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Chev vaccination site injects hope in Joburg’s bleakest month

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July will go down in history as one of the bleakest months ever experienced by the Johannesburg Jewish community, which recorded 113 deaths in one month.

In response to the severity of the impact of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on the community, the Chevrah Kadisha has been on a mission to vaccinate as many members of the community as fast as possible.

According to Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the Chev, over the past 12 months, there has been a 35% increase in the number of deaths compared to the prior 12-month period.

“Sadly, the Johannesburg Jewish community has one of the highest excess death rates in the world,” he said.

Tomson was moved by the community’s pain as well as his family’s own grief following a personal loss to COVID-19 during this month of despair.

The growing sense of mourning propelled him and his organisation to push the Gauteng Health Department into granting the organisation a license to operate a public vaccination site.

“We have seen the tremendous effectiveness of the vaccine on our own elderly residents and staff, and the desperate need to accelerate the rollout of the vaccine for the community at large,” he said this week.

Because of the Chev’s aggressive, early push to vaccinate residents and staff, its residential facilities have virtually been fully protected during the third wave, Tomson said.

“There have been very few hospitalisations and almost no deaths. In the context of July, in which we recorded the highest number of deaths in the community’s recent history, our residential facilities have been largely spared.”

This was remarkable, he said, given the age and frailty of residents, which has been documented as the major determinant of the severity of disease and hospital admission.

“It shows the power of the vaccine in preventing spread and severe illness,” he said.

Tomson’s personal tragedy affected him acutely. His late father-in-law, Alec Levy, 70, passed away from COVID-19 in June. Levy was well known and respected in the community. He was a highly regarded financial advisor and a trustee of the Rambam Charitable Trust, with a strong communal leaning.

This, along with the rising COVID-19 death rate in the community and the resultant economic suffering experienced by those affected, was “very painful”, he said.

“There was too much suffering and sadness. Something needed to be done,” said Tomson.

Two of the Chev’s senior managers called an urgent meeting with key role players at the health department. “They were passionate, professional, and frankly, wouldn’t take no for an answer,” he said. A week later, their vaccination site was up and running.

“During July, we really saw the worst of this pandemic. It motivated us to become involved in getting the whole community and everyone associated with the community, including communal organisations, other nongovernmental organisations, domestic workers, staff at kosher restaurants, schools, and shuls vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Tomson.

The Chevrah Kadisha vaccination site in Sandringham has been operating for nearly two weeks. It has already administered thousands of vaccines.

It has been responsible for creating about 20 much-needed jobs for members of the community including several retired pharmacists who help to prepare vaccines on site, as well as several other administrative personnel.

The site and its staff have been praised by all those who have visited for operating in a streamlined, professional, and speedy manner.

Tamar Dakes, who got vaccinated at the Chev, said, “Thank you to everyone at the Chev. I was vaccinated in eight minutes, checked in and out. Was a pleasure to be supported by so much care and love for our people, for all people.”

“Many thanks and much appreciation for what you do. I took my long time helper and friend in for her COVID-19 vax this morning at the Chev – Sandringham. Having made her an appointment, Diana was treated as a priority. All the info needed is given on the printed online questionnaire to save time, which it did! We arrived at 09:20, and she was able to leave at 09:40. A truly professional service to the community. I’m so proud to be Jewish,” said another grateful community member.

“Earlier this year, the health department was impressed by how we managed to vaccinate all our elderly residents on site with their first Pfizer jab. Our protocols and things like our onsite pharmacy, medical staff, and parking satisfied the department’s requirements. We were the first aged home in Gauteng to vaccinate our residents, and we continued to push relentlessly for the second jab,” said Lijahne Beetge, the group’s care manager.

All staff members received the Johnson & Johnson vaccination during the Sisonke trial at Helen Joseph Hospital.

In May, every single Chevrah Kadisha resident over 60, as well as most of Johannesburg’s Holocaust survivors, were vaccinated.

Residents were scheduled to get the second dose only in mid-July, “but our team phoned the health department every day, and were relentless. We got our entire allocation exactly 42 days after the first dose [the minimum time in terms of government policy], and our team immediately got to work. They went room to room, vaccinating virtually every resident.

“We see this as life-saving work and as an extension of our communal responsibility. It’s a way to give back to our wonderful community and the broader community,” Tomson said.

Members of the public need to book a date and time to visit the site. There are no walk-ins. It’s open Sunday to Friday for all who are EVDS (Electronic Vaccination Data System) registered. There is no charge or medical aid necessary, and everyone is welcome, Tomson said.

