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Cyril Harris Centre to reopen for culture and social life

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Lifestyle

The Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre is to reopen its doors after a 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19.

The 21-year-old centre, situated in the precincts of the Great Park Synagogue in Johannesburg, unwillingly closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

But René Sidley and Hazel Cohen, the centre’s operations managers, say that the easing of COVID-19 restrictions will result in them returning to work very soon.

“We’ve been sitting at home since March last year,” says Sidley. “People come and pay at the door. Once we closed, nobody is coming and paying, so there’s nothing. We have no income. When we closed, we had no phones as Telkom let us down. We were starting to install fibre, and that didn’t happen. We’ve been struggling the past few years. If we could get sponsorship, it would be absolutely marvellous. That’s would really help us.”

Although the centre falls within the Great Park Synagogue, it’s a separate non-profit organisation. Its income derives from ticket sales at the door, a few donations, and annual membership, which gives members a 30% discount to all events.

The centre started in 2000 with very little funding and no database. Rabbi Cyril Harris, then chief rabbi of South Africa, had the vision to create a cultural centre in the Great Park Synagogue while it was being built, and it was accomplished together with Ernest Leibowitz, Lolly Lotzoff, and Anthony Spitz.

The mandate of the centre, as a Jewish-based organisation, is to provide recreational, cultural, educational, and social programmes to perpetuate, strengthen, and serve the greater Johannesburg community. This was achieved beyond the most optimistic expectations because of the generosity of many who supported its functions and events.

“The community centre has been a vibrant part not just of the Jewish community, because a lot of non-Jews come to us as well,” says Sidley. “We have the most amazing talks, lectures, and films and it’s not what you find on the circuit. You can’t go to Ster-Kinekor and see one of our movies. It’s just been such a fabulous centre and a safe place for people to come on their own.”

The centre’s Monday matinees, supervised bridge mornings, Yiddish classes, and art exhibitions are very popular, and give the audience another avenue for discussion and enjoyment.

It has hosted many international and local luminaries. Well-known locals include FW de Klerk, Professor Barry Schoub, Albie Sachs, Professor Adam Habib, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, and Pieter-Dirk Uys.

The centre used to host about two evening events a week, and each event was followed by tea in the lounge. “The tea is famous for the fruit cake, and this gives our audience the opportunity to meet each other, discuss the evening, and socialise,” says Sidley. “Many people have made new friends and rediscovered old friends. There has even been a marriage of a couple who met here.”

One of the memorable moments Sidley recounts at the centre was when almost every doctor attended late renowned palaeontologist Professor Phillip Tobias’s lecture, which he had to repeat because of overbooking.

Artist William Kentridge came to talk about his frieze along the embankment of Tiber River in Rome’s urban waterfront. The evening was so oversubscribed, Kentridge agreed to do two talks on the same night and the auditorium could have been filled to overflowing for a third session.

The three Pelham sisters, Naomi, Ruth and Aviva, were persuaded by the centre to do an evening of song, which they put together as a tribute to their mother, and at the end of the performance, they called their 90-year-old mother onto the stage to join them in song. It was so successful, Aviva turned it into a musical production that she took to London.

The centre, which hosts many book launches, was once asked by one of its regular visitors to host the launch of a book he had written on Alzheimer’s. The centre thought that no one would attend, but it decided to give him the platform. “To our amazement, the auditorium was filled to capacity, and at the end of his talk, we were approached to continue with this programme by two women who gave a talk on memory retention,” recalls Sidley.

On Sukkot, the Holocaust & Genocide Centre often brought survivors for a film and tea in the Sukkah at the centre. Rabbi Dovid Hazdan of the Great Park Synagogue joined the survivors for tea, and helped them partake in the mitzvah of the lulav and etrog. For one of the survivors, it was the first time she had even held a lulav and etrog, and it was quite an emotional experience for all concerned.

The centre’s chairperson, Marlene Bethlehem, opened the South Africa Rugby Minyan exhibition wearing her Springbok rugby shirt, and got rugby great Syd Nomis, who was there, to autograph the back of her shirt.

