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COVID-19 crashes the party for kosher caterers

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The sudden closure of Gary Friedman Caterers, one of Johannesburg’s largest and much-loved kosher caterers, has left the community in shock and shone a spotlight on a troubled industry dramatically affected by the pandemic.

During the best of times, kosher catering is tough, the overheads and costs are high, the margins are small, and the community is dwindling, say insiders. During bad times, it’s seemingly impossible, and many are hanging by a thread.

According to many insiders who wish to remain anonymous, the world of kosher is fraught with a toxic blend of favouritism, nepotism, and fierce competitiveness which has led to market cannibalism and an unsustainable future for many.

Kosher industry players are doing what they can to stay afloat. Innovative ideas by one caterer advertised on Facebook are sometimes copied the next day by another, sometimes for less. Several establishments are selling the same products or dishes, often at lower prices than their neighbouring kosher competitors. The exorbitant and rising cost of meat and chicken continues to rear its head and plague consumers.

Even before COVID-19, but certainly during the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of home industries that profess to be kosher but aren’t certified by the Beth Din. These are run by people who are also trying to make an honest living. However, they are having a negative impact on the bigger players who have Beth Din kosher licencing fees, mashgichim fees, high rentals, large staff complements, and other business overheads to account for.

Kosher caterers and restaurateurs have been hit doubly hard by the see-saw, stop-start nature of business during wave after wave of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. An industry heavily reliant on simchas, celebrations, and festive good times, it has taken an irreparable knock. In spite of impressive pivoting, unprecedented resilience, grit, and hard work, many say it has become too difficult.

“It’s a very difficult time,” said Leonard Meyerowitz of Kosher Pie Works and Jozi Coffee Pizza Pasta. COVID-19 restrictions with no seating at eateries or very limited numbers at functions; the drastic drop to zero simchas from shul brochas, brit milah, weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs have taken a toll.

“Add to this the number of days we are closed because of Shabbos, fast days, and Jewish holidays, rising emigration, not to forget Eskom power cuts, it’s really hard on all of us,” he said.

South Africa has enjoyed being a flagship of kosher food around the world, but it’s slowly losing its big anchor establishments, said one concerned supplier.

Just after noon on Tuesday, 6 July, Gary and his wife, Tamara, dropped the bombshell in a letter to all their clients and suppliers explaining that their company was no longer able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

It brought to an end an era of simcha and revelry at the HOD, where he largely operated from. Friedman declined to comment further.

Several caterers and kosher suppliers this week expressed genuine sadness, perhaps seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of his company’s demise. “I was devastated when I heard the news,” said trained chef and caterer Hayley Hack. “Gary is such a good, kind man.”

Hack and her former partner, Sharon Sheer, parted ways amicably when COVID-19 decimated their once thriving, small catering and function co-ordinating business.

“It simply wasn’t financially viable to work as a team anymore, especially with 90% of our functions being cancelled. We walked away with a heavy heart, but at least we didn’t incur debt. It’s very sad because we were established in the industry,” she said.

In the beginning, they tried to make money by selling delicious salad dressings and delivering meals, but found that it wasn’t viable, so parted ways to work on their own after terminating their contract with function venue The Middleton in Morningside. Hack continues to cater on a small scale and Sheer remains hopeful that functions will resume and things will get better once lockdown is lifted.

Long-time caterer Estelle Sacharowitz of Love is in the Kitchen said she was “heartbroken” when she heard about Friedman. “He has an incredible legacy. This is a sad loss for the industry,” she said.

Ian Isenberg, of Spice Premium Biltong & Butchery said, “Gary is the ultimate mensch in the industry. He gave me a chance as a newcomer, and even when the chips were down for him, he still helped to cater a wedding [last month] for a couple who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot for the community and his staff. This is a huge loss.”

Some caterers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion say the Gary Friedman closure goes far beyond caterers.

In spite of a humbled Beth Din following the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal and the continuing saga of the high cost of kosher food, the organisation is seemingly unsympathetic at this time, they say.

“The Beth Din has improved its accessibility and receptivity, but it’s still not customer-centric and now more than ever, it needs to be,” said one kosher caterer who wished to remain anonymous.

“Where is the Beth Din now when we need all the support we can get?” asked another.

