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Fiery message in the embers

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The Jewish Report Editorial

It’s one week before Lag B’Omer, and it seems to me that all we are hearing about right now is fire.

Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in Parktown was severely damaged by a fire last Friday, and Cape Town was burning from Sunday until late Tuesday this week.

It has been said that Johannesburg firefighters didn’t have the infrastructure to contain the hospital fire with speed, hence the extensive damage. There were also disparaging words about the hospital not having an emergency plan, and its fire hydrants not being in working order.

However, in spite of everything, not one person was injured in the fire, and the hospital team managed to get each of about 800 patients out safely and to other hospitals. Some might say it was miraculous.

In Cape Town, the fire raged for days and seemed to be stretching further and further into suburbia and the City Bowl. It gutted beloved iconic Mother City landmarks like the Windmill on the side of the M3, and University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Jagger Library, which forms part of the UCT Libraries Special Collections.

A ministerial home was gutted, as well as so many other houses. About 4 000 students in residences were evacuated, and many others who live and work on and around the mountain.

Firefighters didn’t sleep as they focused on their mission to put out the fire. Helicopters flew backwards and forwards with sea water, dropping it onto the fire to try and douse it. Firefighters’ nerves were frazzled, but they kept going until they finally succeeded in putting out the fire late on Tuesday. The problem was, the firefighters explained, every time they thought they were gaining control over the fire, it kept reigniting.

Amidst the mayhem, all sorts of people did incredibly brave deeds to save human and animal lives, precious items, and memorabilia. Read our story on page 1.

The young Rabbi Nissen Goldman rushed into the Kaplan Centre of Jewish Studies on UCT campus, close to the Jagger Library that burned down. He risked his life to save the Torah housed in Kaplan Centre.

Across town the following day, Herzlia’s director of education, Geoff Cohen, evacuated four Torah scrolls from Herzlia Highlands Primary. The whole school was closed on Monday and Tuesday as the fire was way too close for comfort, and smoke hung over the school like a pall, dropping ash everywhere.

You can, of course, think what you want, but I believe there is something very symbolic in these fires. Fire in Judaism is an extremely powerful symbol. Remember, G-d convinced Moses of his existence when he spoke to him from a burning bush.

We light fire to welcome the Sabbath, and we light up to end the Sabbath and begin a new week. We light candles to remember those who have left us, and we speak of our eternal flame being the light within us, our souls. This flame is also believed by many tzaddikim to be Torah, which is believed to keep Judaism alive.

Now, in Judaism there are two types of fire, the fire that burns, which is the unruly fire as experienced in Cape Town and at the Johannesburg hospital, and then the fire that gives light (as in domestic fire). Wildfires, while they may be caused by humans, are uncontrolled and forces of nature. They take with them everything in their path, burning the good, the bad, and the ugly. By destroying iconic landmarks and a massive library filled with historic books, there is a message for us about protecting the old, but also letting go what we can’t save because we don’t have total control. Could it be that it’s a message to let go of the old and make way for the new?

Or to preserve what you can, but remembering that lives are so much more important than belongings or things. Even iconic buildings aren’t as important as lives.

It’s astonishing that with all that could have gone wrong with both fires, there were no deaths. And in the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, not one of the many sick people – some of whom were in intensive care and on ventilators, hooked up to drips, and unable to walk – were injured or harmed because of the fire.

It’s mind-blowing that in spite of what sounded like fiery mayhem, they were all safely transported and accommodated in another ward in another hospital. Read our story on page 4.

In both fires, there were people who risked their lives to save others. I’m always amazed at how in times of crises, heroes emerge. Sometimes it’s those you least expect who step up to the plate to help. And of course the firefighters and medical staff who put their own lives in jeopardy for other people were simply incredible. Kol hakavod!

Crime and weddings

Fires and crime seem to be on the increase all over Johannesburg and Cape Town. We have to take every precaution to prevent it happening to us. I know that’s easy to say, but we have to ensure we have adequate security and use it at all times. (See page 3.) And we have to make sure our protection against fire is up to date and ready just in case we need it. There are people who can advise us on this. Take their advice, and safeguard yourself and your families.

In this edition, we also look at how many weddings have taken place this year where COVID-19 protocols have been mostly ignored. Now, I would never want to dampen the happiness of newlyweds, but we would all hate it if one of these weddings became a super-spreader event. We have put the COVID-19 wedding protocols on our website. Take a look at it, and let’s be responsible. Again, take precautions to avoid distress and trauma.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

It ain’t so bad here

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I can’t say I’m surprised that people get nervous when they read that aliyah figures are at a record high. They aren’t worried about those leaving the country, but about those of us staying behind.

