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COVID-19 deaths in decline, but community still on alert

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The Jewish community in Johannesburg has experienced a dramatic drop in COVID-19 deaths since the surge in July. “So far in September, we have only had two COVID-19 deaths in Johannesburg, and we are seeing no excess deaths compared to the past five years,” says Chevrah Kadisha (The Chev) Chief Executive Saul Tomson.

“The reported sharp drop in deaths due to COVID-19 in the Jewish community is indeed good news,” says Barry Schoub, the founder of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“It parallels the positive trends indicating that the current COVID-19 epidemic is declining [in South Africa]. So, for example, the daily increase in cases has dropped markedly from 5.37 during lockdown level 5, to 0.11 at present in lockdown level 1.

“In the general population, the daily mortality rate has similarly dropped steeply from a high of 572 on 22 July, down to 114 on 1 September, and now 39 on 21 September, according to the COVID-19 South Africa dashboard,” says Schoub.

At the peak of the pandemic in South Africa, the South African Jewish community had one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the world, possibly due to our ageing community. “In July, there were sadly 48 COVID-19 deaths in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and total deaths for July were 110 which is a 129% increase compared to the five-year average,” says Tomson. “In August, there were 17 COVID-19 deaths in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and a 24% increase in the five-year average for the month.”

In the past five weeks, Chevrah Kadisha residential facilities (Sandringham Gardens, Our Parents Home, Selwyn Segal, Arcadia, Sandringham Lodge, and Sandringham Square) have had no new COVID-19 infections among their nearly 1 000 residents.

Tomson says these homes are all still under strict lockdown. “We were cautious prior to the national lockdown, and now we need to remain increasingly vigilant as the national lockdown eases. The pandemic is very much ongoing, and the elderly are still very vulnerable. There is, understandably, mounting pressure from families wanting to visit and residents wanting to get out, but essentially the risk profile hasn’t changed. All the good work we have done means that the vast majority of residents haven’t contracted it, and we want to keep it that way.”

Indeed, Schoub warns, “Acute viral epidemics follow a broadly similar pattern – the epidemic curve rises fairly rapidly to reach a peak, and then falls off again over a short period of time. Importantly, the virus doesn’t disappear and will still be circulating in the population at a low, perhaps even imperceptible level.

“The disappearance of overt cases of disease often leads to complacency and a relaxation of care to prevent infection. The inevitable consequence is the advent of the second and subsequent waves of the disease. In a number of countries, the second wave has been even more severe than the first. Israel is one such country,” says Schoub.

“The important lesson is that while the South African epidemic is certainly easing, 500 to 1 500 daily cases are still being reported,” Schoub says. “Even when it does come down to a few sporadic cases, the price of complacency and relaxation of vigilance is the inevitable return of the epidemic.”

“We are doing our best to normalise life within the facilities, and we have opened the dining rooms as of first-night Rosh Hashanah,” Tomson says. “We also brought in beauty therapists from Sorbet to uplift our residents prior to yom tov.”

The Chev has also started to organise visits on an appointment basis, with strict protocols in place. These are labour intensive and complicated, needing an infection-control monitor on both the resident and guest sides, screening of guests, and ensuring all protocols are adhered to. The Chev is in constant communication with the community, residents, and families, and Tomson emphasises that the organisation is still under a lot of pressure to protect every resident.

In Cape Town, there has been at least one COVID-19 death in September, but “the numbers on the COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme have dropped significantly”, says the director of the Community Security Organisation (CSO), Loren Raize. “In August, we monitored 15 people on the programme, and in September, so far, we have had six join, three of whom are still currently on the programme.”

Delia Kaplan, the deputy director of Cape Town’s Highlands House for the Jewish Aged, says the home had an isolated incident of COVID-19 in which a resident passed away on 28 August. The home is still under lockdown, and residents can’t leave unless for medical reasons. On their return, they isolate for 14 days.

However, many restrictions within the home have been relaxed, and families can visit by appointment under strict protocols. Every visitor, including staff and contractors, has to complete digital symptom screening before entering the premises. The situation is constantly assessed, but “there is a sense of hope and renewal”, she says.

