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Finding your Jewish beshert online

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While there have never been more dating apps, platforms, and websites, Jewish singles wanting to get married still struggle to meet their beshert (soul mate) who is on the same page as them. South African-born Derek Saker saw the gap, and created JWed, which has already had numerous successes, including matching up a number of South Africans.

Saker was born and grew up in Cape Town. He began his career in the hospitality industry, and was even a kosher chef for the South African Defence Force. He moved with his wife and two children from Israel to New Jersey after 9/11. His foray into Jewish matchmaking began when a friend who was a member of the website, Frumster.com, approached him and said he believed they could turn it into a profitable business.

“Frumster.com was started by a guy in Israel as a labour of love, but he was a programmer and not a business person,” says Saker. “He flew to New York, and we negotiated and purchased the website, which at the time had about 2 000 members.” Today, in its new incarnation as JWed, the site now has thousands of members from all over the world, and recently passed the milestone of 3 500 members getting married. “This is an averaging of eight marriages a month!” Saker says proudly.

But in those early days when it was still Frumster.com, success was a distant dream. The first thing Saker and his business partner did was to “completely re-launch the service internationally. We also introduced a tiered membership charge. Initially, the site was for only Orthodox, observant Jewish singles seeking to get married, and it was created as a reaction to the growing and multifaceted problem of Orthodox Jewish singles struggling to meet,” he says.

“It was a pioneering service in the observant world, as many still had an aversion to going online, and many singles themselves were suspicious of the whole set-up.” But the reality – that this was a platform that actually led to successful matches and marriages – meant that those fears were soon set aside.

Saker says that within the Jewish dating world, especially the frum world, women are often left waiting for that phone call or knock on the door, and taking the initiative is often frowned upon. Women also might have very particular ideas about what they are looking for, and often this is based on looks. Men also often have a list as long as their arm about the right woman for them, also often based on looks.

JWed obliterates these obstacles, allowing women to reach out to men, and showing men and women that once they connect with someone with whom they have a lot in common, their sometimes superficial criteria might not matter so much. In fact, 65% of successful matches on the site were thanks to women reaching out to men.

“This is a website that enables singles to take charge of their dating life. They can search profiles, decide who to contact, decide who to reply to, and so on,” says Saker. “Members know who they are and what they’re looking for.”

He notes that looks are obviously important, but “we didn’t want to create a dismissive environment where users just ‘swipe’ based on looks”. Navigating this tension between the first impression and the person behind the picture is an important part of the site’s ethos.

In addition, Saker says, “When we say ‘marriage-minded’, we don’t mean only people who want to get married ‘tomorrow’ should join. Each in their own time. It’s about having that mindset, that you want to marry Jewish, whether that’s soon or not.”

The site became JWed when “we realised that there was a huge market of single Jews who while not necessarily Orthodox observant, wanted to marry someone Jewish. As such, in 2008, we changed the name to JWed, to leverage a much more widely-appealing brand that spoke to all types of Jewish singles.”

The process of joining is easy, but also in-depth. This isn’t your typical ‘swipe if you don’t like’ dating app. “Singles sign themselves up, and complete a comprehensive profile. Members have to be Jewish and marriage-minded. How do we check? With questions and profile reviews. All profiles are first reviewed before being approved. Once approved, members can conduct their own searches based on criteria such as age, location, and religious level. Members can send an email through the system to someone they are interested in. That member can choose to reply.”

Saker emphasises that the main difference with other dating apps is “a very large and unique pool of thousands of singles throughout the world. They are halachically Jewish singles, observant and not. They are all marriage-minded Jews, of all ages. Our proprietary technology ensures genuine communication and users.”

While the site now has an app, called JWed Match, it still has the same comprehensive, detailed profile to complete.

Saker says there have been more than 100 successful matches that included a Jewish South African. “In many cases, the South African single moves to get married to someone overseas. I cannot deny that many Jewish singles probably see JWed as an additional vehicle to finding their soulmate abroad.”

He says South African Jews are popular on the site. “South Africans are highly regarded in the Jewish world. They are traditional, genuinely warm, friendly, and unassuming.”

Regarding the particular challenges facing South African Jewish singles, Saker says they are twofold. “One, there is the universal challenge of dating and meeting someone Jewish and marriage-minded, especially if they don’t frequent bars or nightclubs – both before and after COVID-19.

“This is especially the case with traditional Jews. They aren’t necessary religiously observant, but want to meet someone who is proudly Jewish, wishes to find a Jewish soul mate, and wishes to get married.” What’s unique to South Africa is that it’s a small community, so it’s difficult to meet someone ‘new’, and some Jewish South African singles are very particular about what they are looking for.

