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Eternal vigilance – the price we pay for democracy

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On Freedom Day, Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), at the invitation of the MEC for sports, arts, recreation, and culture, participated in a Freedom Day walk to Chris Hani’s house in Dawn Park, Boksburg. Many of us remember the national trauma occasioned by Hani’s assassination by right-wing fanatics back in 1993, and how close this came to derailing the negotiation process. Thankfully, good sense prevailed, and almost exactly a year later, on 27 April 1994, South Africa’s first fully democratic, non-racial elections were held. Appropriately enough, when new public holidays were introduced, the date chosen for what would be Freedom Day was 27 April.

The 1994 elections ushered in a new era of freedom and equality for the country. After many decades of racial discrimination, violence, and repression, the famous opening words of the Freedom Charter, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it”, were poised to be realised. Well aware that “the price of democracy is eternal vigilance”, those responsible for framing the new post-apartheid order instituted safeguards to prevent those hard-won democratic rights and freedoms from being eroded. They included a Bill of Rights in the new Constitution, which entrenched the rights of all to dignity and equality.

Regrettably, the manner in which two Jewish candidates were treated recently when being interviewed for judicial office clearly violated these rights. Both were subjected to a barrage of questions pertaining to their Jewish identity in a way that no other candidates were subjected to regarding their religious identity or affiliations. One was even pointedly asked about his level of religious observance, implying that this might have a negative impact on his ability to fulfil his judicial duties. The statement we released earlier this week drew attention to the prejudicial nature of this statement, which ran “contrary to the basic constitutional principles of protecting our citizen’s rights to practice their religion without fear or discrimination”. We further pointed out that no other candidate had been questioned about their religious practices.

It was also disturbing, to say the least, that questions posed to both candidates focused extensively on their association with the SAJBD. The SAJBD itself is the acknowledged representative elected body of South African Jewry mandated to uphold the civil and religious rights of the community, including combating antisemitism. We asked why it was that an organisation with the objective of protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the panel of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). Equally disquieting were the barrage of questions concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Why was this issue brought up at all in this forum, and why was it that only Jewish applicants, not Muslim, Christian, or other, were grilled about it in this way? From the questions asked at the JSC interviews this month to Jewish candidates, one unfortunately has to ask whether the principles outlined in the Constitution apply equally to members of the Jewish community.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Vaccination drive in our backyard

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There was a welcome return to shul and school this week, as well as the reopening of restaurants and other facilities. While infection rates remain high, the worst of the dreaded “third wave” appears to be behind us. Thankfully, Hatzolah’s latest figures show a significant decline in COVID-19 cases in our own community. That being said, the pandemic is still very much a part of our daily reality and won’t go away by itself. What the past 16 months have shown is that the only way that people can protect themselves over the long term is to ensure that they are vaccinated as soon as possible.

Fortunately, there has been a steady uptick in vaccination rates countrywide. For the Jewish community, the process has been greatly facilitated by the availability of vaccination services within the community itself. This past Sunday, a pop-up vaccine centre at The Base in Glenhazel (the brainchild of Dr Menachem Hockman, who also headed up a vaccination drive at the Jabulani Mall) reported that 3 000 people had been vaccinated. Both the Chevrah Kadisha and more recently Hatzolah have set up vaccine centres, respectively operating at Sandringham Gardens and above KosherWorld (1 Long Avenue, Glenhazel). It’s a reminder of how fortunate our community is to have so effective a communal infrastructure to assist and guide it during difficult times like these, along with so many dedicated volunteers, professionals, and benefactors who ensure that the wheels keep turning.

Jewish helping hands

In the wake of the devastating violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has prioritised the alleviation of hunger caused by the unrest. The SAJBD Food Relief Fund, together with our partner, The Angel Network, is working with nongovernmental organisations on the ground to ensure that vital food aid is directly, efficiently, and timeously distributed. In KwaZulu-Natal, we are working on several projects, including partnering with the Union of Jewish Women in delivering food and other necessities to aged and children’s homes in need, and with Rev Shlomo Wainer, who is working with Christian groups in Inanda and Phoenix.

In Gauteng over the past week, we have inter alia worked with the Clive Mashishi Foundation through its church network in distributing hundreds of food parcels in Eldorado Park, Orange Farm, Vanderbijlpark, and Kliptown. During the unrest, Ditau Primary School in Orlando East was looted, and all the food for children’s meals stolen. Following an approach from the school, this week, we replenished its pantry so that the school feeding programme can continue. During our recent clean-up initiative at the Mayfield Mall in Daveyton, we realised that the hard-hit East Rand area is often neglected in terms of food-relief drives and thus this week, are arranging for food relief to be delivered to Daveyton.

