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Businesses hang on for dear life on COVID-19 rollercoaster

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In a cruel twist of fate, the businesses that were to benefit most over the festive season have now had to bear the brunt of COVID-19 restrictions in light of the new Omicron variant. Just as travel, hospitality, and theatre were opening up to pre-pandemic levels, they faced a fourth wave and restrictions that are taking them back to square one. Many in the South African Jewish community have been affected, but they vow to survive, overcome, adapt, and thrive into the New Year.

“When the United Kingdom initially took us off the red list, it seemed as though half of South Africa wanted to travel in December,” says Andrea Bonalumi of Visa Box, a travel visa consultancy which services South African outbound travellers. “We were inundated with enquiries not just for the United Kingdom, but all European Union countries. So we went from zero to 1 000 overnight. We were working flat out!”

Because of this workload increase, “I hired back an employee whom I had previously retrenched. I also signed a lease agreement for 2022 so that we could all get back into an office, assuming the run would continue.”

So, when the world slammed its doors on South Africa, it was a nightmare come true. “Now, I sit with these commitments I’m not sure I’ll be able to honour and even worse, the unknown. When will this end, will it ever end, why did they react in such a way?” she asks. “Some of my clients haven’t seen their family for more than two years. Some were going to meet grandchildren for the first time. Some had already spent tens of thousands [sometimes hundreds of thousands] of rands on a trip they will never enjoy. It’s just terribly sad – and just before Christmas. I have a client who needs to go to Australia to attend a Barmitzvah. Will that ever happen?

“The industry as a whole is writhing, and our industry is massive. Not only outbound, but what about our tourism? It’s a mess to say the least, but I just hope and pray that it will end as quickly as it started. We will survive. I have to survive. It’s my livelihood as well as that of my staff.”

Fiona Sacks, a freelance tour guide and event organiser in the Western Cape, says, “I was due to have a bumper December. I had clients coming from Egypt and from Israel on a cruise. I had work for a company in Cape Town for its year-end function which involved a tour and its overseas team joining. Needless to say, within about a day and a half, everything was cancelled and the end-of-year function was postponed until next year. It felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. And then, of course, the knock-on effect was felt across the whole industry.”

Moving forward, “I’m seeing a trickle of new enquiries coming in so I’m cautiously optimistic that more work will come, and I will prevail,” she says.

For Theatre on the Square owner Daphne Kuhn, the curveball is just one more challenge in the pandemic rollercoaster ride of those in the live entertainment industry. After a tough 20 months, “We finally opened about six weeks ago,” she says. “There was no ‘grand opening’, and respecting the virus protocols, we’ve had to let out and rent the theatre for film shoots and other small functions. We had a number of concerts and we were often packed with people filling the 50% capacity, all of whom had to be vaccinated. This ‘soft opening’ also allowed for a number of our classical and jazz concerts, but these, sadly, were curtailed over the past few days. We cancelled the last three classical concerts this week as it wasn’t safe to hold gatherings, and some of the artists were ill.

“We lost out on our marketing costs, publicity, printed programmes, as well as technical salaries of our employees, as there could be no income derived from ticket sales. The musicians lost their fees, as all income normally goes directly to the artists for our concerts where we promote musicians.”

There have been a few saving graces. “The two big student showcases that were cancelled have been postponed for the New Year, so we didn’t lose their fee, as they hired the theatre in this case,” says Kuhn. “It had an impact on our technical employees, whose fees I had to pay. Thankfully, everything has been postponed and rescheduled for the New Year when we hope it will be safer to open again. We have rent relief at the moment until the New Year, but utilities and all regular running costs continue – with no income! The only consolation is that nowadays, we normally close the theatre for three weeks over the festive season as Johannesburg becomes very quiet.”

A number of concerts have been rescheduled from late January, and play productions have been scheduled from February 2022, if all is well,” she says. “We remain positive and absolutely determined that in the second quarter of 2022, we will reopen formally with a series of intriguing stage productions that will entice audiences and get them back to savour the joy of live entertainment.”

For DJ and performer Danielle Bitton, December 2021 was the summer season she had been waiting for. Along with the impact of the pandemic on the entertainment industry, she has spent the past two years battling and recovering from breast cancer. But she was finally going to be back behind the mic and the decks, where she belonged. That is, until the new variant took away those hopes.