I understand if you might be wondering if you are missing something. Are you not reading the writing on the wall?

I will stick my head out and say that there’s no writing on the wall. We are a country that, like many others, has crises.

And if there are people running away, I believe they take their troubles with them. Those people who are pulled to go to live in Israel or somewhere else, I’m sure they will find happiness. Emigration happens around the world, and it’s healthy.

Having spent three and a half fabulous years in Israel, I know the pull of that country, but I also know that despite everything we have and are experiencing, we have a wonderful life here.

There is a strange belief that Israel will come and rescue South African Jews if things get tough here. I was glad to hear the Israel Centre’s Liat Amar Arran say this week (on page 1 and 4) that Israel isn’t waiting for us. She also said Israel isn’t going to come and rescue us, as such.

Israel is the Jewish homeland, but it’s a tough country to live in and competition is rife. So many of the niceties and luxuries we take for granted here aren’t readily available in Israel. Olim don’t arrive in Israel and have the pick of their careers. Nobody is waiting to hire us. Those tiny flats in Tel Aviv that you would have snubbed in South Africa are extraordinarily expensive and difficult to come by.

Far be it for me to dissuade anyone from making aliyah, I would be loath to do that because I love Israel. All I’m saying is, don’t romanticise living in Israel because it isn’t easy. It may be wonderful and challenging, but not a walk in the park.

After what we have experienced this year in South Africa, what with the pandemic and the recent violence and looting, it’s easy to be disheartened enough to say you want to leave.

But don’t leave in a panic. Don’t leave in desperation. Know that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side unless you have done your research, made your plans, and have a clear idea of what is on the other side for you.

And know that while Israel is an exciting place to live, it’s difficult to move away from everything you know and love, not least of all friends and family.

Though your parents and grandparents put on a brave face because they believe you’re doing the right thing, leaving them behind will be tough for all of you.

Just this week, I read a Facebook post written by a woman I shared a tent with when we were teenagers at Habonim machaneh. She has been living in Australia for many years. I shed tears reading her heartache in losing her mother and not being able to be with her. I took it that her mother was here in South Africa and died from COVID-19, because I could feel her frustration in not being able to say goodbye, not being at the funeral, and so on.

That’s part of the sadness of emigration.

Once again, I consider what we have here, and I’m grateful. I recognise that there are many who may have been well off or comfortable who are now really battling for money.

I also acknowledge that our communal organisations may not be getting the kind of finances they used to get or would like to get.

I also know that for most of us, life is a lot more challenging than ever before.

However, we have the most incredible community in the world – and I say that with complete conviction.

Look around you, we support one another without question. We have communal organisations that literally ensure that we have ambulances when we need them, medicine when we need it, and that we are protected. We have organisations that will take care of us in times of need. I can go on and on because our communal structures are world class.

I know of family and friends overseas who may be content and happy in their new homes, but they long for the communal life we have. And with good reason.

We are a real community! We fight with each other, but when push comes to shove, we back each other and stick together.

Over the past year and a half during the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t just Hatzolah and our doctors that rallied around to support the sick in the community. Jewish women created groups to make sure that those who were sick were supported and didn’t feel alone. Others made sure they had food.

Which other community had someone checking on those at home with COVID-19 a number of times a day? If you needed oxygen, it would arrive. If you needed to go for x-rays, you would be taken.

And now, in the case of vaccinations, a young Jewish doctor arranged a slick, fast-paced drive at The Base Shul in Glenhazel on Sunday, where more than 3 000 were vaccinated in one day. And, this wasn’t the first time. Now, The Chev and Hatzolah have set up their own vaccination sites to get the rollout done and dusted so we and everyone else can move on out of this pandemic.

That’s our community. I’m not sure there are others in the world quite like us, and that makes me proud and so hopeful.

So, yes, times are tough. Yes, there are many of us leaving South Africa to go to Israel. May all those who have gone be happy and healthy. May they find what they are looking for there.

But for those of us who remain behind, I feel confident that we will be far better than just okay. We will thrive as we have done before.

And as we launch our nomination drive for the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, please nominate those incredible people in our community. Let’s give them the acknowledgement and kavod they deserve.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Just get vaccinated

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As the dust settles on the violence and looting that took place last week, the community has bonded in raising funds and gathering essential goods for those sorely affected by the chaos. These include our community in KwaZulu-Natal.