Judith Mason, one of South Africa’s leading artists, designed the stained-glass windows in the Great Park Synagogue. A tribute was held in the centre when she passed away.

For residents of old-age homes, the centre annually hosts a morning in which they see a movie with a Jewish theme, followed by tea.

“The centre is a beacon of light, stimulation, and entertainment for the Jewish community and to the many loyal non-Jewish members who take delight in the programmes,” says Sidley. “It plays such an important and vibrant role in the Jewish community that it must reopen. To do so, it needs help with funding, and we can only appeal to our wonderful community to support us.”

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Bnei Akiva to make machaneh magic

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Bnei Akiva has decided to hold a long-awaited machaneh this December. “It’s time to start the next page in the story of Bnei Akiva South Africa,” says Rosh Machaneh Yoni Rosenthal. Called Daf Chadash (A new page), the machaneh will run from 8 to 20 December 2021.

“Throughout the year, we have been monitoring the COVID-19 situation to assess our options,” Rosenthal says. “The vaccine announcement for the 12 to 17 age group pushed us to approach our medical advisors and stakeholders to see if we could make machaneh on our campsite in Hartenbos a reality.”

He says the fact that they can hold a machaneh “is extremely emotional. The campsite is a place of magic. We are excited to make up for lost time. We are truly grateful that Hashem is giving us this opportunity.”

Not being able to have a machaneh or gather in person “was heart breaking for our channichim, madrichim and community,” says Rosenthal. “I’m proud that through the dedication of our madrichim, we have carried on thriving over the past 18 months.”

The camp’s leadership is in discussion with medical professionals to create a safe environment. “We have been working on our COVID-19 protocols with the guidance of Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and Uriel Rosen. We will test for COVID-19 before and during camp, creating a campsite ‘bubble’, and requiring all of our channichim, madrichim, and staff to be vaccinated. The safety of our channichim and madrichim is our number one priority,” he says.

“We have had to adapt our machaneh to COVID-19 times, but much of machaneh will be as we know and love it,” says Rosenthal. “Our chinnuch [education] team is working hard to ensure that our tochniot, Torah learning, and davening experiences will be of the highest quality. Our famous volleyball, soccer, and netball tournaments will bring gees [spirit] to the campsite, we will be going to the beach and pool daily, and the camp vibe will be incredible as always!

“There are certain things that we have had to adapt, such as our ruach (spirit) sessions,” he says. “We are considering how these can be done in the safest way possible.”

They are hoping that a fourth wave doesn’t prevent machaneh from happening. “Ultimately, the safety of our channichim is our priority. Should there be a fourth wave, we would consult our medical advisors and in the worst-case scenario, might have to cancel.”

The feedback to the announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. “Madrichim are fired up, and there is real excitement that Bnei Akiva is able to provide much-needed inspiration for Jewish youth.”

Meanwhile, after announcing last week that it would hold a machaneh, Habonim Dror has expanded its dates, allowed channichim to reserve their spots, and given permission for the youngest age group, Shtilim, to attend. The new dates are 12 to 27 December. Each shichvah (year level) will have a maximum of 50 people (except Shtilim, which will have 40). The camp is almost at capacity.

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Habonim’s return to machaneh ‘a dream come true’

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The Habonim Dror slogan “Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders”, rang true this week, when the Jewish Zionist youth movement announced that it would hold a machaneh this December, taking the brave step of building something new and vibrant in a post-pandemic world. Machanot were cancelled last year for the first time in decades – a huge blow to movement morale.

In a video titled simply, “We are going home”, Habonim announced on Sunday, 17 October, that after 23 months of waiting, a machaneh will finally be held at its Onrus campsite. It will be called “Lachlom Mechadash” (To Dream Again) because the movement sees it as a dream come true. It will be shorter (from 9 to 20 December), with fewer people, and everyone will need to be vaccinated.

