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Fire destroys home but ignites hearts

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Community

Sydenham resident Aidi Posner was spending the last few minutes before Shabbos saying tehillim when she asked her husband, Leon, to turn on their gas heater as she was cold. He had got a new gas cylinder a few days before and was extremely fire-aware. But as soon as he turned the dial, something went wrong – the gas heater burst into flames.

“He asked me to get a blanket to dampen the fire. I ran to get one, but when I got back, he and my son, Evan, weren’t there. I looked for them, and couldn’t find them, but I heard them calling. Eventually, I realised they were outside the house – they recognised that they couldn’t contain the fire and had to get out. They had gone out the kitchen door.”

By this time, their kitchen was already burning, so she couldn’t follow that way. “I realised they were outside our lounge sliding door. I got the bowl of keys but we couldn’t figure out which key opened the security gate. Eventually we found it. I ran out, and at that point, the gas cylinder exploded. The house was engulfed in flames.”

“Soon after she got out, the roof came down. Life can change in a split second,” says her husband.

Meanwhile, not far away, their daughter, Gina Chernick, and her husband, Lior, had both got home from busy days as medical professionals. As they rushed to get ready for Shabbos, Chernick told her husband about her day working in the burns unit, which she always found difficult. “I also told him how my colleague was praising the Jewish community for how we take care of each other. If only she knew what would happen in the next 24 hours.”

Fifteen minutes later, their doorbell rang. “My domestic helper said, ‘Zaida is at the gate’, and I immediately knew something was wrong – why would he be there at that time? He came in, ran to me and said, ‘the house burnt down’.”

As the young couple reeled from the horrendous news, they dressed Leon’s hand, which had been burnt. “Driving to the house was literally like driving in a movie. The entire block was cornered off. There were so many spectators, three fire trucks, and medics. We are so thankful for the Zaka Fire Unit which came quickly to the scene, co-ordinated everything, contained the fire, and moved the cars in case of an explosion.” Local fire brigades hesitated in rushing to the scene, but eventually the Sandton fire brigade did arrive.

“I was told how the glass shattered as my mom ran away from the house, and the whole home went up in flames in 15 minutes,” says Chernick.

“I was taken to a neighbour, where I was treated for smoke inhalation,” says her mother. “I was completely traumatised. When I went out again, neighbours said ‘don’t look’. I was still holding that blanket – the only thing I had left.

“Our home of 36 years was destroyed,” says her husband. “But as the fire was burning, another fire started – that of social media. As quickly as the fire spread, so did community efforts to help. I think before the flames were out, a roster was filled to provide us with meals.”

The destruction was so devastating, holes were burnt in the floor, and the ceiling was hanging, but some parts of the property remain standing. As the family began to pick up the pieces, they went to Chernick’s home for a meal, then booked into local accommodation. The next day, they were given trauma counselling, and the reality of the situation hit hard. “But we spoke about how I had just been in the burns unit, and thank G-d, they were okay and alive,” says Chernick.

Meanwhile, the unique team effort of the South African Jewish community shifted into gear. “There wasn’t space on the roster to send a meal until mid-August. Someone gave a R3 000 MRP [Mr Price] voucher. A community member arrived with personalised toiletry bags for each family member, including their domestic helper [who escaped unharmed]. These are people who spent their Shabbos and weekend organising to help my parents even if they didn’t know them personally,” she says.

“There were non-stop deliveries. People gave beautiful, brand-new clothes. Family in Australia started a fundraiser. Someone offered for the cars to be serviced at no cost – a window had to be broken to start one car. Others offered free accommodation. People brought toothbrushes, shoes, and books to read.

“One of their good friends passed away a few years ago. His wife arrived and said, ‘I can’t give you my clothes as they’re not the right size, but please take my late husband’s tallis bag and tefillin. I was holding onto it, and I had no idea why. Now I know he wanted you [Leon] to have it.’ Everyone was crying.”

On top of all this, the family had been exposed to COVID-19, and therefore had to isolate. “All we wanted to do was go to the site to try to recover things. Zaka knew we couldn’t go, so their team offered to go there and try and salvage things for us, even though it’s not a service it offers. My brother’s room was burnt to shreds, but they found his tefillin. They also found my dad’s tallis bag on Friday night in the dark.

“My parents are givers at heart. It’s hard for them to take things from others,” Chernick says. “They and my brother are blown away and will never have the words to express their gratitude. Without the support of the community, a difficult situation would be so much worse.”

“My whole life, my parents have been fire cautious,” Chernick says. “I grew up not sleeping with heaters on and turning plugs off at night. This was a freak accident. I’m sure they would have wanted to take things, but thank G-d, they got out when they did. Every second counts in a situation like this.”

“It was terrifying and a near-death experience,” says her mother. “One minute it’s so peaceful and you’re sitting saying tehillim. The next, you don’t know if you’re going to make it. It was surreal. We are so humbled at the magnitude of people’s generosity. We don’t know where to begin to thank people.”

As the community rallies from near and far, Chernick says, “These are the moments that you realise that we really are a unique community globally. There is one heart and one neshomah that we all share. Just before the fire, my mom went to drop off a meal for someone who is ill, my husband finished a shift with Hatzolah, and my mom said tehillim for six people. I really think these small mitzvot saved them.”

“Fires are unpredictable and can happen in seconds,” says Kayla Ginsberg, a spokesperson for the Zaka Fire Unit, They cause irreparable and unquantifiable loss and trauma. We urge the community always to be aware of their surroundings and have fire-safety equipment in their homes. This equipment can save your life. Our unit is operational at all hours. Please don’t hesitate to call in case of emergency on 086 18 000 18. If you’re unsure, always call it in.

“Our full support and prayers are with the family at this very difficult time, and we wish them strength and comfort. Community members are welcome to contact info@zaka.org.za for assistance with fire-safety equipment customised to their homes.”

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Community

Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special

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With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.

The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.

The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”

The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.

“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.

The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.

“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.

Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.

“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.

Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”

The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.

“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”

JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.

This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.

“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”

The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.

“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”

The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.

Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”

Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”

Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”

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Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs

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ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.

The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.

Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.

“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”

Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”

On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”

Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”

ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.

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Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity

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Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.

Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.

He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.

Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”

Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”

They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”

Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.

Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.

“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”

Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.

When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.

Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”

Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.

“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”

Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”

Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”•            The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco

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