I was astonished to see people, many of whom were fasting on Tisha B’Av, making their way into townships to help clean up over the weekend. The kindness and generosity of our community has, again, come to the fore.

Literally millions of rand has been raised in days to help people, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal. People who have barely left their homes in months made their way to help pack boxes and sort through essentials that were destined for Durban.

It was amazing how the horror of the pandemic took a back seat to the crazed looting, burning, and madness that was believed to have been caused by Zuma’s cronies, now known as the “dirty dozen”.

For a week, our focus shifted to another devastating situation in our country.

But as the damage is being weighed up and the true toll on the economic and political playing field is tallied, the rest of us return to the reality of the pandemic and that level 4 lockdown is still with us. The number of people with COVID-19 is still extremely high, but it’s dropping. This is a huge relief.

There is undoubtedly hope in the air, and that hope comes in the form of an injection, a jab, a shot, or a vaccination – call it what you will.

Never before have I witnessed people crying with joy when they receive a vaccination. And many are willing to wait quietly, in their masks and keeping a social distance, for hours on end just to get that small vial of muti vaccinated into their arm.

I know I was quite emotional when I had my first jab. It felt like one step towards freedom. One step towards being able to live a life without so many restrictions. As I was vaccinated, I pictured myself surrounded by my loved ones at a dinner table.

Isn’t it amazing how regular events that we took for granted have become something we long for?

While most people I know just want to be vaccinated for all the same reasons I do, I don’t understand why there are others who seem to look for excuses not to. Now, normally (if there is such a thing), I believe in letting people follow their own path. If they don’t agree with my views, so be it. They don’t have to.

However, the only way we are going to get to population or mass immunity is if more than 65% of the population is vaccinated. So, it isn’t as simple as looking the other way.

To get to the point where we can’t carry coronavirus and make someone else sick, many more of us need to have one of the vaccines on offer in South Africa. At this stage, we are vaccinating about 200 000 people a day. So far, we have given 5.5 million individual doses. The government’s aim is to vaccinate 300 000 a day.

According to the most recent research done by experts at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, nearly one in four are still hesitant to be vaccinated. And one in 15 are strongly opposed to it. Their reasons vary from not trusting that the vaccines have been tested for long enough to vaccinations being a global plot. I have heard and read the most ridiculous reasons for not getting vaccinated. The point is, those people who are dying and very ill in hospital are generally not vaccinated. Isn’t that enough of a reason to get the vaccine?

The reality is that as a nation, we can avoid a fourth wave. The sooner we’re all vaccinated, the sooner we can resume a semblance of normality.

Can you picture it: going to the cinema, dinner in a cosy restaurant, parties where we dance with each other.

Imagine going to a concert in the park with people all around us, dancing, smiling, and laughing. It seems almost like a dream.

The idea of going to shul and sitting next to a friend and enjoying a brocha afterwards seems like a fond memory.

Just being able to walk down the street and smile at people and see them smiling back at you would be so pleasurable. And South Africa is one of the few countries in which strangers smiling and greeting each other happens all the time.

The truth is, this isn’t that far off if we all just get vaccinated. Everyone from the age of 35 and older can get their jabs now.

In the next few weeks, the SA Jewish Report is going to focus on trying to dispel myths and answer any questions, worries, or concerns about vaccines so that we are all armed with all the facts.

This Sunday, if you are registered on the Electronic Vaccination Data System, you can go along to The Base Shul in Glenhazel where they are vaccinating. Anyone is welcome as long as he or she has their identity document and is registered. You can be on a medical aid, but you don’t have to be. You certainly don’t have to be Jewish.

Our responsibility isn’t just to get ourselves and those in our family above 35 vaccinated, it extends to those in our circle or those we know. What if the security guard at your office block has had difficulty registering and/or getting somewhere that he could be vaccinated? Don’t let him wait, help him to get there.

The same goes for your domestic workers, gardeners, other staff, or even that woman you know down the road. Do a mitzvah, help someone or a number of people to get vaccinated.

Make it your commitment to get yourself vaccinated, and everyone you know who wants to be protected against this killer coronavirus.

As a community, let’s do the right thing. We have seen too much death and illness, it’s time to bring it to an end.

