Heartbreak and loss as the world slams doors on SA
Sarah Cohen* was woken by banging on the door at 04:30 on the morning of Friday 26 November. She was visiting from the United Kingdom (UK) with her one-year-old son and looking forward to enjoying all that her former home city of Cape Town had to offer. But there was a taxi driver at the front door sent by her father in London. He was to take her to the airport so that she could get on a plane that her husband, also back in London, has just booked. In light of the new COVID-19 variant, South Africa was going to be put back on the UK’s red list, and she had to go – immediately.
“It was intensely stressful and terrifying. It happened so fast. When I went to sleep on Thursday things were normal. Then I was suddenly woken up by a cab driver pounding on the door. I checked my phone to find about a thousand missed calls and WhatsApps. My husband had booked us a flight home via Munich. We just chucked everything in bags and legged it to the airport, worried we’d miss [the flight]. It was the last international flight out of Cape Town!”
She is one of thousands who have been directly or indirectly affected by the new Omicron variant discovered by South African scientists. The heartache and loss resulting from the international knee-jerk reaction is unquantifiable. Family reunions forfeited, simchas cancelled, stranded travellers forced into quarantine, and businesses bearing the brunt of the travel bans are parts of its ripple effects around the globe. Many South African Jews and their families have been affected.
Cohen counts herself among the lucky ones. “My flight was literally the only one and it left two hours before they [the UK] officially put South Africa on the red list. That’s why I can isolate at home rather than being stuck in a hotel room with my toddler.”
Carole Levin and her family were looking forward to celebrating her son David’s wedding on 16 December. But that dream was shattered in the space of 24 hours.
“David and his fiancée Daniella (Dani) Hayman have been living in the Caribbean for the last 18 months, as he got a job there. They left Cape Town in July 2020. We all thought by December 2021 we would be able to safely have a wedding.
“In the meantime, Dani’s grandmother had a fall, and she came to see her at the beginning of October. Her plan was to stay until the wedding. David was booked to arrive on 6 December. On Monday last week the COVID-19 numbers started to rise. By Thursday we realised a fourth wave was imminent. We woke up on Friday to news of the UK travel ban.”
Amid frantic phone calls from family cancelling, they tried to bring the wedding forward so that they could celebrate with those who could still make it. The only date available was 6 December. It wasn’t possible, and so their summer wedding dream was over.
They then heard that the United States (US) was banning travel from South Africa from Monday 29 November. From enjoying the lead-up to her long-awaited wedding, “Dani had to get on a flight and leave. She was distraught, devastated,” said Levin. Amid tears, they helped her pack late into the night. The next morning she was gone, on a flight to Washington via Addis Ababa and Dublin.
It was touch and go, and she sent a heartbreaking message from the airport in Ethiopia saying she had made it onto the flight to the US. “It was a very emotional moment,” said Levin. She recalls so many times in Jewish history where crossing oceans meant getting to safety, and how holding off simchas in times of trauma is a part of our story. She remains hopeful that the wedding will take place in 2022.
Tessa Snitcher, who made aliyah in 2007, said, “My mom was coming to Israel to see her grandchildren, whom she hasn’t seen for two years. She booked on Turkish Airlines. She flew on 25 November at 17:00. By 20:30 there was a cabinet meeting in Israel. By midnight they had decided to close the border to South Africans. When I woke up 05:00, my mom called me hysterically, saying she wasn’t allowed to get on the plane to Israel from Turkey.
“I truly thought that they can’t stop somebody in mid-flight,” continued Snitcher. “I was in shock. They didn’t even give a few hours’ notice to allow people to get to a destination. I had no one to talk to. I called the airport, no one could help me. I called the health ministry, they couldn’t help me. The only person who has been truly helping olim is Dov Lipman and his organisation Yad L’Olim. He did everything he could to get my mom to Israel. But after many hours we understood that it wasn’t going to happen.”
Amid the chaos, they had to get her back to Cape Town. “It was extremely difficult, but she managed to get a ticket home. I think she was in the airport for 24 hours. We were so defeated and heartbroken. When she stepped onto the plane they said, ‘This is the last flight out of Turkey.’”
Snitcher says that Israel’s response to the new variant has hurt the very people who care about the country the most. “I made aliyah, I’m a Zionist, and I feel extremely embarrassed at how Israel treated South Africans. I don’t know when I’m going to see my mom again. I could cry from that feeling of desperation.”
Carla Stein and her husband Jared have had a tough year, losing two family members in a short space of time. They were counting down the days to a trip to Mauritius. But their dream turned into a nightmare of hours waiting in airports and on planes with small children, until finally they were allowed to fly. They landed on the island and were excited to be on holiday. That is, until they were told they weren’t allowed to leave the airport. This was even after they and their children had had multiple PCR tests, and the fact that they are fully vaccinated.