“To say the past two years have been tough for us artists would be an understatement. Just when we thought there might be some semblance of normality and a December summer season, who decides to show up? Mr Omicron, making a grand entrance riding in on the fourth wave!” she quips.

“Since the announcement of this variant, some of my gigs have been cancelled as people are afraid of being out again. It’s not just musicians who are suffering – the film industry is too. I was fortunate enough to book a commercial just before the announcement of the new variant, but friends who had international jobs lined up have all had them cancelled. This is a huge loss for the entertainment industry.”

Ever the optimist, Bitton says the new variant won’t get her down – physically or literally. “I recently took Mr Omicron home with me from an outdoor party, even though I’m double vaxxed with Pfizer. Was the hype worth it? Not really. I had a postnasal drip and a cough. I felt like I had a cold for two days, and then I felt fine. My only hope is that we don’t get more restrictions. Us artists need this season to survive next year! I pray with this new milder variant that COVID-19 is on its way out!”

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East London rabbi fails in bid against Beth Din

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The dispute between Rabbi Chanoch Galperin and the East London Hebrew Congregation (ELHC) that has kept this coastal community in limbo since 2018 continues to have a negative impact on it and on the authority of the Beth Din.

The rabbi was accused of forging the will of a community member, and was fired by the ELHC after a disciplinary hearing which found him guilty of more than 10 counts of misconduct.

He then went to the Beth Din, asking it to adjudicate on the fact that he had been fired. But, because of possible irregularities at a previous hearing at the Beth Din regarding the disputed will, the ELHC refused to submit itself to another hearing.

The Beth Din ruled that it couldn’t adjudicate the labour dispute without both parties consenting to its jurisdiction. Galperin refused to accept this, and in June 2021, he brought an application before the Eastern Cape Division of the High Court to review and set aside the decision made by the Beth Din.

On 18 January 2022, the High Court handed down its judgment, finding that the rabbi’s application to review and set aside the Beth Din’s decision had no merit, and accordingly dismissed it. The rabbi was ordered to pay the legal costs of the ELHC, which had opposed the application.

The story started when the East London Chevrah Kadisha (ELCK) accused Rabbi Galperin of forging the will of an East London community member, the late Israel Bayer, in order to benefit from it. The ELCK was originally a beneficiary, but this was changed to the rabbi in a will that is also being disputed in court.

The rabbi has since admitted that his wife drew up the disputed will, which would automatically disqualify him from benefitting from it. Notwithstanding the disqualification, Galperin is asking for an order that the court declare him competent to receive the benefit in terms of the disputed will.

The Beth Din didn’t oppose the rabbi’s application against it, but the ELHC decided to do so. It contended, inter alia, that the rabbi was obliged, in terms of Jewish law, to accept the decision of the Beth Din.

The Beth Din granted its permission (known as a heter arkaos) for the rabbi to take his case to the secular courts. But the rabbi refused to abide by the decision, contending, inter alia, that the Beth Din had failed to “apply their minds” to the matter. He said its decision wasn’t properly or correctly taken and was fatally flawed.

The judgment highlighted the fact that both parties to a dispute have to agree voluntarily to submit matters to the Beth Din, and then the decision of the Beth Din will be final and binding.

The High Court, therefore, found that there was no basis for the court to interfere with the decision of the Beth Din, whose decision had been made in accordance with Jewish law.

The advocate acting on behalf of the ELHC, Stanley Pincus, commented that the judgment was important in that it upheld the principle that in accordance with Jewish law, the Beth Din wasn’t entitled to determine disputes between parties where one of the parties didn’t agree to submit themselves to its jurisdiction.

More importantly, the Beth Din granting the rabbi its blessing to proceed to the secular courts actually obliged the rabbi, in accordance with Jewish law, to accept the decision of the Beth Din.

In this regard, the judge stated, “the applicant [Rabbi Galperin] in accordance with Jewish law is bound to accept the decision of the Beth Din” and further stated “the applicant hasn’t committed any sin or acted contrary to his religious beliefs as he has the blessing of the Beth Din to approach secular courts”.

As for the Beth Din’s thoughts on the matter, “We believe that the judgment of the High Court has vindicated and endorsed the position of the Beth Din,” said Steven Weinberg of Moss Cohen & Partners, representing the Beth Din.