In Durban, one Jewish individual in a COVID-19 ward passed away in September, but COVID-19 wasn’t confirmed as the cause of death. In August, one Jewish person who had COVID-19 passed away, while two were unclear. Beth Shalom Aged Home Chairperson Solly Berchowitz says that one of the previously reported positive cases at the home passed away.

“We are still in lockdown with only essential resident movements. Late last week, we started allowing family to visit residents in the garden under strict conditions,” he says.

In Pretoria, the Jaffa Aged Home had no cases of COVID-19 from 20 July until one resident tested positive in mid-September. She is in isolation. The home is still under lockdown.

“Visitors can come to the fence and speak to a resident from five metres away. Residents cannot leave unless for emergencies. We opened the dining room last week so that the residents could eat a yom tov meal together, but with screens and distance between them. They can also go to the garden. We continually reassess the situation,” says the home’s director, Mark Isaacs.

Experts warn that in spite of the promising numbers, now isn’t the time to let down our guard. “What we do while opening up as a community going forward may have an effect [on increasing infections], and there are many in our community with elevated risk of severe disease if infected with COVID-19,” says Professor Jeffrey Dorfman, extraordinary associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University.

“Some precautions should be near universal. This includes continued wearing of masks in public places, particularly public indoor spaces. As much as I value public shul services, I feel that masks, social distancing, and limits on attendance should probably remain for now. Singing seems to create particular risks, and shul rules need to continue to reflect this. Personally, I have been to public prayers, but only outdoors, with no immediate plans to change that.”

Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director of the NICD, agrees. “COVID-19 is still with us. We are alert for resurgence. The risk groups for severe illness and death remain the same, and these vulnerable groups and their close contacts need to ensure that they continue to be cautious. This applies to gatherings around yom tov. Home gatherings are of concern. While there are protocols in place in synagogues to reduce transmission, at home, people let their guard down, especially among family and friends. Care homes need to continue to take the necessary precautions.”

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BDS attack on Unterhalter ‘defamatory and shameful’, says SAJBD

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The South African Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Coalition this week tried everything in its power to stop esteemed Gauteng Judge David Unterhalter from being interviewed by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) for a position on the Constitutional Court.

In spite of its venomous attack on the judge for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), his interview went ahead.

After it was brought to the JSC’s attention by BDS, Unterhalter was grilled about his involvement with the SAJBD. Unterhalter briefly assisted the board with the upliftment and welfare of the Jewish and broader community during the direst phase of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

The BDS coalition earlier this week vehemently opposed Unterhalter’s candidacy. In a letter of complaint to the JSC, the loosely formed coalition accused the SAJBD of being “akin to the Broederbond”, serving as a “conservative organisation that supports and minimises the actions of the Israeli apartheid state”.

It said Unterhalter couldn’t “honestly proclaim to be a supporter of human rights for South Africans” and be a member of the board.

Unterhalter is one of eight candidates being interviewed by the JSC for two vacancies on the Constitutional Court bench. It was announced on Wednesday that he did not make the shortlist for appointment.

During his interview on Tuesday night, Unterhalter said he was asked to serve on the board last year during the pandemic. “You should understand, the SAJBD is concerned with the welfare of the Jewish community, with old-age homes, and burial societies,” he said. “It’s also concerned with people who have fallen on hard times generally, but particularly now in the pandemic, and assisting other communities where there is need and hardship.”

He explained that the board’s other concern was antisemitism, and preventing it.

“It’s not a body that promotes Zionism. It’s a body that has existed for well in excess of 100 years, and its precursor organisations many decades before that. I went onto it because it seemed to me to be about assisting – to the extent that I could – with welfare issues for communities in sometimes very dire need. And I don’t therefore think it’s concerned with promoting Zionism. There are other organisations that do so, but I have no affiliation or connection to them.”

He said that from time to time, the SAJBD engaged in litigation against hate speech concerning antisemitism and on occasion, matters had gone to the Constitutional Court. “It did seem to me that in those circumstances, if I was going to offer myself as a candidate for judicial office in the Constitutional Court it would be appropriate to step away from that organisation because it does have this role, and whatever I might have been able to do by assisting welfare in a time of great need must perhaps yield to the perception that one shouldn’t be connected to a body that is engaged in litigation.”

