and acts of ‘othering’ they see around them.”

The fact that most Jewish youngsters attend almost exclusively Jewish schools can put them at something of a disadvantage, says Pozniak.

“There is no doubt that the pupils at an all-white, Jewish school lack the opportunity to interact with pupils from another cultural group,” she says. “As a result, this lack of diversity and the limited contact they do have [be it doing sport or any other extra mural] makes it unlikely for it to translate into a meaningful relationship.”

However, many pupils are aware of this gap, she says, shown by many programmes supported by pupils aimed at tikkun olam (repairing the world) like charity collections.

“There is no question that these pupils are familiar with the concepts of prejudice, stereotyping, marginalisation, and ‘othering’. Their in-depth learning about Jewish history, and especially the lessons still being gleaned from the Holocaust experience, have made them acutely aware of diversity and cultural differences,” Pozniak says.

The subject of equality is probably discussed more in schools than in the broader community, Pozniak says, pointing out that there have recently been attempts to correct this.

“The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has cautioned how important it is to be genuinely involved in the broader community, playing our part in healing our nation and being instrumental in it moving in a positive direction,” she says. “Various communal institutions have been vocal in their opposition to any display of discrimination, be it against the Jewish community or any other community.

“Degrees of awareness and subsequent involvement with the issue of equality depend on the generation you’re socialised in. Current school pupils are post-apartheid students, without any first-hand experience of the kind of racial discrimination experienced by their parents and grandparents. They haven’t been tainted by that experience, and are thus more comfortable with other cultures and racial groups, given the opportunity to interact.

“There is always room for improvement, and every opportunity should be sought to interact with as many different people as possible,” Pozniak says.

A good starting point for parents is to talk about their children’s own identities.

“Discuss how they think about themselves, their families, and their communities. In this way, they can begin to understand and appreciate that their own identities are multifaceted and fluid, and that if this is true for them – that they are not defined by a stereotype – then they are encouraged to see others as individuals with multifaceted identities.

“Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is something that can be modelled, practised, and encouraged at home from an early age. This can be done by encouraging curiosity about others, developing communication and listening skills, and challenging prejudice and stereotypes.”

Such interaction can even be encouraged amongst younger children. This is the motivation behind Crayation Nation, a children’s book written by Asif Segal centred on a box of coloured pencils to explain that engaging with people, thoughts, or traditions which are different isn’t a bad thing.

“I tried to find a way to describe a situation in a way that children could relate to,” says Segal. “A box of crayons or pencils is colourful, has different uses for each one of the crayons or pencils, and if combined can create something new that wasn’t originally there.

“To children in general, race or colour makes absolutely no difference at all. It’s in later years once they have been exposed to the thoughts or attitude of the adults around them that the issue becomes more significant.

“I hope that by realising that a box of crayons or pencils has different characters in it, they can understand that they are all there to complement each other, just like in the world around us.”

Discussion between parents and children shouldn’t revolve around race, Segal stresses, pointing out that inequality or intolerance of difference isn’t only about race.

“It’s a worldwide problem that’s manifested in everything from bullying, gender, sexual orientation, tradition, religion, and life choices,” he says. “We should attempt to give children the tools to make the correct choices in life, to allow them not to judge at first sight but keep an open mind.”

Simone Kur, the book’s illustrator, says that discrimination is becoming more of an issue and believes that the book can make a difference to how parents and teachers approach the subject and teach its lessons.

“The world is still very backward when it comes to accepting different people,” she says. “It makes you realise that not everyone is that open-minded about accepting. It seems that now, under the pandemic, people are even less tolerant of each other and are quick to judge.”

Crayation Nation is aimed at teaching children not to judge too quickly when faced with an uncomfortable situation, and to take ideas from others.

“Developing tolerance and striving for equality isn’t just important for children, but it’s easier for them because they’re younger. If everyone took time to see how important it is not to judge others and be tolerant, we would all be a lot better off.”

  • ‘Crayation Nation’ is available on Takealot, at selected Exclusive Books stores, and from Farm Animal Publications.

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Jews should be “inspired by gay pride”

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You’ve heard of the gay pride movement, but have you ever considered that a similar concept could be applied to Jewish identity?

Internationally renowned educator Ben M Freeman’s first book, Jewish Pride: Rebuilding a People is inspired by his experiences with the LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) pride movement. It aims to educate, inspire, and empower Jewish people to reject the shame of antisemitism imposed on Jews by the non-Jewish world, as well as non-Jewish perceptions of what it means to be a Jew.

The book was launched in South Africa at an online event hosted by the South African Jewish Museum and the Jacob Gitlin Library.