They watched in horror as passengers from other countries were allowed to head to their resorts, but as South Africans, they were forced to stay put. “There were about 15 or 20 police officers in uniform blocking the [exit]. It was traumatic. They had announced only 10 minutes before that all people flying in from South Africa were required to do 14 days’ quarantine,” said Stein. Negative PCR tests and vaccines didn’t matter.
After more hours in a hot airport, they were told they would have to quarantine. “We didn’t want to get shipped off to an unknown destination. The flight before us didn’t have to quarantine, but that’s what we were told to do.”
They were eventually taken to a hotel about 45 minutes away. Although their booked accommodation could ensure their isolation, they were transported to another hotel inland. “The next day my husband was told by someone, also in quarantine, that we were moving hotels. We weren’t even informed.”
They were moved again, but still not to their booked accommodation. The hotel room they are now in has a tiny veranda – a small saving grace. “We were eventually told that we will be here for seven days, and can be released after negative PCR tests,” said Stein. “But if someone is positive from the flight we will have to quarantine for 14 days.” They plan to continue with the holiday when they are let out. “It’s very hard being stuck in a room with a 19-month-old and an almost seven-year-old. But we have made it this far, and will try make the most of this experience.”
*Not her real name.
East London rabbi fails in bid against Beth Din
The dispute between Rabbi Chanoch Galperin and the East London Hebrew Congregation (ELHC) that has kept this coastal community in limbo since 2018 continues to have a negative impact on it and on the authority of the Beth Din.
The rabbi was accused of forging the will of a community member, and was fired by the ELHC after a disciplinary hearing which found him guilty of more than 10 counts of misconduct.
He then went to the Beth Din, asking it to adjudicate on the fact that he had been fired. But, because of possible irregularities at a previous hearing at the Beth Din regarding the disputed will, the ELHC refused to submit itself to another hearing.
The Beth Din ruled that it couldn’t adjudicate the labour dispute without both parties consenting to its jurisdiction. Galperin refused to accept this, and in June 2021, he brought an application before the Eastern Cape Division of the High Court to review and set aside the decision made by the Beth Din.
On 18 January 2022, the High Court handed down its judgment, finding that the rabbi’s application to review and set aside the Beth Din’s decision had no merit, and accordingly dismissed it. The rabbi was ordered to pay the legal costs of the ELHC, which had opposed the application.
The story started when the East London Chevrah Kadisha (ELCK) accused Rabbi Galperin of forging the will of an East London community member, the late Israel Bayer, in order to benefit from it. The ELCK was originally a beneficiary, but this was changed to the rabbi in a will that is also being disputed in court.
The rabbi has since admitted that his wife drew up the disputed will, which would automatically disqualify him from benefitting from it. Notwithstanding the disqualification, Galperin is asking for an order that the court declare him competent to receive the benefit in terms of the disputed will.
The Beth Din didn’t oppose the rabbi’s application against it, but the ELHC decided to do so. It contended, inter alia, that the rabbi was obliged, in terms of Jewish law, to accept the decision of the Beth Din.
The Beth Din granted its permission (known as a heter arkaos) for the rabbi to take his case to the secular courts. But the rabbi refused to abide by the decision, contending, inter alia, that the Beth Din had failed to “apply their minds” to the matter. He said its decision wasn’t properly or correctly taken and was fatally flawed.
The judgment highlighted the fact that both parties to a dispute have to agree voluntarily to submit matters to the Beth Din, and then the decision of the Beth Din will be final and binding.
The High Court, therefore, found that there was no basis for the court to interfere with the decision of the Beth Din, whose decision had been made in accordance with Jewish law.
The advocate acting on behalf of the ELHC, Stanley Pincus, commented that the judgment was important in that it upheld the principle that in accordance with Jewish law, the Beth Din wasn’t entitled to determine disputes between parties where one of the parties didn’t agree to submit themselves to its jurisdiction.
More importantly, the Beth Din granting the rabbi its blessing to proceed to the secular courts actually obliged the rabbi, in accordance with Jewish law, to accept the decision of the Beth Din.
In this regard, the judge stated, “the applicant [Rabbi Galperin] in accordance with Jewish law is bound to accept the decision of the Beth Din” and further stated “the applicant hasn’t committed any sin or acted contrary to his religious beliefs as he has the blessing of the Beth Din to approach secular courts”.
As for the Beth Din’s thoughts on the matter, “We believe that the judgment of the High Court has vindicated and endorsed the position of the Beth Din,” said Steven Weinberg of Moss Cohen & Partners, representing the Beth Din.