“In spite of these tragic fatalities, the vaccine is clearly having a positive effect. We are grateful to be a part of it,” Tomson said. “Our goal is to try as best as we can to prevent more unnecessary deaths.”

Hatzolah on mass vaccination drive

Hatzolah launched its COVID-19 vaccination site last Wednesday, 28 July, and has vaccinated close to 1 600 people to date.

“We are averaging about 300 vaccinations a day,” said Darren Kahn, Hatzolah’s executive general manager. “We have an energetic team of volunteers and nurses. For a smooth and quick experience, come to our site, situated above KosherWorld, 1 Long Avenue, Glenhazel.

“It fits in with Hatzolah’s motto of saving lives. The more people are vaccinated in our community and surrounding bubble, the safer our families. We want to see everyone vaccinated, so when we saw the Pikitup guys passing us, we jumped at the opportunity to assist them. It was a brief pause in their job. We took them upstairs, and within 20 minutes, they were back on route,” he said.

The site is open Sunday to Thursday, 08:00 to 16:00, and Friday 08:00 to 14:00. It’s closed on Shabbat and public holidays. Call 072 605 7511 or register on https://www.hatzolahvaccines.co.za/

The organisation has also launched Hatzolah Vaccinates on the Move for those who are unable to leave their homes to get a COVID-19 vaccine. If you are eligible, register on https://linktr.ee/vaccinationdrive.

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Big names, big conference, big hope for recovery

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We can’t talk about South Africa’s recovery without talking about Eskom, we can’t talk about Eskom without talking about the government, and we can’t talk about the government without talking about the judiciary.

This was the notion award-winning broadcast journalist Cathy Mohlahlana used to start the panel discussion during the 2021 South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Conference last Sunday, 17 October.

Mohlahlana moderated the discussion between Eskom Chief Executive Andre de Ruyter, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, and advocate Wim Trengove on the paths of hope and recovery in their respective fields.

De Ruyter painted a grim picture of the national electricity provider. “Eskom is a technically insolvent business that’s failing its customers on a more or less frequent basis with this phenomenon called load shedding, with capacity shortages beset by the legacy of corruption, and with old, unreliable plants. It’s difficult to spin a story of hope from that set of facts,” he said.

De Ruyter is encouraged by the fact that South Africa is endowed with some of the best wind and solar acreage in the world. “Our worst wind and solar acreage in South Africa is significantly better than the best in Germany. If the Germans can make the transition to renewable energy and invest in wind and solar, surely so can we.”

Mohlahlana asked De Ruyter if Eskom could provide load shedding timetables so South Africans could start making plans for the upcoming municipal elections and December holidays.

“The Eskom system has a way of keeping me humble,” he responded. “As soon as I make a forecast, I’m proven wrong.”

Eskom’s system is old and has endured a hard life, been poorly maintained and, in some instances, suffered abuse by being run much harder than the international norm,” De Ruyter said.

“Therefore, our proposed solution isn’t to try and fix this old car,” he said. “Our proposal is to ensure that there is a transition in our generation technologies.”

He expressed concern about a recent report that identified South Africa as having double the global average carbon emissions and being the largest emitter of sulphur oxides in the world.

Godongwana is concerned about the state not knowing the results of its own actions. “It’s all very well saying that they have given so many injections for children, but what we want to know is the mortality rate. Checking outcomes is the key thing we want to do now. Has the money spent achieved the desired outcome?”

During the pandemic, the state allocated R500 billion to set up recovery programmes that would help to cushion certain sectors of the economy against the impact of COVID-19. According to the Institute of Social Justice, only about R134 billion of that has been spent.

“Most of that money is in parliament and in publicly legally appropriated forms of adjustments. So, if it wasn’t legally appropriated forms of adjustments, it will be easy to say that it doesn’t exist.”

The lesson Godongwana takes from COVID-19 is that people and businesses in South Africa worked together without a single document being signed on how to work together. “That in itself shows that there is positive commitment among South Africans. The key question for us is how we channel that positive commitment in the right direction.”

Another positive, according to Trengove, is how the Constitution and the rule of law have evolved in this country.

A couple of decades ago, many parts of the population were sceptical or hostile to the Constitution. They regarded it as a foreign, liberal import unwelcome in Africa, according to Trengove. “I know that sentiment is still around, but the Constitution has been far more firmly entrenched and accepted by all South Africans over the past two decades,” he said.

