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Community fights fire on all fronts

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Jews across the Mother City watched in horror as an unseasonably hot Sunday, 18 April 2021, turned into an apocalypse. What started as a small fire on the slopes of Table Mountain quickly became a raging inferno lasting three days.

The flames engulfed the Rhodes Memorial Restaurant, a University of Cape Town (UCT) library, and other university buildings and heritage sites, before moving towards the City Bowl. As fire, smoke, ash, and wind wreaked havoc, many members of the community bore the brunt of the destruction.

Chabad on Campus Rabbi Nissen Goldman put duty first as the fire threatened his home, workplace, and a precious Torah scroll housed in the Isaac & Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT.

“I live about 600m from upper campus. We were out for the morning when someone sent a photo of the fire right outside Chabad House [Goldman’s home]. Our neighbour’s roof caught on fire, and other houses nearby burnt to the ground.” Miraculously, his home remained intact.

Goldman managed to procure an emergency vehicle to take him to the Kaplan Centre. “Thank G-d I had a key to the centre as well its beit midrash. We went through three blockades to get there. We had no clue if it was safe, we just went. It’s miraculous how the Kaplan Centre was untouched, as it’s on top of campus. It was full of smoke, but we managed to get the Torah out. It was really exhilarating – you had a feeling like you’re just ‘plugged in’, and you know you’re not running on your own power. You know you’re on a much bigger mission.”

Goldman also helped evacuated Jewish students find places to stay. Bram Freedman is from Vereeniging and lives at Kopano Residence. “At the first note of the severity of the fire, our warden acted quickly and made the call to evacuate,” he says. “We had about 10 minutes to pack essentials. I took my tefillin. People started contacting me, saying I could stay with them for as long as I needed. I decided to stay with my Muslim friend, even though I had received offers from about 30 Jewish families. This is because this particular friend was adamant in helping me out. He picked me up and welcomed me into his home. The whole family is so friendly and accommodating.”

Daniel Cohen, originally from Durban, is in his first year at UCT studying mechanical engineering. “At times like these, I feel very blessed to have such an amazing community,” he says. “Yesterday [Sunday], the smoke started spreading and they told me to grab anything valuable. Being in a rush, I grabbed only my laptop. From what I’ve gathered, my res hasn’t been damaged too badly, although there were videos of fire outside it. UCT is being very strict about letting people onto campus, so we haven’t been able to fetch our stuff.” Both students are grateful to Goldman and the community for their support.

On the other side of campus, the JW Jagger Library caught fire – home to a number of prominent archival collections. “The destruction is immeasurable,” says devastated library manager Michal Singer. “We adopted a policy of compassion in tackling research requests during lockdown. Today [Sunday], we saw that kindness directed back at us. While there were fire doors preventing the spread of the fire, the impact of the water damage isn’t to be underestimated. We will be undertaking emergency conservation efforts.”

Consultant Shelagh Gastrow, who drove fundraising for the modernisation of UCT libraries in the 1990s, says, “During our history, we as Jews have lived with the image of books burning. And although this wasn’t intentional, I think the horror is deeply ingrained – that burnt books are irretrievable. It’s a good time to realise what treasures we have in this country.”

Kaplan Centre director Adam Mendelsohn says, “It was surreal watching the fire grow”, as he lives a few kilometres from campus. “Archival collections are irreplaceable. This is our heritage that has been so carefully preserved for many years.” He says most of the Kaplan Centre archive is at the centre and is therefore safe, but “some Jewish-related material was stored at the Jagger Library, and we are uncertain of its condition”.

Analyst Nadine Shenker, who lives in University Estate not far from where the fire began, describes her experience. “On Monday, we woke up with tight chests – the fire was metres away. I kept running to see if it had jumped the highway, in between hosing down the roof and the trees in our garden. My neighbours were packing their cars. At that moment, I realised that the only thing that was really important was life. The air quality was worse and visibility was bad. We got a voice note to evacuate, and the sirens started blasting. We hurried to my dad’s flat in Sea Point. We came back to an untouched home and a fire truck stationed at the top of the road. The embers on the mountain looked like a Christmas tree. I felt relief and gratitude.”

