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Community shrinking but resilient, survey shows

The South African Jewish community may be getting smaller, but it is stronger than most communities in the world, ensuring that it will survive well into the future.

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TALI FEINBERG

“Yes, the community has declined in number over the past decades, but the smaller size belies a surprising degree of dynamism and regeneration within the community. The story is one of vitality and adaptation.”

That’s according to Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, which released the long-awaited Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA) this week. The survey is the largest and most extensive study of its kind ever undertaken.

It finds that the Jewish population in the country has declined by about 20% over the past 20 years, mainly as a result of migration, but also due to the natural ageing process. The population now numbers “an estimated 52 300”, with the Johannesburg population at 30 000 (an equivalent of 58%), Cape Town 12 500 (24%), and Durban 3 400 (7%). Of the final 11%, most are located in the orbit of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, with smaller communities in other cities like Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, and a scattering elsewhere.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Australian census, and the census of England and Wales suggest that just more than 10 000 Jews may have left South Africa for Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom (UK) between 2001 and 2015. Data from the JCSSA indicates that 15 245 Jews have migrated in total since 2001. The countries of residence of immediate family members who have left South Africa are Israel (26%), the United States (21%), Australia (20%), and the UK (20%).

Emeritus Professor Stephen Miller, a specialist in the social scientific study of Jews who provided independent academic advice and feedback on the study, says, “The estimate of population size is no more than that, an estimate. But given the exceptionally careful analyses and comprehensive range of data sources on which it is based, it’s likely to be close to the true figure.”

The report, titled “The Jews of South Africa in 2019: identity, community, society, demography” is a collaboration between the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), a London-based independent research organisation, consultancy, and think-tank; and the Kaplan Centre.

For Mendelsohn, the most unexpected outcome of the survey was “the strength of Jewish identity in South Africa relative to other similar communities. We see this in a variety of measures, allowing us to conclude that overall, Jewish identity in South Africa appears to be stronger, and more religious, than in either Australia or the UK.”

The survey upends the preconception that South African Jewry is an ageing community. “The median age of the South African Jewish population – 45 years – is almost exactly the same as that of Australia. We have long heard that the Jewish community is ageing. What the median age data reveals is that the pattern is more complicated. Far from fading away, there is evidence of demographic sustainability.”

He emphasises that the period since 2001 has produced “notable patterns of innovation, including the emergence of several new religious and cultural initiatives, as well as new ways of caring for the health and safety of the community. These include initiatives like the Community Security Organisation, Hatzolah, the Sinai Indaba, the Shabbos Project, the Jewish Literary Festival, the regional Nahum Goldman Fellowship, the Eliot Osrin Leadership Institute, the growth of Limmud and Melton, the innovative outreach of the Holocaust & Genocide Centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the South African Jewish Museum, and many others.

“The paradoxical effect over these two decades has been a decline in the size of the Jewish population and an apparent strengthening of Jewish identity and a remaking of Jewish communal life.

“We can expect some trends to continue. But whether the rate of emigration rises or falls will depend on what happens in the broader society,” Mendelsohn says.

Miller, who resides in the UK, agrees. “The British experience demonstrates that such trends don’t necessarily continue in perpetuity, and that the growth in the Haredi sector of the community can start to compensate for – or even reverse – the erosion of the mainstream sector.”

The study reveals that 89% of Jews in South Africa were born in the country, and 74% have a very or quite strong sense of belonging to South Africa. Sixty-one percent are satisfied with their life in South Africa, although 92% feel that anti-Israel sentiment has increased over the past five years, and 10% of respondents said they have had to reduce the size of their meals over the previous year because they didn’t have sufficient money to buy food.

Ninety-four percent say that unemployment is a “very big” problem in South Africa; a similar proportion says the same about government corruption and crime levels. Twenty-three percent of householders have been the victim of a burglary in the past five years, but only 5.3% of individuals have been the victim of an assault in the same time.