“Kosher food and catering is prohibitive. The Beth Din has to do something about the exorbitant cost of kosher meat and chicken, end of story,” said another commentator, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Kosher chicken breasts cost between R244 and R268 per kilogram. Something isn’t right. It has become utterly unaffordable, and it’s affecting caterers and restaurants.

“Young couples are battling to keep kosher. Many are deciding it’s easier not to. My biggest concern is that kashrut is going to be diluted as more and more people resort to ‘kosher style’ food which is not under the Beth Din, like you see happening more and more in places like Australia.”

Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of kashrut at the Beth Din, said the closure of Gary Friedman Caterers had come as a “huge blow to all of us”.

“We are in discussion with Gary as to various possibilities of how to assist him,” he said.

Kosher SA remained dedicated to ensuring the highest kosher standard, Goldstein said. “At the same time, we will continue to look at ways to assist all our establishments. We have, to date, provided payment holidays across the board during hard lockdowns, and extended help on a case-by-case basis.

“We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that all our certified food services are going through.”

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It’s not a sin to stand up against abuse, say Jewish leaders

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Understanding, confronting, and reporting sexual abuse is difficult and painful for any community. Leaders tend to want to close ranks and cover up any impropriety. Survivors of abuse battle to have their voices heard, and fear the consequences. And the South African Jewish community is no exception.

These are some of the key messages emerging from a community webinar hosted by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein on Monday, 17 January, titled “Sexual abuse: let’s talk openly”.

Renowned American rabbi and psychotherapist Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said we must normalise conversations about abuse. Today, it’s no longer a taboo subject compared to 30 years ago. He mentioned a ground breaking book by the late Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski written in the 1990s about domestic violence in the Jewish community, called The shame borne in silence. This shame and silence endures.

“All communities have the tendency to hush things up,” said Weinreb. “They prefer not to see ugly things, and hope it will all go away.”

“We don’t want to sully our souls,” Weinreb continued. “But our souls are put into a body which faces material, physical, and sexual challenges and struggles throughout life.” People face temptations all the time, some of which cannot be denied or ignored. They have to be confronted to overcome them.

Dr David Pelcovitz, a veteran American psychologist and observant Jew, said, “We need to talk about [sexual abuse]. We need to shine light on places where there is darkness. It’s natural to want to recoil.” He stressed the critical importance of empowering victims and survivors, and said abuse was usually committed by someone known to the victim, especially within families.

Pelcovitz said parents need to develop a balance when speaking to their children about sexual abuse. They should tread between creating anxiety, building trust, nurturing self-esteem, and spurring action if required. He praised the South African Jewish community’s abuse-prevention programmes.

An abuse survivor often lacks confidence, particularly when facing defensive leaders and community members who want to bury the issue. Survivors need to feel safe, valued, and empowered to stop the cycle of abuse. “It’s not a sin to stand up,” Weinreb said. “People’s lives are at stake.”

The Torah promotes pikuach nefesh, the halachic principle that the preservation of human life takes precedence over almost all other religious rules. It also warns in Leviticus, “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” (Don’t stand by the blood of your neighbour), interpreted as an instruction not to be indifferent about what happens to other people. Both injunctions point to intervention against evil actions like sexual abuse. They provide a halachic framework for dealing with this issue.

The community needs to provide an environment of support, understanding, respect, and empathy, Goldstein said. By law, abuse must be reported to the authorities.

Resilience is extremely important in recovering from abuse. Pelcovitz said the three core elements of resilience are someone who cares; belief beyond the self; and chesed (kindness), helping others. He encouraged mindfulness to protect our children in an age of distraction. “There’s no greater protection than being there, eye to eye, heart to heart, to give them focus and courage. Nothing matters more,” he said.

The webinar concluded by highlighting two organisations in the South African Jewish community devoted to combatting abuse. Advocate Liza Segal is chairperson of the Abuse Review Board, set up by the chief rabbi in 2017 as a port of call for community members not satisfied with how organisations have handled complaints.

Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack head up Koleinu SA (Our Voice), established in 2014. They were both abused by a religious doctor in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and felt largely alone, not believed, and censured for supposedly “conducting a witch hunt”. Koleinu SA runs anti-abuse educational programmes at Jewish schools and shuls, a helpline, and provides support for victims. The helpline receives hundreds of calls, including reports of abuse by older children of younger siblings. Calls to Koleinu are treated in strict confidence. Koleinu draws on a strong support network of experts, including attorney Ian Levitt and child protection consultant Luke Lamprecht.

Though there’s a lack of trust in the police and justice system in South Africa, “we use what we have and try to fix its flaws”, said Hendler. “Abuse can stop only by reporting it. We can no longer turn a blind eye. We can all do better. We need to make this a space where perpetrators feel unwelcome and scared.”

Abuse cuts across every fault line in South Africa, from the poorest communities to the most affluent. No community is immune. “We must talk openly about this problem,” said Goldstein. “We must air the ugly issues. By shining light, we begin the process of making the world safer. We have incredible child protection organisations as the first port of call.”

  • The Koleinu SA Helpline is 011 264 0341. Its website is koleinusa.co.za

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Selling dolls for Sammy’s Kitchen

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What started as a fun pastime for Belinda Daniels, a South African emigrant in Australia, has resulted in the establishment of a soup kitchen that’s feeding hundreds of people in Orange Farm, Gauteng.

Daniels, a generous donor to The Angel Network, started crocheting clothes for dolls as a form of recreation during COVID-19. The dressed dolls ended up flying off the shelves and raising almost R100 000 for Sammy’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen named after her son, in the informal settlement of Tjovitjo in Orange Farm.

The kitchen was set up by The Angel Network, founded by Absa Jewish Achiever 2021 Humanitarian Award winner Glynne Wolman, and has been feeding 600 people every week.

It was set up in memory of Daniels’ late son, Sam, who tragically died eight years ago at the age of 21. A plaque in his memory will soon be unveiled, and T-shirts sporting his photograph and name will be given to volunteers.

For Daniels, this is a bittersweet initiative because she would rather have her son with her than an initiative named after him. However, she says, she knows that “he would love it. He was just so kind”.

The initiative, says Daniels, was “really just a matter of fate”. A friend of hers gave her a lot of dolls which Daniels and her group crocheted clothing for to raise money for charity. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this initiative didn’t take off, so Daniels showed the clothed dolls to her friend, another ex-South African, Louise Fisher, who was running a Christmas-present drive in Australia for those who had suffered during the pandemic.

“Louise is an advocate for charity and The Angel Network, and she said we should sell them,” recalls Daniels. Daniels didn’t believe that people would buy them, but Fisher was convinced otherwise.

They both wanted to use the dolls to raise money for those in need back in South Africa and to do it to honour Daniels’ son. So, Fisher stumbled on the idea for Sammy’s Kitchen.

“When we had R80 000, the kitchen was feeding about 15 000 children,” says Fisher.

When they had raised R90 000, they could provide 24 000 men, women, and children with at least one meal. Alternatively, Sammy’s Kitchen could have chosen to supply about 1 000 meals a week to support 200 people for 24 weeks with one hot, hearty meal a day, five days a week.

“It’s going to feed people for at least a year,” says Fisher. “It’s just been an incredible project. Everyone in Australia knows about it. We’ve got money from America and Canada and everywhere. Basically, from absolutely nothing, we will get to R100 000.”

Daniels has been overwhelmed by the communities who supported the project from all over the world. “The dolls flew out the door. I could hardly keep up with the crocheting. I’ve done about 120 dolls. A lot of people donated money without actually wanting the doll. Those dolls we gave to Australian needy children.”

They have been inundated with requests for dolls via social media, their marketing platform. Though the majority have sold in Melbourne, some have been sold in a Sydney-based shop. Another talented ex-South African, meanwhile, made an exclusive range of girl dolls that are being sold at La Luna Boutique in Vaucluse, Sydney, for the same cause.

Daniels and Fisher have loved seeing photos from parents and grandparents sharing the joy on the faces of their kids enjoying their new companion. Daniels is waiting for a new batch of dolls, and hopes to keep the kitchen going.

“I’m passionate about helping South Africa,” says Fisher. “I travel there a lot and volunteer if I can. I work very closely on different projects. I love helping. I love Africa.”