As the fire spread to the City Bowl, residents picked up and ran. Vet Reena Cotton, whose home backs onto the mountain, says, “When it was apparent the fire was coming our way, we packed the cats, birds, and dogs in the car to get them to a safe place. They were all extremely traumatised. We phoned our children to ask if there was anything they wanted us to take, and packed those items, as well as a change of clothing and a few precious things.

“When you know the fire is coming, you can’t relax. I went out every hour to watch first the smoke, then the flames grow and get closer,” she says. “At 04:00, we were told to evacuate, so we went to where our dogs were and walked them on the Sea Point promenade at 05:00. We spent another sleepless night at friends.” Their home was saved but “the damage to the vegetation and wildlife is devastating. The community spirit and generosity of strangers is magnificent.”

Architect Roxanne Kaye says, “Living right on the mountain means we have had to evacuate before, but this was by far the worst. On Monday morning at 04:00, our doorbell rang with panicked instructions to leave. We grabbed passports and documents, but before we could pack more, we were told we had to go. When we got to my sister, we could see the fire skimming the back of our road.” Their house and other homes were saved, “but it was a close call”.

Charly’s Bakery owner Jacqui Biess co-ordinated volunteer efforts in Vredehoek. “It was absolute insanity. Residents described flames behind their houses as metres high. We had to get fire engines to different places, and phone people to evacuate. This morning [Tuesday] I woke up, heard the helicopters, and just burst into tears, because I knew it was going to be okay.”

Four United Herzlia Schools (UHS) campuses sit in the shadow of the mountain. “As the fire was getting closer, the roads alongside Herzlia Highlands Primary were evacuated,” says UHS education Director Geoff Cohen. “At 06:20 on Monday morning, we made the call to keep the UHS City Bowl campuses closed. There was a huge amount of smoke. In addition, the traffic from getting 1 000 pupils to school would have got in the way of the firefighters. We asked the district commander his advice yesterday afternoon [Monday], and he said the fire was still unpredictable, so we kept the schools closed again on Tuesday.” Amidst all this, “We decided to evacuate the schools’ Torah scrolls. It was an easy decision – they’re a symbol of who we are.”

Photographer and videographer Chad Nathan captured the scene across the city. “I’m fascinated with fire fighters – I see them as real life superheroes,” he says. “It was literally just me on the [closed] highway. At one point, it was very intense – I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see – that’s when I thought I had better get out of there. It was really sad seeing people evacuate their homes. And I saw some people refusing to leave.”

Says Shenker, “I will forever be grateful to the fire-fighting heroes. Let’s hope we can rise from these ashes stronger, more mindful, and more protective of our planet.”

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1 Comment

  1. Ian Schwikkard

    Apr 26, 2021 at 1:54 pm

    Good article

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Young and old on record-breaking aliyah flight

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Families, yeshiva bochurs (students), lone soldiers, and a nonagenarian will be among the 87 new arrivals at Ben Gurion in Israel this week in the largest group of South African olim on one flight since 1994.

“I feel incredibly proud to be a part of this record-breaking aliyah flight. It’s comforting to make aliyah surrounded by so many South African olim who have different expectations and aspirations, but who all share the dream of beginning a new life in Israel,” Eliana Lewus told the SA Jewish Report ahead of the flight on Tuesday, 27 July.

When Jared Glass was three years old, he almost drowned. Thirty-six years later, he will be among this group of new olim. “I feel like I’m being dragged out of the deep and taken to safety again,” says Glass from Johannesburg.