Rosh Machaneh Aaron Sher explained how this dream became a reality. “From the moment our va’ad poel [steering committee] for machaneh was elected this year, we were thinking about how we could make machaneh a reality. After consultation with medical professionals and those who have had summer camps overseas, many permutations of machaneh were drawn up.

“Some were on the more optimistic side, and some with more conservative thinking,” he says. “Throughout this time, the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] was holding meetings for the youth movements, the Community Security Organisation [CSO], and other community figures to discuss how machaneh could happen, often attended by [local virology expert] Professor Barry Schoub. A common point was the vaccination of adolescents. It left room for optimism for December. Without these meetings and the support of these communal bodies, December machaneh couldn’t happen.”

With the announcement on Friday, 15 October, that vaccination would open to 12 to 17 year olds in South Africa, “the va’ad poel and our staff were in a panic, but excited. A golden opportunity had fallen into our laps that would allow us to bring machaneh to fruition. It’s almost impossible to describe the happiness we felt.”

Asked about the impact of not having machaneh or in-person events, Sher says, “In a word, devastating. Habonim Dror thrives on in-person interaction. For generations, we have been a space for Jewish youth to come together to have fun, discuss world issues, create change, and become strong leaders. Online activities don’t bring the ‘Habo magic’ that we need to feel.”

Habonim Manhig Wayne Sussman says, “The impact of not having a machaneh last year or any major in-person events has been absolutely devastating. Not just to Habonim, but to all South African youth movements. Camps and in-person events are a core part of the South African Jewish youth experience. They’re one of the things which make our community so great, and it’s absolutely critical that our kids return to camp sooner rather than later.”

Since the announcement, he says, “I have seen a youth movement come alive. I’m seeing renewed vigour, renewed energy, which has been lacking amongst our very brave and committed youth movement leadership for the past 20 months.”

Sher says “a full COVID-19 protocol policy document has been prepared for our machaneh with the help of medical professionals and those who have successfully run summer camps overseas. This will be available as soon as our sign-ups are open so that all parents and madrichim know exactly how we are keeping safe before they sign up.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, we’ll also limit numbers, and we are going to launch this properly and open sign-ups only once we’ve properly engaged with community leadership and the CSO.”

“Vaccination will be required by anyone on the campsite, a negative COVID-19 PCR test will have to be presented on arrival, and general COVID-19 protocols will have to be adhered to,” Sher says. “Anyone who tests positive will have to isolate immediately and will unfortunately be sent home. Those who have been in close contact with them will have to isolate and await a PCR test.”

What will stay the same and what will be different? “Fortunately, with a vaccine blanket over our campsite, a lot of what we love about machaneh can continue,” says Sher. “There will still be ruach [spirit], Havdalah, the beach, and everything we love about machaneh, just with some slight adjustments.” The youngest age groups, Garinim and Shtilim, won’t be able to attend.

“Should there be a fourth wave during December, Habonim Dror is committed to ensuring that we are able to adapt or at worst cancel,” he says. “The safety and health of our campers will always come first. We will make sure that we make the correct decisions in the interest of our community.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, there’s a chance that we might have to pull the plug on this. But as long as that door is open, as long as kids know that if they get vaccinated, if they’re responsible, and if they really want to attend machaneh, we’re going to do what we can to give them best summer.”

Since making the announcement, “We have had an overwhelming response from parents, kids, bogrim, and ex-chaverim all over the world,” says Sher. “People have been reaching out offering support and services. I couldn’t be more thankful to our Habonim and Jewish communities. We’re going home.”

SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin says, “December machanot have, for decades, played a vital role in strengthening Jewish identity and building young leaders. Recognising the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to host these pivotal annual events, the SAZF created a platform that brought together youth movements, medical and security advisors, and stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of December machanot.

“Given the fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic, this assessment is continually being updated and we recognise that each youth movement must come to its own determination as to whether or not to move forward with camp preparations for 2021. We are committed to providing support and advice on how best to approach this complex decision in a safe and responsible manner.”