Aviva Dinur (formerly Amy Levin), grew up in Cape Town, spent a year in Israel after school, and then moved to Johannesburg. “I signed up to what was then Frumster.com because I wanted to date and find a Jewish husband, and because a friend wanted to see who was ‘out there’ but was too shy to sign up! At first I didn’t take it too seriously, but then after some unsuccessful dates, I decided to actually try to find someone who was a good match.

“I saw that my now-husband, Tal, had sent me a message six months before, which I had ignored, but he had messaged again. I asked a friend if she knew him, and it turned out he was her brother’s good friend. She thought we would make a great couple.”

With those assurances in mind, she responded to his message, “and the rest, as they say, is history. We dated for three or four months and got engaged. We were married in Johannesburg in June 2013, and our first child was born a year later. We moved to Israel where we lived for five years, and our two other children were born there. We then moved to Cape Town in January to work in the community. So we have really come full circle!”

She thinks the website is best for those who are thinking about marriage, and that people should be honest with themselves about this. “It definitely helps to be able to see someone’s background and interests. I didn’t expect to meet my husband on a website, but that was Hashem’s plan!”

Saker says that in spite of COVID-19, “membership has actually grown. The fact is that in distressing times, the challenge of being alone is compounded for many. This only further motivates those who are marriage-minded to find their soul mate.”

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SA government and politicians show bias as Israel conflict escalates

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As Israel faced a steady bombardment of deadly rockets fired by terrorist groups in Gaza this week, the South African government, politicians, and activists condemned the Jewish state, ignoring the myriad complexities of the violence.

And as Hamas escalated its barrage of rockets targeting innocent civilians, to which Israel retaliated, there has been no condemnation of Hamas from either the South African government or any of its politicians.

Israel’s right to defend itself and diffuse tensions in a bid to save the lives of all its citizens including Jews, Muslims, and Christians, hasn’t been acknowledged by the government in its condemnation of the Jewish state.

Siding wholly with the Palestinians, the government earlier this week expressed its “deep concern at the continued clashes at Al-Aqsa Mosque wherein Israeli soldiers attacked Palestinian worshippers while praying at the holy site”.

The Economic Freedom Fighters said it noted “the genocide” committed by Israel against the Palestinian people during Ramadan, saying “We condemn with contempt the violence perpetrated by the apartheid Israeli state on unarmed Palestinian people.” It called on the government to close down the South African embassy in Israel and recall all its representatives there.

No mention has been made about Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque stockpiling rocks, fireworks, and stone slabs around the site in preparation for violence and attacking Israeli police.

Focusing all its attention on the land dispute and potential eviction of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, the government ignored a multitude of issues that have contributed to the rising wave of violence since April.

The department of international relations and cooperation (DIRCO) issued a statement saying, “The South African government strongly condemns the attacks and planned evictions of Palestinians from annexed East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlements.

“It’s perplexing that during these unprecedented times, as the international community addresses the global challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel is exploiting the situation to advance its de facto annexation of Palestinian land. These acts aren’t only illegal but also risk undermining the viability of a negotiated two-state solution and will have negative consequences on the entire peace process.”

In response to this, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) called on the government, all political parties, and the media to show “even-handedness” and acknowledge the complexity of the situation.

In a joint statement, SAJBD National Chairperson Wendy Kahn and SAZF Chairperson Rowan Polovin, said, “In their determination to condemn Israel come what may, the government has reversed cause and effect. The reality – and not for the first time – is that the initial clashes were deliberately orchestrated by the Palestinian leadership and have now culminated in a lethal barrage of missile fire on Jerusalem and other heavily populated cities.

“Rockets are indiscriminate. They imperil the lives of all who live in the Holy City, whether Jew, Christian, or Muslim. In spite of this, the South African government has chosen to single out Israel for exclusive condemnation, disregarding completely the more than 1 200 deadly rockets fired thus far against Israeli civilians.

“The double standards don’t stop there. Whereas countries throughout the world sent condolences to Israel following the tragic loss of 45 lives in Meron, South Africa has yet to follow suit even two weeks later. However, within 24 hours, it was able to issue a statement condemning Israel.

“If the government, and indeed all political parties, wish to be part of ending this latest tragic outburst of violence, they must show genuine even-handedness. Those who unquestioningly endorse the claims and actions of one side while completely ignoring those of the other do nothing to resolve the conflict. In fact, they only make a bad situation worse.”

They went on to say that demonising Israel, as was the case with certain statements, was “irresponsible, inflammatory, and dangerous”.

The Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Lior Keinan, told the SA Jewish Report that no country in the world would tolerate this level of terror.

He has called on the international community and South Africa to condemn the rocket fire and Palestinian terrorism targeting Israeli citizens in the “strongest manner”, as well as to support Israel’s right to self-defence.