Aliyah is also for the young-at-heart, as Dr Hymie Ehrlich proves. At 91, he’s ready for more adventure (he celebrated his 90th birthday by hang-gliding in his home city of Cape Town). He will join his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His daughter and son-in-law were among the last to land in Israel in January 2021, when the Israeli government closed the airport due to COVID-19.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Ehrlich says, “Everything in life is a step, and this is another step onwards.” He’s sad to be leaving a “beautiful community. I wish everyone b’hatzlacha [good luck] and lehitraot [until we meet again]. See you in Israel!”

His son-in-law, Philip Stodel, says that when planning his own aliyah, “we asked him whether he would consider coming with us, but he was happy to stay. But following the onset of COVID-19, Hymie, who was still active as a medical doctor, was advised to stop working. He also found himself alone at his Shabbat table every week. He started his aliyah process in October 2020. At 91, Hymie’s mind is sharp, but he lacks technical skills. I’ve always been his ‘IT support system’, so I continued to do this remotely [to help him make aliyah].

“One of his biggest tasks was clearing his apartment of just about everything. We know this was very emotional at times. I feel like I’ve done aliyah twice, and I can honestly say that it was far easier the first time! As I sit here on a Friday afternoon, approaching what will be Hymie’s last Shabbat in South Africa, my immediate concern is for the last-minute pressure that I know await us. I will heave a huge sigh of relief once he is on the plane, and a bigger sigh when we see him on Wednesday!”

“The significance of Israel, aliyah, and a home for the Jewish people remains as relevant today as ever,” says recently-appointed Telfed (South African Zionist Federation in Israel) Chairperson Robby Hilkowitz.

“Telfed plays a vital role in facilitating the absorption of new olim,” says Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline. “Our role is to help new olim prepare for life in Israel. Our services centre on this and include guidance in dealing with the first bureaucratic steps; employment counselling; an in-house social worker; rental apartments in Tel Aviv/Ra’anana [depending on availability] at below-market rates; and a volunteer-based scholarship programme. Our regional volunteers welcome new olim to their communities, and are an important source of information for those considering aliyah as they decide where to settle.”

Hilkowitz says all new olim are required to go into quarantine. “For the first time, we will invite new olim to join our daily virtual Tea at Ten with Telfed, which details the important steps for the early stages of their aliyah journey. These webinars don’t just provide practical guidance, they make sure our new arrivals feel connected. We see the positive influence that a strong, connected community plays in a successful absorption. Our ultimate objective is for olim to integrate fully, to contribute to the country, but not forget their roots because being a part of a connected and dynamic community is empowering.”

They will also provide virtual activities for children and welcome packs. And, olim are invited to participate in a virtual musical Kabbalat Shabbat.

Liat Amar Arran, the director of Israel Centre South Africa, says many of the olim are making aliyah ahead of the new school year in Israel. “Like all flights during the pandemic, there have been challenges. For example, we needed to get agreement from Israel that there is enough space in its quarantine hotels to accommodate them. There has been a lot of work in the past two weeks, and our team has worked around the clock. Olim have to fill in many forms just before they leave.” Even with all of this extra administration related to COVID-19, she’s excited that the flight is able to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Lewus, who is 20 years old, is making aliyah from Johannesburg by herself. “I will be doing a year of national service in Israel [as an alternative to the army] before starting to study,” she says.

While it may seem like this group of olim are fleeing the current civil unrest, making aliyah takes time, and they started the process some time ago. “My aliyah process was gradual. I began the process about nine months ago,” Lewus says.

She is motivated by “pull factor” rather than “push factor”. “When I was in Israel on the Ohrsom gap year, I fell in love with the people, landscape, and feeling of unity. I knew I wanted to go back,” says Lewus. “I wanted to be a part of it, to be able to contribute.

“The recent unrest hasn’t influenced my feelings about aliyah,” she says. “I’m under no illusion that the perfect country exists. However, I do hope for a better future for South Africa. I feel so grateful and privileged to have been brought up as a South African Jew. Our community, culture, and upbringing are unique, and have paved the way for me to embark on my journey. I feel supported by family and friends in my decision to make aliyah, and my biggest hope is that they will be able to visit me soon.”