“The judgment is respectful of the Beth Din and Jewish law,” he said. “It has confirmed that the Beth Din is entitled to decline to hear disputes if either of the parties don’t consent to its jurisdiction. The judgment has further confirmed the Beth Din’s authority to grant permission to a claimant to pursue a claim in the secular courts if the respondent refuses to submit to the Beth Din’s jurisdiction.

“The Beth Din is hopeful and confident that other communities will respect the authority of the Beth Din,” he said. “The Beth Din doesn’t foresee that this judgment will have an impact on future community disputes being referred to the Beth Din in accordance with Jewish law.”

Finally, “the Beth Din has again urged both the East London Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi Galperin to withdraw all of the High Court litigation and finalise their disputes in accordance with Jewish law by way of a private arbitration under the authority of the Beth Din,” Weinberg said.

But Rabbi Galperin plans to appeal the judgment. “Our client is convinced that the judgment is incorrect, and we have received instructions to file a notice of leave to appeal,” said Brin Brody of Wheeldon, Rushmere & Cole, representing the rabbi. “If the judgment is correct, which is not conceded, then it means that any member of the Jewish faith can simply ignore a dispute before the Beth Din. This can never be the case in accordance with halacha and Jewish law.”

The ELHC and ELCK have said they will submit themselves to Beth Din adjudication on all matters regarding the rabbi as long as there are trained legal professionals present. However, according to Pincus, the rabbi has refused this request.

Meanwhile, the ELHC has brought an application before the East London Circuit Local Division of the High Court to evict Rabbi Galperin and his wife from the community property, which he refuses to vacate. The application has being set down for argument on 10 February 2022.

A community member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they remained in limbo as the rabbi was refusing to vacate the accommodation needed for a new rabbi. “Nothing is happening. There’s no one to do services. We cannot bring anyone down easily as he is in our [community] house. It’s a real, never-ending nightmare.”

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Judge slams censure of Mogoeng’s pro-Israel views

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A trailblazing judge has emerged as a lone voice defending former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s support of Israel.

As one of three judges who reviewed his appeal, Judge Margaret Victor said, “muzzling judges is a slippery path that leads away from, not towards, democracy, and it leads in a direction from which there may be no road back.”

Victor said she would have upheld Mogoeng’s appeal in its entirety, but was outvoted by her fellow judges on the Judicial Conduct Appeals Committee. All three judges, however, decided to amend the original sanction as they all found issues with the original judgment. Mogoeng still needs to apologise for his comments supporting Israel in a 2020 webinar. However, this apology has been “severely curtailed”, says Chelsea Ramsden, senior legal researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.

Victor called out the double standards within her fellow judges’ arguments and those of the organisations that took Mogoeng to court. “As I read the comments made by Mogoeng in the context in which they must be read, I cannot see that the plea for peace and love for Jews and Israel and the love for Palestinians and Palestine, and any other utterances made in that context, can be construed in such a way as to undermine the dignity of his judicial office. Clearly, Mogoeng was expressing concern for love and peace globally, locally, and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that he was entitled to do.”

She emphasised that “South Africa is a vibrant democracy and is still growing. Mogoeng asserts that judges, as citizens with fundamental rights and freedoms, shouldn’t be ‘censored, gagged or muzzled’. In my view, this is correct, for if we muzzle and gag a judge, justice, or chief justice from speaking out about world peace and stating on a public platform that nations shouldn’t hate each other, then we are dispiriting democracy instead of deepening it.”

According to Victor, “South African democracy has been hard-won, and Mogoeng’s emulation of the model adopted by President Nelson Mandela to be a mediator and game-changer is no random choice. The lifeblood of his comments was the successful Mendelian model of peace-making coupled with his deeply held convictions based on his Christian faith.

“This combination isn’t sufficient to demonstrate that Mogoeng became involved in a political controversy.

“Ultimately, ours is a nation that believes in the public exchange of ideas and open debate. Whilst I agree that judges and officers of the judiciary, by virtue of the sacrosanct positions that they occupy, are called upon to exercise caution and restraint in expressing their constitutional rights, these are still rights that are extended to them,” wrote Victor.

She said the chief justice’s comments were “no different from saying that the internal wars in Ethiopia and Afghanistan should come to an end by mediated peace solutions. A plea for peace is not itself political.”