We thank all our valued colleagues, partners, volunteers, and supporters who are making it possible for us as the representative face of the Jewish community to contribute on the ground and make a meaningful difference to those in need in our society.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Freed of Fred

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This is an apology to my daughter, Abby, to animal lovers everywhere, and to the late Yorkshire Terrier called Fred. May his memory always be for a blessing. I can’t apologise for not getting along with him, but I can apparently apologise for writing an article less than two hours after his sudden passing. According to my wife, it was even too soon to be “too soon”. In my defence, however, I was emotional and writing is cathartic. And I had a deadline.

Some context. Fred died peacefully after 13 years of my suffering. Something that was bravely borne (by me). We never got along, but I treated with him kindness and respect, aside from the odd occasions when I might have suggested in front of him that if he didn’t stop abluting under my desk or barking incessantly while we were eating dinner that I would have him put down. For the record, we never did that, and Fred died peacefully last Tuesday after eating thinly sliced chicken breasts that he had me cut up for him, as he didn’t like to chew on his own.

As a family we are, of course, saddened by the loss, and may we know no more sorrow. But just because he’s now dead, doesn’t mean that I have to pretend that he was ever a nice person. He wasn’t. And I have no doubt that had I “gone” before him, he wouldn’t have had a kind word to say about me.

Such was our relationship.

A well intentioned and kindly listener to my show messaged me to say that she had a magnificent pet cemetery to recommend for Fred. “It’s a bit far out of Johannesburg, but it’s worth it,” she suggested. As thoughtful as that was, considering that I have both parents at Westpark and I can hardly find the time to visit them, I can’t imagine dedicating an entire Sunday to spend time with Fred at his final resting place. Besides, I had seen the R450 invoice on the kitchen table from the vet for “cremation of small dog”, so that ship had clearly sailed.

He wasn’t well loved by anyone other than my daughter, whom I suspect did so just to annoy me. So unpopular was Fred (may his memory be blessed), that around a year ago, a security guard, in the absence of alternatives, actually drew his gun and pointed it at him. It wasn’t a pleasant event, and whereas I don’t want to speak ill of the dead – G-d forbid – any more than I need to, it does illustrate the type of reaction Fred caused. After months of having his heels nipped at, the poor bloke finally almost lost it. And no one could blame him. Not even my daughter.

The reaction to my article was interesting. Whereas some enjoyed the take, others were deeply offended. Social etiquette demands that we mourn the loss of our pets. It demands that we call them our “fur babies”, and that we post sad photos in happier times. And I would have probably done that if Daisy or Gatsby had suffered the same fate. Because they are, indeed, all of the above.

The offers we have had in the past week, not for meals to assist in our time of loss, but from people offering to give us their “Fred” to comfort us, suggest that I’m not alone in my experience. Where I might be alone, however, is in my foolishness in acknowledging it. Especially when I did so too soon even to be “too soon”.

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Voices

Compelled to clean up and contribute

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In the early days of his presidency, when the United States was all but crippled by the effects of the Great Depression and a pall of despair and despondency hung heavy over the nation, Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, “It’s common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another. But above all, try something.” As history shows, these weren’t mere words, but a statement of intent that underpinned what came to be known as the New Deal, a comprehensive array of laws and state-headed social upliftment initiatives that, while not solving the country’s problems overnight, kick-started the essential process of rebuilding.

What’s true for governments is equally true for ordinary citizens. In times of difficulty, each individual should look for ways to be part of the solution and contribute, even in a small way. As our own tradition puts it, “You aren’t obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

Last week, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, as the representative body of the Jewish community, had the opportunity to make a difference on the ground when we joined with our fellow South Africans from across the spectrum to clean up the Mayfield Mall in Daveyton in the wake of the devastating looting and destruction that had taken place there.

Following an approach from the office of the MEC for sport, arts, culture, and recreation, Mbali Hlophe, we put out a call to the community and early on Thursday, 15 July, a seven-car convoy set out from the KosherWorld parking lot. When it arrived at its destination, the volunteers were greeted by scenes of utter devastation, but together with local community members, they painstakingly set about sweeping, cleaning, and removing debris such as rocks, broken glass, and discarded packaging until the task was done.

Commenting on the experience, National Director Wendy Kahn wrote afterwards, “We left knowing that we had played some role in restoring some order to this area. And we had also showed a community in the East Rand that the Jewish community was concerned about them.”

At both national and local level, the Board is involved in many outreach projects with The Angel Network and other partners to assist communities affected by the unrest. Since Durban and other places in KwaZulu-Natal were especially hard hit by the violence, much of this critical work is being undertaken by our KwaZulu-Natal branch, the Council for KwaZulu-Natal Jewry.

Of immediate concern is alleviating the desperate poverty which so many were suffering from even before the unrest, and which the violence and looting has greatly exacerbated. You can assist us in this work by supporting our Food Relief Appeal at SA Jewish Board of Deputies, Standard Bank Killarney, Account 200305190, Swift code SBZAZAJJ, Reference Food Relief.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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