Tammy Wainer is 34, and making aliyah from Johannesburg with family. “The aliyah department has worked really hard to get everyone on this flight,” she says. “As much as I love South Africa and the comfortable life it offers, as a strong Zionist, my soul has always been drawn to Israel and the better life it can offer me socially and economically.”

Sandra (Sandi) Shapiro says “growing up in a very Zionistic home” is one reason she’s making aliyah. “My late father, Jack Shapiro, was the director of the Selwyn Segal home for 35 years. Although he never made aliyah, it was always his dream,” she says.

Their family is slowly starting to make that dream come true. “My son made aliyah in February, and had the privilege of being part of a historic flight with 300 Ethiopian Jews,” Shapiro says.

She’s motivated by push and pull factors. “I have been to Israel many times, and it has always been a lifelong dream to make it my ‘forever home’. After a horrible experience in October last year, I decided that the timing was right, and started my aliyah process. There were quite a few challenges with our government services, and it took a few months to get all my documentation together. The war in Israel also delayed the process – frustrating but understandable.

“If one is deciding to make aliyah, my advice is to have lots of patience and trust the process,” she says. “Eventually, at the end of June this year, I got approval. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks – I was finally going home. I’m filled with pride and so humbled to be a part of another historic flight. Being a part of such a large group is breathtaking. It’s absolutely amazing that so many of us are returning home.”

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Humanity’s best rises after violent unrest

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The KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community has begun emerging from the shock of last week’s chaos, remaining vigilant and expressing gratitude for assistance provided by the wider community. Moreover, they are paying it forward wherever they can to others in need.

Those working in relief operations in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng describe a spirit of ubuntu (humanity towards others) among ordinary South Africans that has sparked practical, powerful change.

”We not only helped ourselves, we helped others, and they in turn helped us. Regardless of religion or ethnicity, there was aid,” said Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council.

The Jewish community in the coastal city was hardest hit by last week’s violence and looting, in which businesses were destroyed, food and fuel supplies were disrupted, and communities felt under threat. Now, they say they are humbled by the chain of support that has encircled them.

Lieberthal said the community continued to “adopt an attitude of constant vigilance”, noting that threatening “fake news” still circulated and patrols in residential areas continued throughout the night.

Government security efforts simply haven’t been sufficient, she said. “In spite of the announcements from the government, the SANDF [South African National Defence Force] isn’t here to protect residential areas or citizens, it’s here to protect national key points. The national and metro police are under-resourced and outnumbered.” As such, while “the community certainly appreciates the efforts of the SAPS [South African Police Service] and Metro Police, the community has taken care of itself”.

Lieberthal said the community was still trying to come to terms with the reality of what had hit it. “It’s very difficult for those who weren’t directly impacted by this crisis to understand what it was like to be in the thick of it. Children and adults alike were terrified. We hope that this nightmare is over. It’s now time to pick up the pieces and try and start again.”

The national leadership of the SAJBD, as well as a number of other communal organisations, corporations, non-profits, small businesses, and private individuals has been fundamental to ensuring the delivery of essential items to the community through protected convoys.

“To date, we have received medication, non-perishable items such as flour, tinned foods, oil, pasta, toiletries and personal hygiene items including adult nappies, sanitary towels, formula, meal replacements, medication, and kosher meat – all of which has been delivered or handed out,” said Lieberthal.

Reverend Gilad Friedman of the Umhlanga Jewish Centre described the individual heroism that underpinned collective efforts. There were those who organised private flights to deliver goods; and a local doctor and a pharmacist, who opening up his pharmacy “mid riot”, worked together to help provide chronic medication. Volunteers brought bakkies and vans to take goods to distribution centres at shuls, and some acted as personal shoppers, moving from store to store to try and get the products needed by the elderly. Some are manning the phones, trying to make contact with every community member on record to check up on their welfare.