To suggest that Mogoeng entered a “political dispute” sets a dangerous precedent, Victor said. “To find that a judge calling for peace among nations, and in particular between Israel and Palestine, has entered the realm of ‘judicial politicking’ leaves one wondering whether judges can comment at all or ever on peaceful solutions to global conflict.

“Judges in South Africa have over time, expressed extra-judicial thoughts and input and these leave behind a legacy of rich thought and wisdom. Our democracy should encourage this, not merely tolerate it – particularly [not tolerate it] from some whilst not from others.

“There was a time in our jurisprudence when judges had to remain silent,” Victor said. “With the arrival of the constitutional era, this changed. Even prior to it, judges have spoken out against immoral laws such as apartheid.”

To her, “Judicial officers, as guardians of civil liberties and freedom, aren’t barred from engaging in extra-judicial activities in which they speak out. Indeed, they have a duty to speak out when these rights are violated because, in doing so, they preserve the integrity of the bench. Judges frequently speak out on topics such as gender-based violence, sexual orientation, poverty, homelessness, and other socio-economic issues. They do so through their judgments and often in public addresses. If this is to be construed as political interference, political controversy, or a transgression of the separation of powers, then the limitations placed on a judge would be extreme and draconian indeed.”

Local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Milton Shain, has written extensively about the double standards applied to this case. “If Mogoeng had ventured a political comment on the Myanmar or Ukrainian/Russian conflict, it would have been met with silence,” he says. “We have seen judge after judge entering the political field in the past. Judge Desai, for example, has spoken up on behalf of the Palestinians without so much as a peep from those who challenged Mogoeng. When one country is regularly singled out, and when that country is the only Jewish state, this is antisemitism in effect if not in intent.”

“The Helen Suzman Foundation is of the view that the minority decision [Victor’s] was persuasive in that it considered the comments made by former Chief Justice Mogoeng in their whole context,” Ramsden said. “Silencing a judge may lead to a situation where our democracy isn’t enhanced but actually degraded.”

She said the only other legal option open to Mogoeng at this stage would be to review the decision. “A review isn’t an appeal, and he would have to motivate why the decision reached by the majority was irregular and irrational. If he feels strongly enough, he would most likely use every option available to vindicate himself.”

Asked about its impact on the case against retired Judge Siraj Desai, she said, “The complaints against Judge Desai are distinctly similar. Both are accused of having breached the code by engaging in political controversy. The Judicial Conduct Appeal Committee’s decision in respect of former Chief Justice Mogoeng will likely be extremely persuasive in any deliberations in respect of Judge Desai.”

South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) National Chairperson Rowan Polovin said, “The SAZF is dismayed at the ruling against former Chief Justice Mogoeng which effectively censures comments made in the public discourse that are deemed to be pro-Israel. This is an attempt to silence any public figure in South Africa who expresses ‘balance’ or support for Israel by making him or her out to be a pariah.

“The former chief justice’s comments weren’t in themselves politically controversial, but were made so by the antisemitic BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement. The consequences of this ruling may have a chilling effect on our judiciary and serve to embolden extremist groups wishing to make politically motivated accusations. We welcome the minority opinion from Judge Victor.”

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‘Happy-go-lucky’ twins’ tragic deaths raises questions

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Identical twin brothers Leonard and Jason Rom – inseparable in life and death – were laid to rest side by side on Sunday, 16 January, at Westpark Cemetery on a bleak, grey morning attended by a small gathering of mourners.

No one knows exactly what pushed the brothers, aged 44, to take their lives in a dramatic, seemingly macabre, and grisly finale to what must have followed months of anguish, desperation, and despair.

Devoted to each other from birth until their dying minutes, the Rom brothers’ bodies were found on 10 January in their company-branded car in Simon’s Town, about 35km from Cape Town.

The bodies of Jason’s four beloved bulldogs, Hercules, Franky, Gucci, and Coco, were found with them in their small Peugeot. Attached to their car was a trailer containing all their belongings. Both divorced, Leonard leaves behind two young children, a boy and a girl.

His distraught son clutched onto the trolley carrying his father’s coffin for what seemed like forever as the twins’ coffins were wheeled side by side to their final resting place.

According to reports, Simon’s Town police were called to the scene at about 08:30, where they found the brothers with gunshot wounds to their chests. They were declared dead on the scene by paramedics.

Captain Frederick van Wyk told the SA Jewish Report that the circumstances surrounding the deaths are under investigation, and an inquest has been opened.