Freeman is head of humanities at The Harbour School, an international school in Hong Kong. He is also a freelance lecturer at schools and universities, and leads educational webinars focusing on antisemitism to Jews and non-Jews alike from all over the world, helping them to understand the rise in antisemitism. He also works with companies and educational institutions, providing training and consultancy on issues related to inclusion and diversity.

Freeman was in conversation with Richard Freedman, the former director of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre and the South African Holocaust & Genocide Foundation.

Freeman described how he grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, one of only 5 000 Jews in the country. “My parents made a real effort to raise us as proud Jews. We went to the only Jewish primary school, and observed Shabbat and chaggim,” he said in his strong Scottish accent.

Meanwhile, realising he was gay, he has travelled “a long road to come to terms with that identity, and this book is based on that journey. If it wasn’t for that journey, I wouldn’t know the importance of the concept of pride, and the damage that shame can cause. I look at the pride movement, and I see the conversations that we need to have in our own community.”

The fallout around former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn also galvanised him. “It was a moment of reckoning. I saw two responses in the British Jewish community: one was really impressive and embodied pride – rabbis put aside their differences to write letters to the press together, and people unified. But the second was the hangover of the ‘keep your head down’ syndrome. This has always been the unofficial policy of the Jewish community in Britain – don’t complain about antisemitism. [Community members] understand it’s wrong, but they have been socialised to keep their head down, so when it comes to it, they can’t advocate for themselves.”

One could say that the same “keep your head down” syndrome could be applied to the organised Jewish community during most of the apartheid era. Freeman feels strongly that Jews need to engage with our past, educate ourselves, and acknowledge that we have experienced generations of trauma that inform our actions every day. However, he notes that this isn’t about being victims. Rather, by understanding it, we can shake off shame and fear, and act in a more positive and proactive manner.

“We need to have public discussions on epigenetic trauma, generational trauma, and what it means to be a Jew in a post-Holocaust world,” he said. “We understand antisemitism intellectually, but often this is an emotional discussion, about our individual and collective self-esteem and mental health.” It’s a long journey, and it’s not going to be easy – each of us have to work on it every day.

Looking back, Freeman notes that when he was younger, he consciously tried to hide his Jewish identity. For example, when he was 16, he dyed his hair blonde. “When I went to university [in Scotland], it was a nightmare. I heard the same rhetoric as Corbyn. The difference was it was on the fringes, not in the mainstream British political system.”

He said the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements should inspire Jews. “We need that too, a version that fits our context. We need to be raising our voices and demanding to be heard. The black community isn’t asking to be heard, it’s demanding it. It’s the correct course of action, and we need to see it in our community too.”

He emphasises that when it comes to Zionism, “We need to reclaim both the concept and the word. I believe the non-Jewish world has appropriated and bastardised it. If you look at it, it’s a movement of self-determination for the Jewish people based on progressive values. As Jews, we understand that, but non-Jewish people describe it as white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, and so on.” As Jews, we can disagree and debate what we want Zionism to look like, but “the non-Jewish world doesn’t get to tell us what Zionism is. It’s not their movement. It’s a Jewish concept defined by Jews.”

Freeman said Jews who have a white skin are often demonised by both the extreme left and right. “The extreme right see us as ‘shape shifters’ who look like them, can ‘infiltrate’ them, and bring them down from within. The extreme left say we symbolise whiteness. For them, that’s colonialism, oppression, and white supremacy. Both sides are framing us as what they see as the problem in the world or what they hate in the world.”

Others may accuse Jewish pride of being white supremacy, he said, but it’s not about taking others down, demonising or blaming others, and it’s about including Jews of every stripe.

The book includes stories from seven very different Jews. We must celebrate this diversity, but we can also note the similarities between our stories, Freeman said, emphasising that Jewish pride will come about when we heal our divisions from within. “We need to look at our racism, misogyny, and homophobia. I’ve seen Orthodox Jews ‘erase’ Reform Jews, and I’ve seen Progressive Jews demonise the Orthodox.”

Those who have a Jewish father, but not a Jewish mother, “are erased a lot”, Freeman said.

“Part of this healing is educating ourselves instead of picking arbitrary points in Jewish history to define our identity. I’ve called the book ‘rebuilding a people’ because we were a civilisation, a culture, a people, a nation before religion emerged – and the matrilineal definition of Judaism emerged even later,” he said.

“I respect the Halacha, but we also need to recognise this past. Just having this conversation is healing. I see the solution as our Jewishness. All Israel is responsible for each other, so we need to do better. And, the only people who get to define Jewish identity are Jewish people.”

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