As for the rule of law, the government launched what Trengove described as “a concerted attack on the judiciary” 10 years ago. It did this by announcing a review of the impact that the judgements of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeal had on the transformation of society.

Trengove recounted how senior political party officials and ministers went around making comments like, “When people go to the Constitutional Court, it’s merely to undo the government’s transformation of society.”

These weren’t just lone voices. “They were officially backed up by the government’s attack,” said Trengove. “But that attack failed, and in the past decade – the decade of state capture – the courts have prospered. The judges have asserted themselves, the rule of law, and the supremacy of the Constitution.”

However, the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) has failed South Africa in exercising discipline and in appointing judges, said Trengove.

“We have always had a range of judges, ranging from hopeless to brilliant, and that’s so in every society. But it’s important that we maintain a core of smart judges who are confident and capable. Frankly, the JSC hasn’t consistently given us those judges.

“It has, for instance, failed to appoint brilliant people – such as Jeremy Gauntlett, David Unterhalter, and Geoff Budlender. There is absolutely no rational explanation for the failure to appoint people of that kind. And it’s not an issue of racism. They have appointed many other white male judges.”

To Trengove’s mind, the lack of brilliant judges can be explained by “a resistance to intellectualism” and the identification of strong lawyers as “potential troublemakers”.

In spite of the gloom, people should stay in South Africa, Trengove said, because the rule of law is alive and well. Godongwana predicts that tackling crime is eventually going to be government’s top priority, and De Ruyter said there shouldn’t be load shedding over December as the “little lights” on Christmas trees consume very little electricity.

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Declining immunity points to need for booster shot

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Booster jabs may well become essential as it appears that antibodies to COVID-19 decline significantly six months after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

That’s according to a recent study by the Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital, rated by Newsweek as one of the top-10 hospitals in the world for the third year running.

Published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on 7 October 2021, the study was conducted on 5 000 of Sheba’s medical workers comprised of different populations including immunocompromised individuals who were monitored with weekly serological testing.

The findings clearly illustrate a waning response to the vaccine, with neutralising antibodies decreasing sharply in the first three months following the second dose of the vaccine, and significantly abating afterwards.

“This study tends to support the view that durable protection decreases sometime after vaccination, especially after six months,” says Professor Barry Schoub, who chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines.

Schoub, also professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, points out that Sheba’s study and the observations of increasing post-vaccination “breakthroughs” aren’t definitive evidence of waning immunity after six months.

“These observations may be a reflection of the prioritisation of higher-risk individuals, such as the elderly, in the earlier stages of the vaccination programme, as, for example, in Israel. It’s important to note that the precise correlates of immune protection are still being studied and haven’t yet been definitively established. Neutralising antibodies may well be one of these components.

“However, other elements of the immune system certainly also play an important role in immune protection, such as cell-mediated immunity and non-neutralising antibodies, and these are considerably more durable than neutralising antibodies.

“Studies in South Africa and the United States have demonstrated the persistence of these components of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 well past nine months following vaccination. Nevertheless, as an added precaution in certain vulnerable situations, such as people who are immune-suppressed or are in high-risk exposure situations such as healthcare workers, it may be appropriate to administer a booster dose of vaccine.”

As of 7 October, United States President Joe Biden is one of the about 6.4 million people who have received a booster shot in America, according to an NBC News analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Meanwhile, England and several European Union member-states have already launched their own booster campaigns, and, from 11 October in Australia, severely immunocompromised individuals could get COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Interestingly, Israel is believed to be the first country to make a valid vaccination passport conditional on having received a booster shot. On 26 September, it introduced new rules for determining coronavirus vaccination status, making a booster shot a requirement for full inoculation and vaccination passports.

Another Sheba study was one of the main determining factors in Israel’s decision to administer a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It showed an increase in COVID-19 morbidity as time elapsed from vaccination.

“These study results have great significance, especially for countries that haven’t yet administered a booster dose or for countries where six months have already passed since its citizens received the second dose,” Professor Gili Regev-Yochay, the director of the infectious diseases unit at Sheba, told the media. “We anticipate that these findings will be a significant part of decisions on vaccination protocol in the future.”

Schoub says that the following two issues are still under discussion: when the booster will become available in South Africa; and what other vaccines besides Pfizer will need a booster.

With other research coming out of Israel, the Jerusalem Post has noted, “If COVID-19 doesn‘t make you sick, diet soda might.”