The Roms’ untimely and sudden deaths have left many reeling in utter disbelief. Those who knew them were aware that the brothers were extremely close and did everything together. They lived together and were in business together as the former owners and partners of 1 Two 1 Cellular, a cellphone repair company in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.

“They couldn’t live without each other. I have never seen a brotherly bond like this,” said their friend, Quentin Neuper, who described them as fun-loving, warm, and friendly.

“They were awesome guys. I adored them. They would go out of their way to help customers, often driving to their homes. Every time I was in the shop, they made me laugh and made my day.”

He said Jason loved his dogs “with his life”. “They were his everything. They both loved animals. We are all trying to make sense of this.”

The brothers apparently didn’t leave a note, but no sooner had news of their passing spread, so too did rumours and wild speculation.

Was it a hit? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Were they on the run? Was it a moment of blind madness fuelled by drugs or alcohol? Were they simply in too deep, above their heads? Or did they fall prey to the endless cycle of depression and anxiety exacerbated by the brutal COVID-19 pandemic?

The twins may have taken the answers to their graves, but they have left behind loved ones hanging on to lasting memories.

Jason’s ex-wife, Monique Cardona, told the SA Jewish Report that she last spoke to Jason about two weeks ago. She kept in regular contact with the brothers, even though she had been divorced from Jason for 10 years.

“I’m shocked, this was totally unexpected. They seemed ok, things were hard, but they weren’t more down than usual,” she said.

“They weren’t just brothers, they were best friends, attached at the hip. They even wore matching clothes sometimes and always had this way of making people smile,” she said fondly. “They came as a package deal, and always ran things by each other.”

She’s aware they had sugar diabetes and heart issues, but they never spoke about depression. She said as far as she knew, they wanted to make a new life for themselves and start over.

Initial reports last week suggested the brothers were tourists in the Mother City, but it has since been established that this wasn’t the case.

There was no summer holiday for the beleaguered twins, who had experienced financial difficulties in recent years to the point of closing their shop and working from home. It’s believed they left Johannesburg a few months ago in the hope of starting a new life after a series of financial blows which left them with few options. Some said they were thinking of starting a food-truck business.

Their company was once successful and thriving with clients far and wide. It was even rumoured they assisted Oprah Winfrey on one of her visits, and the company was once nominated for a 702 small business award.

Things were good for a while, said friends this week. They were known for miles around for providing excellent, personal service. Jason took care of the customers in the front of the shop, while Leonard was the technician.

Having started out in the early 2000s, the company grew steadily. Sadly, the business took a few knocks, and after some time, Jason sold his house in Fairmount, just a few houses from Leonard’s house. It’s believed a series of break ins, some bad luck, and the pandemic finally took their toll. Relationships fell apart, and the close-knit brothers lived together before deciding to try their luck in Cape Town sometime last year.

Customers this week praised the pair for their expertise and professional service, many recalling their jovial, friendly, and good-humoured demeanour.

“This is a story I cannot get my head around,” said Rabbi Shaul Bacher, describing their passing as “a calamity” and a “tragedy of such magnitude”. Speaking at the funeral, he said, “There are no words to give comfort.”

Bacher said it was “hard to believe” that both brothers were in such a bad way that neither could see a way out or persuade the other that they were making a grave mistake.

“I work in drug rehabilitation, I have seen depression, but I have never seen something like this. You can’t make this up,” said Bacher.

Like most, the rabbi is dismayed at the circumstances surrounding their passing. “None of it makes any sense,” he said, urging the urgency of addressing depression and anxiety.

“All of this is hard to fathom, but we need to take something from this that will encourage those in need to reach out and get the help they desperately need. People should also make it their business to become aware of those suffering around them.”

The twins’ half-sister, Beverley Mans, who lives in Israel with their sister, Sharon Slimowitz, said the family was heartbroken and in shock. “We are all devastated beyond words, we can’t believe it,” she said.

“They were such happy-go-lucky boys, we cannot believe what transpired. Whoever you ask is in total shock. They didn’t say much, we know times were tough for them as for everyone else. They wanted to start a new life in Cape Town.”

She said the Rom boys were born in Johannesburg, and made aliyah with their late mother in 1994. They returned to South Africa, where they were first involved in the towing business before starting 1 Two 1 Cellular.

Their loved ones are waiting for the results of the inquest, hoping it will help them to reach closure.

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