The study shows that the community has a strong Jewish and Zionist identity. Eighty-one percent attend a Passover seder, and 99% have circumcised their son(s). Eighty-eight percent in Johannesburg completely agree with the statement, “I’m proud to be a Jew”. The equivalent proportion in Cape Town is 81%. “The low intermarriage rate (17% for 2010-2014) immediately jumps out,” says Dr Kerri Serman, an applied experimental and behavioural economist and research fellow at the Kaplan Centre.

The community’s Zionism is demonstrated by the fact that 89% of community members have visited Israel, and 32% say it’s likely they will permanently settle in Israel at some point. Ninety-two percent agree that “Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people”.

“The position of South African Jews on Israel is similar to that of UK Jews in terms of attachment to Israel and self-definition as Zionist,” says Miller. “However, South African Jews are far less likely to support public criticism of Israel than British Jews.”

Seventy-five percent of school-aged Jewish children in South Africa attend Jewish schools, and 78% of community members said they had attended at least one Jewish communal event in the previous year. Seventy-four percent agree with the statement that “the organised Jewish community goes to great lengths to help the underprivileged majority in South Africa”.

“The survey highlights the extent of philanthropy within the community. For example, 81% of Joburg community members donated money to the Chevrah Kadisha in the 12 months preceding the survey,” says Serman.

“The survey has captured a moment of uncertainty in the collective communal mindset,” she says. “For example, 15% of respondents indicate that they are likely to leave South Africa within the next five years. Moreover, 43% have considered leaving South Africa in the year preceding the survey. While this might not necessarily reflect intent, it does speak to a feeling of uncertainty and impermanence.” The preferred destination for would-be emigrants is Israel (51%), far ahead of any other country or location.

Serman points out that “the community has a high rate of self-employment, with almost one out of five respondents being self-employed. Looking forward, this makes it vulnerable to the economic pressure associated with COVID-19.”

Mendelsohn says that while challenges lie ahead, “What I take to be heartening is all the evidence that points to resilience and adaptability. Yes, the Jewish population of South Africa may well be smaller in ten years, but there is plenty to suggest in the data that our community will still be a lively, creative, and dynamic one.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Office of the Chief Rabbi, Chevrah Kadisha, South African Board of Jewish Education, and South African Zionist Federation said in a joint statement, “We are heartened by many of the findings of the survey. We look forward to engaging further with the two institutes responsible for the report and, in particular, to better understand their demographic estimates which have been based on various assumptions and which we believe require further examination and testing. Having a more exact idea of the demographics of the community will play a vital role in future planning.

“The story of the Jewish community in South Africa has always been less about large numbers and more about vibrancy, creativity, and perhaps above all, a shared loyalty to and identification with the Jewish people and their heritage, including their connection to the state of Israel. What is particularly heartening about the results is how they demonstrate the resilience and vitality of South African Jewry.”

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Couple caught in crossfire of attempted mall robbery

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A young couple attempted to flee the scene of a botched armed robbery at Melrose Arch on Easter Monday, only to get caught in a hail of bullets.

Today, Brandon Regenbaum, 27, lies in hospital in a serious but stable condition under heavy sedation following a five-hour long operation to reconstruct his jaw and repair his mouth. He was shot in the face after robbers hastily fled the upmarket lifestyle mall where they had tried unsuccessfully to rob Elegance Jewellers.

His girlfriend of three years, Lorian Blechman, 25, witnessed the whole scene and luckily escaped unharmed.

The couple, who were due to leave for a holiday in Umhlanga Rocks that day, met for breakfast at Tashas. They left the mall in separate vehicles and found themselves unwittingly in the middle of a gun battle between fleeing suspects and the mall’s security guards.

“The robbers were running towards the Virgin Active Gym. We quickly took a different exit to avoid them, it was scary,” said Blechman.

They beckoned to each other to take an alternative exit near the Daytona shop in a bid to dodge the fleeing suspects. To their horror, they were then confronted by the robbers – who had made it to their escape vehicles – further down the road on Athol/Oaklands Drive in the direction of the N1 highway.

The couple could see the suspects’ vehicles in their review mirrors, so they instinctively swerved out of the way to allow them to speed past. There were loud gunshots, after which Blechman noticed Regenbaum wasn’t driving. She frantically called him to ask why.

