Elul goggles give us 2020 vision
It’s official – I’m finished my second set of prelims. I can now focus on preparing for arguably the most important exams of my life – finals. It’s no coincidence that this preparation begins in the month of Elul.
Elul is centred on new beginnings as it is in this month that we prepare ourselves spiritually for the Jewish new year. We use Elul to introspect, change our negative habits, and better ourselves. For some, this is a physical change – doing more exercise, eating healthier – and for others, it’s spiritual – reading a psalm of Tehillim each day or introducing Torah study into their schedule. Whichever way you choose to embrace it, the month of Elul is shrouded in heightened awareness of G-d.
This month, I find myself contemplating my actions more extensively, watching my language, and trying to strengthen my spiritual connection to G-d. I have learned many lessons from the lockdown, and it has brought deeper meaning to so many issues, that I feel as though this Elul, I’m putting on a very different set of ‘Elul-vision goggles’.
I drew the correlation between my final examinations and Elul last Sunday. While on a family outing (because I can attend those now), I checked my emails to find I had been accepted into a seminary in Israel. As I notified my friends and family, the impact of this moment dawned on me. Here I was, during the grace period between prelims and finals, getting an email that would kickstart my reality beyond high school, during the month that signifies new beginnings – Elul.
For most of my life, Elul has just been … Elul. It’s the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and a brief holiday from school. This year, Elul is much more. Due to COVID-19, I’m unable to spend Rosh Hashanah with my family. I doubt I’ll be able to attend shul on Yom Kippur. My school holiday isn’t really a holiday, it’s study leave. This year, everything is different.
The secular year 2020 has certainly been different. But 5780, the Jewish year, is coming to a close. I could reminisce about last year’s Rosh Hashanah, when I stuffed my face with my mother’s delicious food and koched with my cousins. I could wallow in the sadness that I won’t be able to do that this year.
However, I’m choosing to put on my “upgraded” Elul goggles. At the beginning of lockdown, I could see Hashem’s hand in all of this. As the months have gone by, that has faded. During this month and in the months to come, I’m going to try keep that Elul perspective and recognise Hashem in the madness.
Because even in the midst of a pandemic, I got an email saying that I had been accepted to live in Israel for a year and study Torah. Even in the midst of a pandemic, I will (please G-d) matriculate. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we should all put on those upgraded goggles and count our blessings. Hashem has given us Elul so that we can better ourselves and seal our future in the Book of Life. So do that! And while you’re at it, please pray for the class of 2020 – we’re going to need it.
- Dani Sack is a Grade 12 pupil at Yeshiva College
Centenarian Rose Norwich zooms in on a life of achievement
They say that age is just a number, but when you turn 100 during a pandemic, there’s every reason to celebrate.
Riviera resident Rose Norwich marked her centennial birthday on 2 January, and while COVID-19 prevented any in-person celebration, the occasion was a special one indeed.
“People have been so kind,” Norwich told the SA Jewish Report. “I didn’t realise I was a such a novelty. Turning a hundred kind of creeps up on you.”
Although unable to see her four children, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and other relatives, Norwich celebrated her birthday with friends and family in Zoom gatherings.
“My family all live in different places around the world, and we had three separate Zoom sessions: one for my children and grandchildren, another with my siblings, and the others with friends around the world. It was such fun and really wonderful.
“It was almost better, in a way, to have this. Most of them couldn’t have come here, regardless of COVID-19. If anything, this business has taught us a lesson that we need to stay together as families rather than be separated. At times of crisis, we need one another.”
Born in 1921 in Johannesburg, Norwich has notched up endless accomplishments. The second of five children, she completed a degree in architecture at 22, and went on to devote much of her life to Jewish communal organisations.
“I did my degree towards the end of the war, met my husband, and started a family,” she says. “My parents had both been integrally involved in community organisations, so it wasn’t new to me.
“I started at ORT Jet in the sixties. The organisation was going through a bad patch, and Richard Goldstone, Basil Wunsch, and I worked to resurrect it and see it grow. We changed what it did, made it interdenominational, and set up a system that would help all kinds of people achieve all kinds of different things.”
Norwich was subsequently invited to join the Union of Jewish Women, becoming the organisation’s president and joining the South African Jewish Board of Deputies as a result.
