Grave project for Gauteng SAUPJ’s Mitzvah Day
Coming up with an activity for international Mizvah Day on 15 November was a no-brainer for the Gauteng Progressive movement, whose members spent the day cleaning up the Wall of Remembrance and children’s section at West Park Cemetery in Joburg.
Congregants from Gauteng progressive shuls spent the morning dusting down memorial plaques, before moving onto the babies’ section, where they raked up winter leaves, pulled weeds from graves, and gave it a general tidy up. The organisation will attend to minor structural damage to the Wall of Remembrance early in 2021.
The movement thanked Rabbi Julia Margolis, Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked, and congregants from the Gauteng South African Union for Progressive Judaism for their involvement and hard work in the scorching sunshine, saying that it hoped to do this more than just once a year.
Couple dies hours apart from COVID-19
“This isn’t a COVID-19 story; it’s a love story.” So says Cindy Silberg, the oldest daughter of Simon and Maxine Schneider, reflecting on the profound legacy her parents – who died within hours of each other – have left behind.
“It just shows that they were true soulmates,” says Hayley Kissos, their middle daughter. “They got married under the chuppah as one neshoma [soul]; they passed away together as one neshoma. From the time they got married until the time they were buried, they lived their lives as one.
“They lived lives of respect: respect for each other, and of others, and through that, others respected them,” says Stacey Barnett, their youngest daughter. “Our parents would just do whatever they could to help others.”
Two weeks ago, Maxine, aged 66, tested positive for COVID-19. A day later, Simon, 71, received the same test result. Maxine was carefully monitored by Hatzolah and as a precaution, since she had an underlying condition, was hospitalised. A few days later, Simon’s temperature started going up, and again as a precautionary measure, he was admitted.
“The doctors weren’t even sure that he really needed to be admitted,” says Kissos. “This was part of Hashem’s greater plan that my father would be with my mother.”
When Silberg asked her father if he wanted her to try to make sure that he was placed in the same ward as her mother, their bond was so deep, “he said to me, ‘No, then we are going to worry too much about each other; we both have to get better.’”
Both parents remained in a stable condition, without needing to be moved to intensive care (ICU). They were making plans for them to be released last Friday.
Instead, last Tuesday night, Maxine phoned Simon in his ward to remind him to watch MasterChef – they shared a love of reality cooking and dance shows. Maxine then climbed into bed and within half an hour, slipped away quietly in her sleep.
Simon was told the news and sat with her body as they waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to arrive. “He spoke to her and said his goodbyes,” says Silberg. “He told us she was so beautiful; she looked like she was dreaming,” says Kissos.
Rabbi Mordechai Rodal phoned Simon after hearing the news of Maxine’s death. He recalls that “Simon told me, ‘Rabbi, this is just a temporary separation. We are going to be reunited before you know it … We are both the same soul.’”
Seven hours later, Simon, too, slipped away in his sleep.
Having first met through a mutual friend when Maxine was 15 and Simon 19, three years later, Simon asked permission to propose to Maxine on her 18th birthday. They wed soon after, and set up home first in Orange Grove and then Sydenham. On 10 June, they would have celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary.
“They were the salt of the earth,” says Avril Epstein, Maxine’s younger sister. “It was a privilege to have chosen to be her sister. She was the nucleus of our family.” Justin Farkas, a family friend especially close to Simon, recalls how on the day Simon died, he was still trying to uplift people. “That day, from hospital, he created a WhatsApp group to help a gardener in a complex where he was involved. This is how he was to everyone. Everyone looked up to him as a father figure.”
Maxine worked as a legal cost consultant, mostly half days to be able to be with her daughters in the afternoon. Simon was a part of The Star newspaper team for more than three decades, working until retirement as credit manager.
Their house was “a simcha home”, reminisces Kissos, describing how it became a venue for endless parties to celebrate various people’s birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and other happy events. Sometimes, even just on ordinary weekends, “people would arrive at 08:00 on a Sunday for breakfast,” Barnett remembers.
They had seven grandchildren ranging in age from three to 20, and “each one believed they were the favourite” the family jokes.
Their father made few but strong stipulations for his family. “Growing up, we had to have dinner at the dinner table every night, and then when we left home, my father had two rules,” recalls Kissos. “The first was we weren’t allowed to emigrate. We were to stay here as a family. The second was that we didn’t go to sleep not talking. We always followed through.”