He told her, “Babe I love you, but I’ve been shot and I’m going to die.”

Traumatised and still in shock, Blechman told the SA Jewish Report that she jumped out of her car and ran to him.

Speaking from hospital, she said, “There was blood and glass everywhere, and he was in a lot of pain. He told me he was dying. I remember pulling up his hand brake,” she said.

A young Jewish couple walking their baby immediately called Hatzolah, which arrived a few minutes later. While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, another witness helped Blechman to make several calls to family. She told Blechman to keep talking to Regenbaum.

“I told Brandon that help was on the way. I told him his mother and brother were coming. I asked him where I could find his Discovery medical card. I told him general things like he was going to be okay, to stay with me, to stay awake. I told him to count how long it would take me in seconds to run to my car 10m away to get my keys,” she said.

Blechman called her father, who was already in Harrismith en route to Umhlanga Rocks where they were supposed to meet later.

Regenbaum’s father, Clifford, was in Plettenberg Bay on holiday when he received the call telling him his son had been shot.

“I was shocked,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

He believes his son was shot by the robbers who may have mistaken him for a security guard in hot pursuit.

“He drives a bakkie with our company name on the side which looks like a security vehicle and even has hazard lights. The robbers had already seen him leaving Melrose Arch, and I think believed him to be a security guard. I honestly believe they tried to kill him,” he said.

“It has been a stressful, worrying time. He will recover, but it will take time. I’m angry at this senseless shooting of innocent people. My son could have died. These robbers have no respect for human life. I don’t know what there is to learn from this.”

Gauteng police spokesperson Kay Makhubele told the SA Jewish Report, “Police are investigating a case of attempted business robbery and attempted murder which occurred at Melrose Arch.

“It is alleged that an unknown number of suspects driving in two cars, an Audi Q7 and a Ford Ranger, were in a shootout with security guards after they were intercepted before the business robbery,” Makhubele said. “A man who was driving his car [Regenbaum] was shot and injured during the incident. Nothing was taken from the shop.”

While doctors have told the family the operation was successful, Regenbaum will have his jaw wired for seven weeks, and won’t be able to talk or eat solid food.

“It will be a long road to recovery,” said Blechman.

“It’s a miracle Brandon survived. It’s also freaky that we were in separate cars. If I had been with him on the passenger side of the car, I might not be here today. I was running late. Brandon needed to fetch his siddur and tefillin to assist my father with a minyan on holiday, as he is saying kaddish for my zaida who passed away last year. I believe my zaida was watching over us,” she said.

Police ask that anyone with information contact 0860 010 111.

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Israeli company turns SA water from toxic to drinkable

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An Israeli company is assisting local government authorities to transform toxic water to healthy drinking water in what could be a game-changer for South Africa as a water-scarce country.

The company, BlueGreen Water Technologies, is a world leader in eradicating toxic algae from water sources, and has offered its expertise to South Africa.

With a branch in South Africa, the company started working at Setumo Dam on the Molopo River in North West province earlier this month. The project is in collaboration with Sedibeng Water, the company overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Germany where he is currently based, BlueGreen Water Technologies Chief Executive Eyal Harel said, “Toxic algae blooms are like a ‘global pandemic’ of bacteria. They infest bodies of water, and when that population of bacteria explodes, it makes the water toxic. You can’t use that water for drinking or recreation, it depreciates property, it makes that body of water too hostile for other life forms, and it creates health and economic problems.”

The company believes in the value of all people having access to quality drinking water, Harel said, and it’s doing the work in South Africa on humanitarian grounds. “At the Setumo Dam, it’s more like lots of bacteria with a bit of water in between. But half a million people rely on it for drinking water. We came to help get good quality drinking water to these communities.” Local government departments and officials had been “extremely helpful … everyone is working together”, Harel said. “Even in this time of pandemic and reduced budgets, they are doing an excellent job.”

He said the condition of the dam meant it was impossible to treat it from the ground, so they have had to deploy helicopters to distribute product from the air. “This is the first operation of its kind in the world. It’s new for us too, and requires lots of co-ordination with government officials, water boards, and locals.”