More than just providing for basic needs, there is also a sense of spiritual unity, according to Friedman. “Last week, people didn’t know if they were going to have food for Shabbat, and one of the rabbinical families at the shul got flour from all the people that they could find, and made challot for all the families.”

Last Thursday, the centre established a helpline with the tagline, “Do you need help, or do you want to help?”

“Since the message went out until today, I’ve had to charge my phone four times a day,” said Friedman. “There is just an endless stream [of calls], and credit goes to the people on the ground making a difference.”

Rabbi Shlomo Wainer of Chabad in Umhlanga echoes Friedman’s appreciation of support. Along with other Jewish community organisations, he is now helping to co-ordinate assistance to impoverished areas in Inanda and Phoenix, having been in long-term contact with a bishop and pastor in those vicinities.

“We have launched what we called ‘Operation Beyond Relief’ because I don’t believe that relationships are only for now because of the difficulties. This is for the continued relationship of goodness and kindness at all times.”

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the SAJBD, said it was involved in this project as well as numerous other operations to provide food aid across affected areas. “The past weeks have been devastating for our country, and the SAJBD, in addition to assisting and supporting our Jewish community in KwaZulu-Natal, has prioritised the alleviation of hunger that the past unrest has unleashed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”

In collaboration with other foundations in Gauteng, “in the past week, we have supported the distribution of hundreds of food parcels to areas in distress”. These include Eldorado Park, Orange Farm, Kliptown, Vanderbijlpark, as well as Alexandra, and more help is being planned for the East Rand.

On the ground, the Board took part in clean-up operations in Daveyton. “Although it was heart wrenching to see the destruction, it was also incredibly uplifting to be part of the solution. We were so moved by the community in Daveyton, that we intend to return with other ways of supporting the community,” said Kahn.

The SAJBD is also working with The Angel Network in KwaZulu-Natal as it organises truck and air deliveries of essential goods. Glynne Wolman, the founder of The Angel Network, said that within four days, they had managed to collect more than R500 000 in funding, and had already dispatched trucks loaded with 1 800 food parcels, 200kg of nutritionally fortified e’Pap, 14 000kg of mielie meal, and one ton of soya meal to help those left in the direst conditions after the unrest.

“We have seen the worst of people, and now we have the chance to see people at their best. More than anything [in the aftermath], it has been ubuntu in its truest form,” said Wolman.

Jewish humanitarian group Cadena’s director of international alliances, Miriam Kajomovitz, echoed Wolman’s observations. The organisation has been helping in Gauteng in various capacities, be it clean-up operations, organising psychological support, and now planning small-business relief for those whose livelihoods were destroyed: “We are all working together. Everyone is giving of their expertise and what they can for the good of all.

“Crisis is always an opportunity for change,” Kajomovitz observed.

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Days of wreckage and reckoning

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As South Africans face the largest outbreak of unrest and violence in the post-apartheid era, the community of KwaZulu-Natal reels from safety concerns, lost businesses, and looming food and fuel shortages.

In Gauteng, while central community areas haven’t been directly affected, the province remains on tenterhooks as it looks at the longer-term effects on the country as a whole.

“It’s like a war zone. I haven’t slept for two days,” said Michael Ditz, shortly before he began another patrol in his Durban North neighbourhood this week.

Ditz, the co-owner of retail chain Jam Clothing, said that last week, they owned 115 stores with a national footprint. This week, “we are now down to 99, we have lost 16 stores. Some have been burnt to the ground, others just had their goods looted.”

“We still have to assess the full damage, but the tragic irony is the long-term job losses – it will take years to rebuild.”

Ditz said it was too early to process fully the shock of the past few days. “I just feel gutted,” he said.

He said they also faced personal danger. “Our families and our houses are under threat. We are literally guarding our own neighbourhood.”