The Schneiders’ deaths are sadly part of the recent rapid increase in cases of the virus. Specialist physician pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital says that “by every single definition in the book, we are definitely in the third wave”. However, compared to previous waves, “it has a slightly different trajectory, and we don’t really know if it’s going to suddenly shoot up or keep going up more slowly for longer than before”.
Three main trends have emerged in the current wave. First, although previously a person who got the virus might land up infecting maybe one or two others in their family, now entire households are contracting it. What remains unclear is whether this is because the virus itself is more transmissible or people are living in closer proximity to each other than before. Most cases are being traced back to social gatherings, work functions, or dinner parties.
Second, people who are vaccinated, or even both vaccinated and who had the virus before, are assuming that they are immune and then contracting COVID-19. Zinman said people have to remember that even with the vaccine, “there’s a chance that you’ll get COVID-19 very mildly or not even know you have it, and yet still be able to transmit it”.
Lastly, ICU beds are still in desperate demand, with ambulances driving around to eight or nine hospitals to try and find space for their patients. People are also staying in ICU longer during the current wave, making the situation more dire. “Maintaining the proper behaviour to try and prevent transmission of the virus” is the only tool people have to keep safe, say frontline medical expert.
As the Schneider family grapple with the rawness of their loss, they cherish the small details of lives lived so closely together. Whether it was the pair of winter and summer pyjamas the couple brought every grandchild for each season; the endless chocolates Simon offered even just before mealtimes; or Maxine’s need to bake 11 pesadiche ginger cakes in one morning so that nobody would be left out; even their light-hearted bickering about whether the TV was too loud or too soft – all are reflections of the “warmth they radiated”, says Silberg.
She considers how at their funeral “seeing their graves together, I thought at least they have taken the next step together. There is something comforting in that. I told my children they were lucky to have known their grandparents.” I said, “Take those lesson into your life – that’s how you will keep my parents alive.”
Singles find romance in the Cloud
“COVID-19 lockdown? It’s epic. It’s probably the single greatest thing that has happened to single people ever.”
This assertion by gym owner Nicholas Ingel, who has been on the dating scene for four years since his divorce, reflects the fact that many older daters in the community are finding brave new ways to meet their beshert and keep a social distance.
“Before, we were tied into a relationship or a potential relationship only with people that we could physically meet. Now, we are no longer locked in by location or even time,” says the 49-year-old, reflecting on the possibilities for romance across the Zoom-iverse, even in the post-COVID-19 world to come.
Even after the pandemic is contained, the world won’t go back to the way it was before, Ingel says. “This is the new normal. It’s a hybrid between in-person and online meeting, and what an amazing thing it is!”
Lisa Kowalsky, the original founder of the Joburg Jewish Singles 35+ Facebook group, agrees, having recently launched an online series of dating events for the community.
“Obviously COVID-19 made it very difficult for us at first. I tried to get people to continue to interact by putting up questions on the Facebook page to which people could respond. Then I came up with online speed dating, which has been brilliant.”
Kowalsky, who started the events last month, hosts South African only and international Jewish singles dating events. Each participant gets a minimum of eight dates that last five minutes each. Participants share only their first names, and the dates are held on a special online platform that mimics a date setting.
“It has been such a success. We have had so many matches. In the first event, almost everyone had between one and four matches. Some people dated afterwards, and lots said it was so much fun.”
Michelle Blumenau has thoroughly enjoyed participating in two of the events. “It’s a low-stress way to meet new people via your computer.”
Blumenau explains the process. “It’s a Zoom-like platform, but there’s only you and one other person on the screen for a couple of minutes. Then the next person arrives. It’s just enough time to get a sense of the other and whether you would like to see that person again. If you both agree to meet, you are sent each other’s contact information the next day.”
She says it certainly has advantages over traditional dating. “It saves you having to sit through a drink or a meal with someone when there is absolutely no connection. It’s very good in that way.”
Meanwhile, Lorna Falkson, who voluntarily organised many social events for older singles before lockdown, has started coming up with outdoor activities that allow people to gather in COVID-19-compliant ways.
She recently held a garden get-together that was so popular, she had to turn people down as she could accommodate only 50 people to ensure social distancing. Moreover, she laughs, once the participants arrived, she struggled to get them to leave!