It was for this reason that Unterhalter stepped down from the SAJBD.

“I don’t think my connection in accepting a position on the SAJBD is one that impacts and is connected to Israel and the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, which is an entirely separate matter,” he said.

He stressed that the Jewish community was made up of people with “radically different views” about Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian debate. “Because members of the Jewish community are so varied in their views across the board on this point, I would have been very uncomfortable to be in an organisation that took a particular position on that issue,” he said. He stressed that he saw taking on this SAJBD role as “being able to do something for welfare”.

Asked about his views on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, he replied, “A two-state solution, although it’s now unfortunately one that seems to enjoy much less currency than it did in decades gone by, remains the only solution I think feasible, but JUST in what is a hugely complicated and difficult conflict.”

The SAJBD on 14 April lambasted BDS for attempting to have Unterhalter rejected from applying for this position, describing the organisation’s efforts as “yet another shocking display of bigotry and intolerance”. The board said it was an attempt by BDS to “sow division and hatred in our society”.

SAJBD national director Wendy Kahn, said: “When calls are made for Jews who serve on the Jewish community’s democratically elected representative body to be excluded from public service, it amounts to gross antisemitism.”

“There is a long and dishonourable history of Jews being targeted for boycotts and other discriminatory treatment on the basis of their religious and/or ideological beliefs,” the board said. “The demand by the SA BDS coalition that anyone associated with the SAJBD be denied the right to serve on public bodies like the Constitutional Court is just the latest chapter in this shameful saga.”

It said that throughout its existence, the BDS movement had “persistently incited hatred” and “even harm” against the mainstream Jewish community and its leadership.

Milton Shain, a local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, said, “Identifying as harmful to career prospects involvement in a legitimate Jewish organisation which serves a specific minority that enjoys full constitutional rights reeks of antisemitism.”

He said it was “preposterous” to penalise someone for generously assisting a legitimate civic organisation in a democratic country.

“The SAJBD has a proud record of dealing with issues pertaining to Jews and safeguarding the interests of this tiny community, which has never numbered more than 120 000 and numbers today a mere 50 000. It seems to me that those criticising Judge David Unterhalter are confusing the board of deputies with the South African Zionist Federation, which deals with issues pertaining to Zionism and the state of Israel,” Shain said.

“Even if this is the case, it needs to be noted that the South African Zionist Federation is a legitimate civic organisation and involvement in its affairs shouldn’t preclude any possibility of representing the legal [or any other] fraternity at the highest level. Some of the greatest legal minds in the country have enjoyed associations with both organisations.”

Retired Judge Dennis Davis, who previously served the community as Cape chairperson in 2004, told the SA Jewish Report it was “an outrageous complaint” by the anti-Israel lobby.

“It’s irrelevant. It’s not as if he is doing more than promoting the welfare of his own community. When I last looked, it wasn’t illegal to be a Jew in South Africa. It’s a right to serve your community and its local welfare.”

He said he thought Unterhalter was a hugely deserving candidate for the esteemed position, but agreed this was “a sensitive issue for obvious reasons”.

Mark Oppenheimer, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar, said Unterhalter was “internationally regarded as a jurist of the highest calibre”.

“Before he was elevated to the bench, he appeared before the Constitutional Court in a range of landmark cases that have vindicated fundamental human rights for all who reside in our country. He would be an outstanding candidate for a position on our apex court. The attack launched by BDS demonstrates its venomous attitude towards South African Jewry and Israel,” he said.

A well-known Cape Town advocate who asked not to be named for professional reasons described the BDS complaint as “toxic”.

“It’s appalling, blatant antisemitism, and many of my colleagues who aren’t Jewish agree with me,” he said.

Unterhalter, a former winner of the Professional Excellence Award at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, was born and raised in Johannesburg. He attained his BA degree from the University of Cambridge, LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand, a Bachelor of Civil Law from the University of Oxford, and an MA from Cambridge. In 1990, he was called to the Bar in South Africa, where he practised as an advocate for 27 years. He was appointed judge in 2018, and has since presided over a number of high-profile cases.

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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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