Yet, he said, unity had been forged in this regard. “We have been working with the Muslim community.” A similar collective effort is also happening in Jewish community member Darren Katzer’s neighbourhood in central Musgrave.

“With the Muslim community, it has been unbelievable. We are working closely together, just protecting each other and doing whatever we can.”

Especially as food shortages become a real possibility, “our neighbourhood block is literally having meals with all of us together, so that we can pool our food, because we don’t know if we are going to run out. That’s the reality.”

The looting has decimated businesses, shops, and factories in the area, and the violence is “on their doorstep”. The equivalent of their proximity to the unrest would be something like the looting of Norwood or Sandton in Johannesburg.

Shops are now shut in the vicinity, and where one might be found open, mass queues are forming. Janyce Bear, who along with her husband, Rod, are shop owners in a mall that was looted in Glenwood, said people were trying to source items like baby formula.

She said her family had looters strolling in their neighbourhood, “coming up our road with their trolleys filled with stolen goods. You feel like you are in another world.”

Both she and her husband were recovering at home from COVID-19 when their mall was attacked, and while they are grateful their store was spared, they are devasted for the other tenants.

It’s a sentiment that Jenny Kahn, who owns a store with her husband in the same mall, shares. She described their fellow tenants as “family”, who have even helped with donations to the Union of Jewish Women outreach activities in which she is involved.

“By the grace of G-d and my prayers to Hashem, for some unknown reason, our shop was spared,” she said. The sole reason they can think of for the sparing of their shop is that while they are a jewellery store, they also sell “fancy goods”. These include menorahs, which were on prominent display in their window.

“The majority of the people that buy the menorahs are Christian church goers.” Perhaps, she muses, this acted as some kind of deterrent.

Hayley Lieberthal, the media spokesperson for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) KwaZulu-Natal Council, said that while they were “aware that there has been loss of business and livelihoods within the community”, exact numbers couldn’t be given at this time.

“At present, there are extremely long queues for petrol and food. Supermarkets that are able to open are limiting the items being bought. The SAJBD KwaZulu-Natal and Community Security Organisation (CSO) are hard at work to resolve these two matters.”

“Although tension is running high here, we have an incredible community that has always come together and once again, this is no exception,” Lieberthal said.

The Johannesburg CSO’s director of operations, Jevon Greenblatt, said that while the picture in that province was different to that on the ground in KwaZulu-Natal, people should be careful while also curbing panic and hysteria. Inaccurate posts on social media, for example, could lead to police and security companies being called out unnecessarily, preventing them from attending scenes where they are truly needed.

“Remain cautious and close to home,” he urged.

Amidst the turmoil and horror of the past week, stories also began to emerge of communities fighting back against looters. Property developer Steven Herring, under whose company Tembisa’s Birch Acres was built, witnessed this when his mall was threatened and people from the neighbourhood stood up to the looters.

“It’s amazing to see. When we’re on the edge, it’s unique that people are standing up, stepping up, and showing support. It’s heartwarming to see that at the end of the day, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Yet, he said, this kind of community support was forged right from the start. “When we built the mall 10 years ago, we were hands on with the community every step of the way. On the property, not only is there the mall, there’s a taxi rank, a vicinity for hawkers, a centre-managers office, a car wash, and even shops that are especially allocated to elevate people from being hawkers to shop owners. It’s an all-inclusive process that has been going on for a very long time, and we keep those relationships going.”

On the flipside, Jewish community member Reuben (whose name has been changed), who was involved in security operations on the frontline in Johannesburg, witnessed some truly dark moments.

“We went to a store in Jeppe that had been looted, and where the owners had asked for help to access their store – a small corner spaza shop. As the owners were driving up, you could already see in their faces that their lives were shattered. They started to cry. They were shaking and as they walked into the store, there was nothing. They just broke down.

“I have seen enough carnage and damage, [but I was moved by this]. That was the worst part, you saw the real cost of the violence wasn’t destruction of roads, it was lives.”

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