The mazkir of Netzer South Africa, Jason Bourne, says “Netzer has decided that it won’t be running a full, in-person summer machaneh this year. Instead, we will be running day camps in Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg. Though vaccinations are being administered and cases are declining, we feel that there are still too many unanswered questions to have a sleep-away camp. As things unfold and more people are vaccinated, we may open a small weekend sleepover element to our day camp experience for older, vaccinated participants only.”

A community leader, speaking anonymously, says “Bnei Akiva would love to have a camp at the end of the year but it’s looking at all the medical and logistical issues. No decision has been made and over the next few days, it will explore it all carefully and come to a conclusion.”

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Hatzolah’s invasion tour brings freedom back

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I’ve never thought of us as the invading type, we’re more “people of the book”, but for five amazing days, even if in our own minds, we invaded the roads of the Overberg region on the 2021 Hatzolah Cape Invasion Tour.

As a first-time invader, and yes, I have to say it, in a COVID-19 year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and how I would feel being in a hotel for five days with a group of guys, many of whom I didn’t know, and riding in a mask-less peloton. This was in addition to the real fear of whether my “pins” (legs) would hold up for the 500km of riding and more than 5 000m of climbing that was necessary to claim a full invasion.

What I hadn’t taken into account was the “Hatzolah factor”. Here is an organisation whose mission it is to care, keep our community safe, save our lives when called upon to do so, and in doing so, to help create “a future that looks brighter together”.

In some respects, the riding was secondary. The operation to keep the invaders safe in all aspects was the real show, and the stakes were high for Hatzolah, which has been our knight in shining PPE (protective) suits throughout the pandemic. And what a show it put on! Led by rosh riding, Mark Kruger; rosh logistics and anything else you could think of, Sharon Newfield; and rosh medical, Yudi Singer, the Hatzolah team of Bernard Segal, Justin Gillman, Albert Ndlovu, and Sisqo Buthelezi were simply exceptional. I can tell you from personal experience that to have Segal following you in a red ambulance and then pull up next to you and offer you a “red ambulance” (an ice-cold Coke) when you’ve been dropped by the group is really quite remarkable.

As were the unbelievable marshals who worked the traffic and kept us moving safely in every direction, and our bike mechanic, Sylvester, who kept our Dogmas, Canyons, and Treks rolling smoothly on the open road. An essential function for a group full of Jewish bike mechanics.

The riding was exceptional. From the spectacular descent into Gordon’s Bay to the golden fields of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from Pringle Bay to Villiersdorp and Hermanus, we were treated to the best of our beautiful country.

One of the biggest challenges for the invaders, on top of riding and climbing, was to return from the invasion weighing less and not more than when we started. Avron of Avron’s in Cape Town made sure that was almost impossible. The food was top class. How do I know? No one complained.

Not everything was smooth sailing. On day three, one of the more accomplished riders in the group, who was beginning to glow like a lava lamp, discovered that he had been shmeering himself with sanitiser and not sun block, but even that was quickly fixed.

And just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Each evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance of Pavarotti, Bocelli, and beautiful chazonis from one of – actually probably the only – multitalented rider on the tour, Ezra Sher.

I almost forgot. How do you know you’ve got Chabadniks on the ride? You have a shul set up complete with a Torah and guys lining up to put tefillin on in the morning. Love it!

From the COVID-19 tests that were required from all riders prior to arriving at Arabella, to the dedicated dining area, to the support teams and riders who made up the invading party of 2021 in a COVID-19 year, it almost felt normal. Like we were back.

This year’s tour was as much about the riding as it was about re-claiming just a little bit of our freedom that has been taken away from all of us over the past 18 or so months. It was about being careful, which allowed us to be carefree. It was about being part of a remarkable community of riders supporting the remarkable organisation that Hatzolah is. There aren’t many quotable quotes when one thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to the Hatzolah Cape Invasion for 2022, one springs to mind. “I’ll be back!” May the wind be at our backs.

  • Herschel Jawitz is on the board of the SA Jewish Report.

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