“They asked me if I would do an exhibition of South African Jewry for the Beit Hatfutsot Museum in Israel. It was a major project that I did over two years, collecting plenty of photos for use in the exhibition. They say that 60 000 people saw it in Israel, and I visited it with my late husband, Isadore.”
Another major project to which Norwich devoted herself was a master’s dissertation, which she took up at the age of 66, 44 years after completing her first degree.
“I met somebody overseas who showed me pictures of destroyed shuls,” she says. “I knew we had shuls in South Africa which had fallen apart owing to sheer neglect, so I did my dissertation on 43 of the early synagogues of Johannesburg and the Reef.
“It took me four years, trawling through archives and discovering places that had been forgotten. It was remarkable. There are copies of my dissertation at Hebrew University, Beit Hatfutsot, and I gave one to each of my children. I’m very proud of that accomplishment.”
The last surviving member of her immediate family, Norwich spends much of her time alone these days, but has devoted herself to penning her life story.
“My husband passed away 25 years ago,” she says. “I’ve been lonely, but I can’t sit around and do nothing. I may be a little more tired than I used to, but I can still see and hear. I need to keep busy.
“I’ve learned first-hand that when push comes to shove, you need other people in your life. You can’t do it alone. You have to put your foot in the water to get going, be open to all sorts of things, and go out there to see what’s what.”
Habonim honours Anstey, a ‘superman without a cape’
The outgoing manhig (leader) of South African Habonim Dror, Errol Anstey, took his departure from the youth movement after 20 years of service in an online Zoom call with nearly 300 current and former members, friends, and family.
“I agreed to take the job for a year or two back in 2000, and never dreamt it would end up being 20 years of challenging but hugely satisfying work,” Anstey said in an emotional speech to his audience from around the world.
In the late 1990s, the movement had dropped in numbers, finances were in a mess, and the well-known Onrust campsite was in bad shape, former shaliach Ronen Segall recalled. “Errol was the obvious choice for someone with deep knowledge of the movement, its workings, and its campsite. In my eyes, Errol became Habonim’s true hero, a superman without a cape but full of capability.”
In a short space of time, Anstey led a significant turnaround for Habonim along with the team of shlichim and Habonim leadership. His fundraising, finance, and administration skills shone, and over his term as manhig an estimated R20 million has been raised and invested in the Onrust campsite to make it one of the most sought-after and valuable campsites in South Africa.
“This has enabled the movement not only to maintain the site to a high level, but the revenue has helped finance many of the movement’s activities,” Anstey proudly told his audience.
The traditional role of the manhig since the founding of SA Habonim Dror was always to be the “adult in the room” to act as a guide and mentor to the movement’s young leadership. Former mazkira klalit (general secretary) of Habonim from 2005, Micaela Browde, paid tribute to Anstey saying, “You were really a stalwart for us, you fought for us, you had our backs, you made sure we were supported, guided, and you did so with strength, humility, and humour.”
Anstey described some of the challenges during his stint including differences of opinion and sometimes open confrontation with mainstream Jewish community leadership when Habonim was critical of some of Israel’s actions. “It wasn’t easy to be a lone voice for progressive, liberal thinking as South Africa’s community became predominantly conservative,” he said with his usual frankness.
Another mazkir klali, Daniel Sussman from 2019, described Anstey’s catch phrase as “do everything, all the time, never sleep”. This succinctly summed up for him the endless number of projects and activities which Anstey led over the past two decades on behalf of Habonim.
Stanley Bergman, originally from Port Elizabeth and now in New York, the national treasurer for Habonim in 1968, paid tribute to Anstey’s enormous efforts to support several generations of Habonim members. He praised him for his ability to connect with graduates from the movement around the world and develop a donor community to support the Habonim Foundation which he initiated.
Anstey spoke of the erratic provision of Habonim shlichim from Israel over the years, and how he had additionally become a shaliach himself, which meant mentoring the leadership and members of the movement. He emphasised that he had “the privilege of working with the cream of South African Jewish youth” and said “there was nothing more fulfilling than working with inspired youth”. Their activism had motivated him to run successfully for public office in 2011 as a member of the Democratic Alliance.
During the Zoom session, many participants showered praise on Anstey’s term as manhig including Isaac Herzog, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who acknowledged the “outstanding contribution” that he had made to Habonim over so many years.