And it’s not about which drug will work better and will there be a hospital bed if you get very ill with COVID-19. It’s all about doing everything you can to prevent you, me, and everyone else from getting this virus.

Let’s do it!

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Madness takes its toll

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This week, the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, “…madness takes its toll” keep playing in my head. We are living through what feels like a surreal and devasting time. In truth, it’s a time of national shame.

It seems fitting that this weekend is Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the temple and so many other losses.

Not only are we in level 4 lockdown and our COVID-19 numbers are still soaring, but an uprising has spread through the country. People have the right to protest, but they don’t have the right to destroy property, loot, and steal.

I don’t believe this is all about Jacob Zuma being incarcerated, but I do believe it’s a multipronged problem that has been building up. And while I believe that poverty is a major part of the problem right now, there is also lawlessness because you cannot eat a television set or a cell phone. However, there are so many people starving, and about 75% of young adults are unemployed. This has to be addressed.

It’s easy to expect the government to wave a magic wand, but that isn’t going to happen in the midst of a pandemic that’s sweeping through this country. And so, I understand why there is a feeling of despondence.

However, trashing malls and businesses is hardly going to provide jobs or feed the poor. Instead, it destroys already stressed livelihoods and creates much more unemployment.

Like most of you, I have had messages from former South Africans abroad asking if we are okay because they are watching what’s happening on the news. It clearly looks horrific, and it is, what with more than 75 killed and many more injured. Also businesses and malls have been gutted, as have homes and vehicles.

But looking out from my suburban window, I see only calm and quiet. Such is the dichotomy of our country. However, our community in KwaZulu-Natal is having a tough time, and we don’t know exactly what will happen.

This and so much fake news disseminated on social media has led to dread and fear. The number of malls that were trashed (fictitiously) in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg really got to people. There were videos of destruction that were years old, and some weren’t even from South Africa. You have probably read it or watched it and believed it until someone hopefully told you otherwise.

And, much like when we first experienced lockdown, fear and panic has led to the mass buying of food and petrol just in case… The problem is that while we don’t lack essential items right now in Gauteng, we may do if people don’t stop buying what they don’t need en masse.

As we have witnessed fear buying before, we have also witnessed the country in flames before.

Just recently, we commemorated the national youth uprising on 16 June 1974, which was a horrific time in South Africa. The country also appeared to be on the brink of civil war after the death of Chris Hani in April 1993. And, if you think back to round about this time last year in the United States, the mayhem that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers wasn’t dissimilar.

It definitely makes it much harder to deal with this as our country still feels the onslaught of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which so many people have fallen ill and died. It’s a double whammy – or a war on two fronts.

However, we’re not facing the end of our country or a war. Yes, the government has to take this in hand, and our president is trying hard to do this. The situation is extremely volatile and needs to be handled carefully. But handled, it will be.

This isn’t a time to look at everything that’s happening as the end. It isn’t. This, too, shall pass.

In fact, we were in a strangely worse situation when our former president, Jacob Zuma, was in charge with his and his cronies’ proverbial hands in the national coffers. They clearly set a horrible example for what’s happening now.

The big difference is that now we have national leaders who are trying to stop this. Then, it was almost impossible to take on the country’s leadership.

Right now, there has to be hope when you see communities forming to defend shopping centres and buildings in their areas. You see people coming out in droves to help fix those premises and business that were destroyed.

I’m astonished at the goodwill that’s coming from our community and the majority of people in this country. I do have a sense of people feeling real shame about what has happened and continues to happen.

It’s so clear that the majority of South Africans aren’t behind the trouble. Most of us are peace loving people who want to lead honest, good lives. A small number have caused this, and the full might of the law must be brought to deal with them. We need to work out exactly what was behind this uprising, though, because that’s the only way to move forward.

I know that people are feeling despondent and scared, but I’m hopeful that, with most of us wanting the same thing, we’ll get it. We’ll find a way to rebuild our economy, give jobs to the jobless, and be proud of our country once again.

As our wise Rabbi Eitan Ash said in a video this week, “South Africa is a miraculous country” and “We always come through”. He added: “I am not saying it isn’t tough, it’s so tough, but if ever there is a time to be strong and positive, it’s now.”

I couldn’t agree more. We need to be calm, work together as a community, and help do what needs to be done. We need to stay focused on being positive and uplifting those around us.

With Mandela Day on Sunday, it seems fitting to end with a quote from Madiba: “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.”

May our country be blessed with peace and prosperity!

Shabbat Shalom!

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