The company describes its products as “floating, slow-release formulations of market-approved algaecides designed to prevent the intensification of cyanobacterial toxic blooms in freshwater bodies [also known as ‘blue green algae’]”.

Harel said he was motivated to work with water as “water touches all people, no matter their differences.” With 22 March being ‘World Water Day’, he emphasises that “two billion people around the world only have access to poor quality water. About 99.9% is left untreated, and people think there is nothing they can do. We want to educate decision-makers that this isn’t the case anymore. Lakes can be treated, even much bigger lakes than Setumo Dam. In addition, algae blooms can actually be prevented.”

Harel got married in Cape Town, and was there during the height of the drought in 2018.

“I remember the term ‘Day Zero’, and how frightening it was,” he said, pointing out that drought also contributes to algae blooms because with less water, “pollution concentrates and bacteria grows. It becomes even more toxic, less liquid, and makes the existing problem much worse. That could be the reason Setumo Dam was in such appalling condition.”

The company also assisted Roodepoort Dam, reducing toxic levels of algae in the water two weeks before a rowing competition in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. However, Harel said Setumo Dam was in much worse shape. “It’s first and foremost a drinking water source,” he said. “It’s in a rural area that borders Botswana, and the communities are about as poor as it gets. So it’s our small way of helping.”

He emphasises that the company is “completely non-political” and is simply trying to reach out to areas where it knows there is an acute problem. It has even reached out to other Middle Eastern countries that aren’t friendly to Israel. “We aren’t here to make a political stand but a humanitarian one, and any human-rights organisation should understand that.

“Part of our agenda is to empower local communities to take responsibility for their local water source. We come as guests,” he says. “In all likelihood, if the dam isn’t maintained, it will go back to the way it was. So, our ultimate goal is to train local communities to be able to assess water conditions. They will be the ‘boots on the ground’ and raise the flag that there is a problem. We work with real-time remote sensing capabilities and satellite imagery to assess conditions in the lake, so they will be part of that process.

“We have established good relationships with the government. It sees the problem for what it is, and is taking a long-term approach. We are totally committed to improving water quality in South Africa, and we see the same from government.”

The company’s director of operations in South Africa, Jurgens van Loggerenberg, told the SA Jewish Report that he had worked in water-treatment processes throughout South Africa for the past 20 years.

“Over the past two decades, I’ve seen a decline in the management of infrastructure and water quality. It’s a big problem as it affects people’s lives. So, when I saw BlueGreen’s technology and what it could mean for the improvement of water quality, I was fascinated.” He joined the company soon afterwards.

He believes the technology could “be a game-changer for South Africa. Toxic bacteria means that humans suffer. And it’s never been looked at this way before. Water has been treated only at the treatment facility. I don’t think the team has ever treated water of this poor quality before, but it has a strong strategy. We have the support of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and the Department of Water and Sanitation. They are standing behind it. They believe in the technology and what it can do for the environment. They know it can help them achieve their goals.

“One thing we observed is that there are so many shops in the area that sell bottled water,” he said. “The day the community can open the tap and have safe drinking water will be a big day for the country.”

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Wits protest an education in activism

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“When I look back to my youth in years to come, I don’t want to have to tell my children I was one of the people who kept to the side and stayed silent. I want to tell them that as a white, Jewish woman in a democratic South Africa, I led.”

So says Gabi Farber, a student activist who, together with other Jewish youth, has committed herself to the fight against financial and academic exclusion at South African universities.

They join a growing movement of university students who in recent weeks embarked on a nationwide protest over tuition fees with demands including the allocation of funding for excluded students and a zero fee increase for the 2021 academic year.

Farber, the legal and policy officer of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), has been integrally involved in the protest.

“We have been on the ground every day,” she told the SA Jewish Report. “Walking through the streets of Braamfontein creating mass awareness about the students’ financial-exclusion crisis.”

Following the shutdown of various campuses, violence has escalated in the past few days, with police responding to demonstrations with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and teargas, and arresting protesting students in Braamfontein. A bystander, Mthokozisi Nthumba, was tragically shot and killed by police last week.