Former mazkir klali in the early 1980s, Stephen Pincus, expressed his appreciation for Anstey’s earlier roles as camp organiser at one of the largest Onrust camps ever, and later in spearheading the 50th anniversary celebrations of the movement.
“It was clear from those early years that Errol had that obvious aptitude for organisation along with a commitment to the movement,” he said. “Little did we know that we unleashed a formidable force which reverberated in the movement for more than 40 years.”
Anstey told the audience that his two children, Saul and Talia, had followed in his footsteps, having attended 12 Onrust camps and later became his “eyes on the ground” regarding movement dynamics. He also noted that it was probably an unprecedented situation that they had actually left the movement before their father did.
Anstey warmly welcomed the new incoming manhig, Wayne Sussman, in his usual modest style saying how satisfying it was for him to hand over the mantle to “someone who will be better than me and will take Habonim to new heights”.
Sussman responded in the session with his usual passionate style, describing the six previous manhigim who preceded him as “giants on whose shoulders we stand”. He lamented the fact that the Habonim leadership was on a Zoom call and not at the annual Onrust camp, and how challenging it was going to be in 2021 without the lessons learned and experiences from machaneh.
“Our first task will be to assist the 2021 bogrim led by the new mazkir, Aaron Sher, to capture some of the magic which will be lost, but I’m confident we can do it,” said Sussman.
JNF Blue Box enters the digital age
When is a Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box not a blue box? Never. Even though the physical box now has a digital donation option, it’s still the age-old Blue Box.
This box has for decades symbolised the JNF and the commitment of Jewish people around the world to rebuild Israel.
And for decades, it has been filled to the brim with pennies, cents, nickels, dimes, lira, and francs – coins of every denomination dropped in, one could almost say, religiously every Friday evening before Shabbat candle lighting.
Now it’s no longer limited to physical coins and a metal box. The new Blue Box with a digital donation option via SnapScan will be launched in time for Channukah to keep the tradition of the Blue Box alive for the next 120 years.
The first real Blue Box was, oddly enough, Theodor Herzl’s hat. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, he used his hat to solicit donations from delegates as a means of purchasing land to establish a Jewish homeland.
Soon after, a Polish bank clerk proposed that a collection box bearing the words “National Fund” be placed in every Jewish home to raise money for land purchases. Production began in Vienna. The boxes were initially produced in a blue material and thus became known as Blue Boxes.
Over the past 120 years, funds collected via the Blue Box from around the world have assisted the JNF to realise its aim of developing land in Israel: building roads and water reservoirs, establishing parks, and preparing the soil for agriculture and settlement. Beyond fundraising, the Blue Box is also an important educational tool for spreading the Zionist message and renewing the historic bond between the Jewish people and EretzYisrael.
Stories about the Blue Box have become legendary. In the United States around Tu B’Shvat, teams of children brandishing JNF Blue Boxes would travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the New York City subway system. They would move from train car to train car with these ubiquitous boxes in hand, soliciting contributions from passengers and stopping only when they sensed or saw the approach of policemen.
In South Africa, members of the JNF would visit Jewish homes every Sunday to collect and then empty Blue Boxes, diligently counting the hundreds or thousands of coins inside them. In addition to being proudly displayed in almost every South African Jewish home, Blue Boxes were also present in schools, shuls, Jewish-owned businesses, medical waiting rooms, even hairdressing salons.
In times past when life wasn’t so frenetic and women could spend afternoons playing rummy and socialising, the money raised and won during the games was often dropped into the Blue Box, adding to the largesse and reputation of that particular hostess.
Today the iconic Blue Box (or pushke) remains the link between the Jewish people and the land, and to many, perhaps even to the majority of the Jewish world, it’s a symbol of Jewish continuity. They can also be quite valuable: a few antique Blue Boxes were auctioned by Sotheby’s recently, realising more than $3 000 (R46 006) each.
However, in the age of credit cards, cryptocurrency, and e-wallets, fundraising via a coin-based Blue Box risks becoming an anachronism.
So, the JNF has relaunched the Blue Box and linked it to the SnapScan mobile-payments app. A QR code will be found on all new Blue Boxes purchased from the JNF. People with old boxes can bring them in to have the QR code imprinted for no extra charge.
It’s modern technology indeed, but inextricably linked to a century-old tradition of keeping Israel alive in every Jewish heart.
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