Kowalsky and Falkson say it’s clear that many singles have found life during COVID-19 lonely. In this context, Kowalsky’s Facebook group and Falkson’s gatherings have become not just about dating but serve as a place to connect in general.
“People form wonderful friendships and make great networks. Being single might be the common denominator, but it’s just a starting point,” says Kowalsky.
She says there has been a huge increase in the numbers of people joining the Facebook group during COVID-19, with about 150 new members recently joining the now 900-member collective.
For the first time, this includes Jewish singles from outside South Africa, although Kowalsky has been careful to ensure that they are specifically looking to meet South Africans.
Each member is carefully vetted and each post monitored. She is assisted by fellow administrators Wendy Miller, who is able to offer legal advice, and Colin Gluch, who is her “male counterbalance”.
The group was started in 2017 and since then, romance has blossomed for many of those in the group, with several serious relationships on the go and engagements confirmed.
For some members, it was their first foray back into the social world after a painful experience like the death of a spouse. “One member in his 70s lost his wife 10 years ago. He had become a hermit. He told us how this group had changed his life. He was going out; he was dating; he was having the best fun.”
Kowalsky herself isn’t single, and her passion for the project is motivated by a wider love for the community. “I love to see people happy” she says.
Yet, at times, she gets frustrated by the fact that people allow their inhibitions to get in the way of putting themselves out there. For example, page activity statistics show that about 90% of them are actively reading posts. However, this statistic isn’t represented when it comes to attending events. “The truth is, people moan and groan about where they are, but they’re not always putting in the effort.”
A reason could be insecurity. “A huge problem with singles is self-esteem. You have to realise that a lot of them have come out of bad marriages where their self-esteem has been broken, or they are widowed. They might not have dated since they were 18 years old. Now they’re like 50 or 60 -– where do they begin?”
Falkson says “older men are more shy. If you phone a shadchan [matchmaker], they will tell you there are no men on the books. But the reason there are no men on the books is that men don’t come forward. Yet, there are so many. What I would like to do is encourage them to make contact.”
Falkson says she is motivated by her experience of arriving in Johannesburg as a farm girl from Limpopo. “When I came to Johannesburg at the age of 20, I didn’t know anybody. I opened up a newspaper, and although then I wasn’t religious at all, there was a little advertisement for a Jewish matchmaker. I thought okay, well, this is my only hope.
The lady set her up on a number of dates. Eventually via one of these, she met a man who later introduced her to her husband, although they are now divorced.
“If you live in Johannesburg, there can be hundreds of people around you, but you can be very lonely. That’s why I’m passionate about creating opportunities for people to meet.”
Ingel urges people to rethink their attitude to dating. “Men tell me there is no one to date, and women tell me there is no one to date. We get brought up with these fairytales, and they’re not true. No one’s perfect. Stop looking for perfect – it doesn’t exist. It’s not about settling, it’s about understanding what’s real.”
The disjuncture is in how “people are arrogant in what they look for, but insecure in what they offer”.
They need to find a middle ground in their sense of self. “You aren’t as good as you think you are, but you certainly aren’t as bad as you think you are,” he says.
He suggests that rather than a hindrance, being older is an advantage. “[Being in the 35+ category], is really when you come into your own. I know myself better now than I have ever known myself. I’m comfortable with who I am. I know what I want, and importantly, I know what I don’t want.”
Ultimately, his advice is to remember that relationships aren’t repair shops. “We can’t fix people, and we can’t expect people to fix us. Learn to love yourself first.”
ORT Jet creates supportive network for business owners
Author, lecturer, and facilitator David Zidel told an ORT Jet networking session on 21 May that businesses should uplift one another, saying, “Even if someone can help you or your business a little way; a little way is further than where you were.”
Zidel told business owners and entrepreneurs at the breakfast session, which emphasised embracing the new, that a business needs three key things. “First, you need your bread and butter. This is an income that helps you to survive the month. Second, your gem. This is something that makes you ten times the income of your bread and butter. Third, your rainmaker. As the name states, it pours with income. This endeavour could make 100 times your gem or bread and butter.”
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it hard for community members to support each other, but ORT Jet’s breakfast created a wonderfully warm atmosphere for face-to-face networking, while adhering to the protocols in place.
The tenacious individuals present are refocusing their strengths to adapt themselves and their businesses, with the assistance from ORT Jet every step of the way.
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