Keinan said that these events were part of a “wave of terror” that was being led by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and were the result of “reckless and irresponsible incitement to violence”.

Concerning earlier violence, he said, “Israel sought to achieve calm in Jerusalem. We took every measure to prevent conflict or violence and to allow freedom of worship. These measures include postponing the Supreme Court hearing regarding Sheikh Jarrah, blocking Jews from visiting the Temple Mount, changing the route of the flag march, and then cancelling the event. Moreover, Israel acted in a measured manner in response to the rockets and incendiary balloons that had been launched from the Gaza Strip to prevent any escalation during this sensitive period.”

He said responsibility for the situation rested completely with Palestinian terrorist organisations and “on the unrestrained incitement by the Palestinian Authority”.

“No country will allow rockets to be fired on its children, women, and men. Israel will take any action necessary to protect its citizens. It’s the right and the duty of every state.”

Meanwhile, small protests were held by pro-Palestinian groups at the Israel Trade Offices in Sandton, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, all of which blamed Israel for being solely responsible for the violence.

Interestingly, in an open letter to DIRCO Minister Naledi Pandor, the South African BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) Coalition said it was “extremely disappointed” by DIRCO’s statement about the conflict, calling for more action by the government.

The Democratic Alliance said Israel must “employ maximum restraint in the use of force” adding “violence from both sides must cease in the interest of peace, saving lives, and protecting the human rights of both the Israeli and Palestinian people”.

Dr Corne Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus said, “The ANC government has never tried to hide its hostility towards Israel, and has now once again chosen the terrorist side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s time for the ANC to honour Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s lamentable that the South African government is always so quick to side with Israel’s opponents and condemn the country,” he said.

In Cape Town, a protest organised by Africa4Palestine (formerly BDS SA), brought a number of anti-Israel groups together. But only about 200 members of the public gathered to condemn Israel, many of them children.

Speaking in front of parliament, the late Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela called for the closure of the South African embassy in Israel. “We are clearly asking South Africa not to downgrade its embassy in Israel, but to close it down!” he shouted to cheers from the crowd. “We also want to deny [Israeli international carrier] El Al from coming into South Africa!” he said to more cheers of support.

He called for South Africans to “boycott products from apartheid Israel. The only thing we expect from our government is to place sanctions on apartheid Israel!” He then called on the crowd to join him on 18 July in Pretoria (the date marked to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy) outside the Israeli embassy in Pretoria. “We want to see it shut down and for the ambassador to leave. We won’t compromise,” Mandela said.

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Rise in anti-Israel sentiment leads to calls for vigilance

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The Community Security Organisation (CSO) has witnessed a marked increase in anti-Israel rhetoric as well as expressions of hate directed at Jews online following violence in Israel, and has appealed to the community to be extra vigilant and report all incidents.

Jevon Greenblatt, the director of CSO Johannesburg, told the SA Jewish Report on 12 May that tension in Israel had escalated dramatically over the past few days, with levels of open conflict growing exponentially over the past 48 hours.

“It’s not uncommon for anti-Israel anger around a situation like this to spill over into diaspora Jewish communities,” he said.

“Since Monday, we have seen a significant increase in concerning online rhetoric and numerous protest action called for over the coming days across South Africa.

“We are seeing a huge campaign by the anti-Israel lobby to dehumanise Israel with massive distortions about what’s really happening on the ground.”

Political leaders, social-media influencers, and celebrities are lending their voices to the pro-Palestinian lobby.

“This creates the perfect environment for a potential lone-wolf actor to carry out an attack. Whenever something like this takes place, our concern is that the anger created can be misdirected against the local community.”

He said that while CSO staff and volunteers were working hard to ensure the continued safety and security of the community, it was a “collective effort”.

“Vigilance is crucial. We should always make sure our facilities are as secure as possible, and we should always be doing the best we can to strengthen our security.

“It’s at times like this that we are reminded always to implement the best safety protocols because the threat is always out there.

“It requires the active participation of all community members. We ask you to maintain heightened awareness and report any emergency, potential threats, suspicious activity, or antisemitism related to the Jewish community or Jewish facilities to the CSO on 086 18 000 18 (or 086 18 911 18 in Cape Town).”

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Guarding Jerusalem from the “end of the end” of Israel

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The Golan is the true gatekeeper of Jerusalem, particularly in mitigating against the Iranian threat across the border, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) Major (Res) Yaakov Selevan said during a talk to commemorate Yom Yerushalayim this week.

“People who live in the Golan claim that it’s the most naturally beautiful region in Israel. But they aren’t living here for the views; they are here because there is something for which they’re willing to die – the redemption of the heart of the Jewish people.”