According to Ben-Gurion University scientists, new research has found that certain artificial sweeteners can cause previously healthy gut bacteria to become diseased, leading to discomfort and digestive issues.

Ariel Kushmaro, a researcher from the university, noted that there’s little accurate labelling of artificial sweeteners on products, making it difficult to know how much each product contains.

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Blue plaque recognises Muizenberg Jewish community’s heritage

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Muizenberg holds a special place in the hearts and memories of many South African Jews, and its Jewish community has now been recognised for its historic significance in the area with a prestigious blue plaque.

The plaque was unveiled at a small ceremony at the beginning of September.

Blue plaques are commemorative signs placed on buildings and in locations of significance. The Muizenberg synagogue on Camp Road was one of two buildings in the area, as designated by the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society, to receive blue-plaque status.

“I was contacted by Glenn Babb, the head of the Muizenberg Historical Society. It wanted to honour the Muizenberg Jewish community for its service and influence in Muizenberg over many decades, and thought it appropriate to put a plaque at the shul,” says Muizenberg Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Ryan Newfield.

Chris Taylor, the chairperson of the Muizenberg Historical Society, told the SA Jewish Report that the plaque was to commemorate the Jewish community’s integral role in Muizenberg history, rather than the shul building itself.

“For a couple of years, we’ve had a low-key project to erect blue plaques on buildings of historical significance or to commemorate people,” he says. “For example, Agatha Christie learned to surf in Muizenberg, so we have one for her. A great deal of the history of Muizenberg was driven by the Jewish community. At its peak, there were about 600 families living there, mainly from Lithuania. Although there has been an exodus of Jews from Muizenberg since the 1960s, they left behind a great deal of history. This blue plaque is to commemorate that past. The shul is and was the heart of the community, which is why we felt the plaque should go there.”

He notes that there are still a small number of Jews who live in Muizenberg or who come on holiday, mainly from Johannesburg. He finds it interesting that the builder of the synagogue was Charles McCarthy. Taylor dug into his history, and found that he was “an Irish Catholic Cockney, who converted to Judaism for the woman he loved before coming to South Africa from London. So, he was an Irish Catholic Cockney Jew.”

According to the book Muizenberg: the Story of the Shtetl by the Sea by Hedy Davis, the woman McCarthy fell in love with and married was Fanny Schindler. They settled in Kalk Bay, and McCarthy never accepted payment for his work on the synagogue. He served on the shul committee, and was a loyal member of the Muizenberg Hebrew Congregation until his death. He and his wife are buried in the Muizenberg Cemetery. Their story is just one of many that made up the thriving, dynamic Muizenberg Jewish community in its heyday.

Newfield says he was asked what they wanted to be written on the plaque. “I left the words to some of the oldest and most involved members of our community. They chose to keep it simple, and give its full name – the Muizenberg and Kalk Bay Hebrew Congregation – and the date of establishment. The date itself was subject to dispute, but the earliest was 1916, the first step in setting up a Talmud Torah. We went with that date, as everyone who was involved in setting up the Jewish infrastructure of Muizenberg should be honoured.”

The keynote speaker at the ceremony was Democratic Alliance federal council chair Helen Zille, who spoke about “various Jewish people who changed Muizenberg forever, like Gerald Musikanth and Mendel Kaplan, who helped to build the boardwalk to Kalk Bay, as well as many others”, says the rabbi.

“I commended the society for remembering history as the Jewish people so often remember their history, and it seems the Torah promotes looking back at the past to understand who we are in the present,” he says. “I also mentioned that in a world of numbers, where everyone is focused on COVID-19 numbers, vaccination numbers, etcetera, the Jewish people have defied numbers. The Muizenberg Jewish community is no different. Somehow, a little corner of Africa was built and largely influenced by a few hundred Jewish families that would forever change this part of the world.”

“The event itself was delightful, and Helen Zille asked to be invited to our century anniversary of the current shul building in 2024,” he says. “It was a bad week of weather, but somehow the sun came out for the event, and Glenn Babb joked to me that G-d answered my prayers.”

Ward councillor of the Cape’s Ward 64, Aimee Kuhl, told the SA Jewish Report, “I’m always enthusiastic about anything that celebrates history in my ward because I believe that only once we remember where we come from do we know where we’re going.” She made the time to attend the blue plaque unveiling ceremony at the shul, and says, “We cherish the Jewish rich cultural history that we have in Muizenberg. As ward councillor, I’m very aware of that history.”

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