Says Farber, “The first few days were scary. The police were out of control, and you could see they didn’t know what they were doing, shooting rubber bullets directly at people without giving time to disperse. A grenade landed on my foot and burst my eardrums. It was dangerous.

“The media suggests there are hundreds of us and that the protestors are violent. In reality, it’s very calm on the ground, and there aren’t too many of us.”

The police have calmed down in recent days, Farber says, and those responsible for Nthumba’s death were due to attend a hearing on Wednesday, 17 March.

“I couldn’t let [the police brutality] turn me away though,” she says. “There are risks when you’re fighting for change. What’s scarier to me would be doing nothing at a time like this.”

Natanya Porter and Benjamin Atie have also been actively involved.

“On Monday, there were about 50 protestors, and we were chanting and singing peacefully in the street,” recounts Porter, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) officer at Wits’ education campus. “Suddenly, the police arrived in hippos [armed vehicles] and water-cannon trucks as if there were thousands of us burning down Braamfontein. They used a disproportionate amount of force.”

Beyond active involvement in the protest, Porter and Atie have also been involved in assisting students arrested by police, providing them with snacks and support while they awaited trial last week.

“There was no reason for their arrest,” Porter says. “We believe that the police just grabbed whoever was in a protest t-shirt and who was slowest at running away. In the end, the magistrate dismissed the case.

“As an education student, I believe that it’s a right not a privilege. I don’t think it’s fair for education to be available only to the few who can afford it. I’m heartbroken and shocked at the way the police responded.

“A total of 8 142 Wits University students are financially excluded,” says Atie, SAUJS Wits chairperson. “This means that these students passed last year in spite of all its challenges, but aren’t being allowed to return because they are in debt to the university.

“As Jews, this issue speaks to us because we have always placed a major focus on education and supporting the impoverished. It’s our responsibility to assist these students in whatever way we can.”

Indeed, the role played by the young Jewish activists has raised the profile of the fees issue within the broader Jewish community, says political analyst and former SRC activist Jamie Mighti.

“We have to be cognisant living in South Africa that there are challenges to upward social mobility, including historic poverty and exclusion,” he says. “One of the recognised ways to lift oneself up is through education. The Jewish community is world renowned for prioritising the value of education.

“To see young people like this stand in the gap with other students and use their voices reminds one of the roles played by Jews in fighting apartheid. The Jewish community will look back at this moment and say this was the birth of South African leaders and the re-emergence of Jewish activism within the broader South African conversation.”

Former SAUJS Wits chairperson, Yanir Grindler, stresses that more Jewish students need to get involved. “I’m left with a sense of anger towards the broader Jewish student population,” he says. “It has been so difficult to get them involved. A minority of Jewish students have been there on a consistent basis alongside Gabi protesting with the students. The rest are quite disconnected because they feel it doesn’t really affect them. That’s naïve, because it does.”

Farber, Porter, and Atie agree that more Jewish students need to play their part.

Says Atie, “One of the biggest criticisms we receive at SAUJS is that we come across as a union which cares only about Israel and Jews and not the larger South African community. It’s this perception of Jews that enables anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric to enter the halls of parliament and academic circles of South Africa. Only by involving ourselves in the struggle of the larger South Africa can we begin to change this perspective.”

Many academics agree that the plight of financially excluded students must be addressed.

“There are multiple stories in and around the protests,” says Bonita Meyersfeld, a professor at Wits Law School. “Do I think they’re legitimate? Absolutely. The commercial reality demands a creative and imaginative rethinking, but that’s true of the country as a whole. My experience with the first Fees Must Fall movement showed me that students are desperate.

“Ignoring that pain or painting all protestors with the same brush of judgement and intolerance will never solve the problem.”

Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor of engineering at Wits, attests that the contribution each graduate makes far exceeds the cost of educating them. “The debate isn’t between students and university management,” he says. “It’s one between all of us and our government.

“Universities don’t have the resources to solve the problem in the long run. All they can do is apply a band aid here and there in the hope of managing the short-term situation. The future of South Africa depends on how well we support education.”

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