Selevan, a Jerusalem born-and-bred military official who now works as a tour guide and public speaker, was hosted for the webinar by Mizrachi SA and the South African Zionist Federation, in collaboration with other partners.

Although Selevan grew up with “the Western Wall as my backyard”, he now lives with his wife and three daughters in the Golan. Over the years, he has come to realise how deeply intertwined the fates of these two Israeli regions are.

Logistically, the Golan has always been a key strategic point, both in its proximity to neighbouring countries and major water sources, including the Sea of Galilee. Politically, its significance is even greater.

Even in the Roman era, when Roman soldiers were unable to penetrate the Jewish resistance in Jerusalem, they elected to try and attack from the periphery and move down. At the time, the Golan was rich in Jewish life with more than 30 synagogues. In the year 67, in spite of the efforts of Jewish revolutionaries, after a number of attempts, the Romans did overtake the ancient city of Gamla in the Golan. “They killed more than 4 000 Jews. Jewish independence fell, and then the Romans started moving down towards the heart of the land – Jerusalem. Three years later, we know, the second temple was destroyed.”

Fast forward thousands of years, when the Golan was redeemed from Syrian control by the IDF in the 1967 war, a number of fascinating ancient Jewish artefacts were found. The most striking of which was an ancient coin from the era of the Jewish revolt against Roman control. Engraved in Hebrew, its inscription reads “for the redemption of Jerusalem, the holy”.

In the modern political landscape, the Golan remains a contested hotspot particularly in relation to Iran and its ongoing incursions into the borderlands of Lebanon and Syria.

Selevan said that for many years, Iran had also used Israel and Jews symbolically as a strategy to forge allegiances across Muslim and Arab states that otherwise would be divided across Sunni and Shiite ethnic lines. These distinctions are derived from a dispute over the line of succession after Muhammed.

After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, “Iran wanted to ‘export the revolution’, and it realised it had a problem. While they were Shiites, most of the people around them were Sunni.” So, said Selevan, they chose a “common interest – the holy city of Jerusalem. Who controls the old city of Jerusalem? The filthy Zionists.” Moreover, as enemies across the Arab world sought ways to attack Israel, they turned to Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

Iran remains a threat to Israel on a number of levels, Selevan said. The first is its nuclear programme; the second its Precision Guided Munitions project, which designs missiles that use GPS to hit specific targets. Third, is its political take over and proxy power in various countries like Lebanon and Yemen. The next key territory which Iran is looking to control in the region is Syria, itself riddled by a civil war that has been appropriated by a myriad of interests.

In Lebanon, Iran controls networks of tunnels and occupied villages where local people are being used as human shields and whose homes are utilised for the storage of missiles and rockets. It hopes to use the chaos in Syria to take over using a similar model.

However, along with military action, Israel has made huge inroads diplomatically to prevent this, Selevan said.

“Iran used us and Jerusalem as a common interest, a common enemy, and a step in the door to the Sunni world. However, in the past few years, with what’s happening just here in Syria, people in the region are seeing what the Iranians are doing and how they’re taking over this region. They realise that they are next in line: Saudi Arabia, even Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, all these countries said, ‘Oh my G-d, all these years, we thought the Jews were the problem. Now we understand the greatest threat is the Shiites. Who can help us against the Shiites? The Jews!’”

Israel has thus turned Iran into the common interest which is “our step in the door of the Muslim world”. The most recent result is the Abraham Accords peace agreements, said Selevan.

Israel has another way in which it continues to forge towards peace – humanitarian aid.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has helped, offering medical services and distributing food, clothing, and other products for basic needs, proving, “you can stop Iran with baby diapers”.

At its core, the motivation for the action is humanitarian, said Selevan. “We did it because we’re Jewish; we cannot stand by when we see people suffering.”

Nevertheless, it also had an impact on political engagement. Terror groups, such as those under Iranian control, are reliant on local populations for support, access to land, and soldiers. As Israel continues to reach out to her neighbours, “there’s a whole generation growing up in Syria knowing that we’re not the devil”.

Although this doesn’t mean there aren’t still many who are against Israel and are manipulating the aid system, nevertheless there are shifts. For Selevan, this is encompassed by a drawing made by a seven-year-old Syrian Muslim girl. Her portrait of the Israel flag, captioned in Arabic, thanks the Israeli who saved her life.

In spite of the huge upswing of attacks on Israel in recent days, Selevan said he was hopeful. His life in the Golan is a contract between him, his country, and his community.

“I’m here at the end of the end of the end of the country because someone needs to be here, because my community is the greatest answer to the Iranian threat. That’s my purpose. That’s my essence.” Holding out a replica of the Jewish-revolt-era coin, Selevan asserted, “Each and every one of us needs to ask ourselves: what’s my job in the redemption of Jerusalem?”

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