  • If you want to buy a doll, donate, or get involved in helping others, message Louise Fisher on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/louise.r.fisher

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COVID-19 won’t disappear, but it may get milder

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Israeli Professor Manfred Green is optimistic that we are in the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, although he admits we’re not getting rid of coronavirus so easily.

“We need to prepare for a much wider spread with possible new variants. That’s the possibility,” said Green, a professor of epidemiology at Haifa University. “We are watching out for these new variants. It’s still a major health threat, but we could be seeing the beginning of a milder epidemic.”

Green, the founding director of the Israel Centre for Disease Control and a University of Cape Town alumnus, was speaking on 18 January at a Telfed-organised webinar titled, “The COVID-19 Pandemic: when will it ever end?”

Based on what we have seen from pandemics in the past, coronavirus should lose some of its virulence as it spreads, he said. “That’s not unusual. Pandemics eventually end, although I’m not going to go into the Black Death or something which could go on for many years. I’m talking about in recent times.

“We know now that because of the variants in the current pandemic, people who have been sick from the one virus can actually get sick again from the other virus. In other words, if you got sick from Delta and recovered from it, and you get infected by Omicron, you can get sick, usually with a milder disease because you have some memory. But it’s still not enough to prevent the disease entirely. So, one of the problems is how we are going to deal with the disease. Because of these variants, it’s not something that will go away quickly.”

Vaccinated people can transmit the disease because, as Green explained, “You produce antibodies in your blood, but not where the virus actually enters the body.” The virus, he said, can get into the nose and throat. It then replicates, which doesn’t infect the vaccinated person, but can pass the disease onto others.

“The big question we’re asking ourselves is whether this disease will become seasonal like flu,” said Green. “If that happens, it will no longer be an all-year-round phenomenon. It will exist for a couple of months of the year, and hopefully will be much milder.”

He described the possibility of the normality of pre-COVID-19 life returning at the end of the pandemic as “very unlikely”.

“We probably need to get used to living with what we call a ‘new normal’ and living with COVID-19 as another flu-like seasonal disease,” he said. “If there’s an effective vaccine, an acceptable level of morbidity and mortality, and what we call tolerable moderate restrictions during the season, I would think we would still want to suggest, if it was seasonal, maybe use masks. I would think it would be a good idea to use masks in closed spaces in the winter months.”

He said the best new vaccines would be ones such as an intranasal vaccine because they produce antibodies where the virus goes into your body. “Those are the most effective, similar to the oral polio vaccine, which produces antibodies in the gut, where the virus usually enters the body.”

Vaccine hesitancy is making controlling the pandemic more difficult, Green said. “People who aren’t vaccinated are actually giving the virus the opportunity to spread widely and mutate.

“The vaccines are effective, even though we may need to give multiple doses. We shouldn’t be too concerned about giving multiple doses. The new treatments look very promising. We need the co-operation and compliance of the public. The bottom line is that we [in Israel] aren’t facing a national disaster, as some would say.

“The pandemic or epidemic in Israel has now reached the stage where it’s very difficult to control the spread. It’s such an infectious virus. All of you have probably experienced the fact that you’ve done everything you thought was right, yet you got infected. What we’re trying to do now is basically smooth out the numbers and make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.”

Green gave some interesting facts about COVID-19. “There are seven coronaviruses that have infected humans. The coronavirus comes from animals. In this case, it might have come from a bat. Seven coronaviruses have changed enough to infect humans. Four of those cause a common cold.

“Some of them are caused by other coronaviruses, one being SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] in 2003. Probably because that disease was so severe and we were able to isolate patients very quickly, the actual virus disappeared. It’s very unusual, but it did. One causes MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], which is seen mainly in camels but does cross over to humans. That has pretty much been limited to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. For some reason, it hasn’t spread very widely.”

Although the current pandemic has had a much lower mortality rate than the 1918 influenza pandemic, there weren’t the same kind of facilities and medications in the early stages of the 20th century.

Green believes the two pandemics resemble each other in many respects. “The Influenza virus became endemic and less lethal, and it’s still with us,” he said. “The same influenza we have today, which we call the H3N2 and the H1N1, is basically the great-grandchild of the 1918 virus. It’s the same virus. It has just mutated. In other words, COVID-19 may develop into a virus which will hopefully produce milder disease, become seasonal, and remain pretty much indefinitely.”

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