“The judgment is respectful of the Beth Din and Jewish law,” he said. “It has confirmed that the Beth Din is entitled to decline to hear disputes if either of the parties don’t consent to its jurisdiction. The judgment has further confirmed the Beth Din’s authority to grant permission to a claimant to pursue a claim in the secular courts if the respondent refuses to submit to the Beth Din’s jurisdiction.
“The Beth Din is hopeful and confident that other communities will respect the authority of the Beth Din,” he said. “The Beth Din doesn’t foresee that this judgment will have an impact on future community disputes being referred to the Beth Din in accordance with Jewish law.”
Finally, “the Beth Din has again urged both the East London Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi Galperin to withdraw all of the High Court litigation and finalise their disputes in accordance with Jewish law by way of a private arbitration under the authority of the Beth Din,” Weinberg said.
But Rabbi Galperin plans to appeal the judgment. “Our client is convinced that the judgment is incorrect, and we have received instructions to file a notice of leave to appeal,” said Brin Brody of Wheeldon, Rushmere & Cole, representing the rabbi. “If the judgment is correct, which is not conceded, then it means that any member of the Jewish faith can simply ignore a dispute before the Beth Din. This can never be the case in accordance with halacha and Jewish law.”
The ELHC and ELCK have said they will submit themselves to Beth Din adjudication on all matters regarding the rabbi as long as there are trained legal professionals present. However, according to Pincus, the rabbi has refused this request.
Meanwhile, the ELHC has brought an application before the East London Circuit Local Division of the High Court to evict Rabbi Galperin and his wife from the community property, which he refuses to vacate. The application has being set down for argument on 10 February 2022.
A community member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they remained in limbo as the rabbi was refusing to vacate the accommodation needed for a new rabbi. “Nothing is happening. There’s no one to do services. We cannot bring anyone down easily as he is in our [community] house. It’s a real, never-ending nightmare.”
Judge slams censure of Mogoeng’s pro-Israel views
A trailblazing judge has emerged as a lone voice defending former Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s support of Israel.
As one of three judges who reviewed his appeal, Judge Margaret Victor said, “muzzling judges is a slippery path that leads away from, not towards, democracy, and it leads in a direction from which there may be no road back.”
Victor said she would have upheld Mogoeng’s appeal in its entirety, but was outvoted by her fellow judges on the Judicial Conduct Appeals Committee. All three judges, however, decided to amend the original sanction as they all found issues with the original judgment. Mogoeng still needs to apologise for his comments supporting Israel in a 2020 webinar. However, this apology has been “severely curtailed”, says Chelsea Ramsden, senior legal researcher at the Helen Suzman Foundation.
Victor called out the double standards within her fellow judges’ arguments and those of the organisations that took Mogoeng to court. “As I read the comments made by Mogoeng in the context in which they must be read, I cannot see that the plea for peace and love for Jews and Israel and the love for Palestinians and Palestine, and any other utterances made in that context, can be construed in such a way as to undermine the dignity of his judicial office. Clearly, Mogoeng was expressing concern for love and peace globally, locally, and in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that he was entitled to do.”
She emphasised that “South Africa is a vibrant democracy and is still growing. Mogoeng asserts that judges, as citizens with fundamental rights and freedoms, shouldn’t be ‘censored, gagged or muzzled’. In my view, this is correct, for if we muzzle and gag a judge, justice, or chief justice from speaking out about world peace and stating on a public platform that nations shouldn’t hate each other, then we are dispiriting democracy instead of deepening it.”
According to Victor, “South African democracy has been hard-won, and Mogoeng’s emulation of the model adopted by President Nelson Mandela to be a mediator and game-changer is no random choice. The lifeblood of his comments was the successful Mendelian model of peace-making coupled with his deeply held convictions based on his Christian faith.
“This combination isn’t sufficient to demonstrate that Mogoeng became involved in a political controversy.
“Ultimately, ours is a nation that believes in the public exchange of ideas and open debate. Whilst I agree that judges and officers of the judiciary, by virtue of the sacrosanct positions that they occupy, are called upon to exercise caution and restraint in expressing their constitutional rights, these are still rights that are extended to them,” wrote Victor.
She said the chief justice’s comments were “no different from saying that the internal wars in Ethiopia and Afghanistan should come to an end by mediated peace solutions. A plea for peace is not itself political.”
To suggest that Mogoeng entered a “political dispute” sets a dangerous precedent, Victor said. “To find that a judge calling for peace among nations, and in particular between Israel and Palestine, has entered the realm of ‘judicial politicking’ leaves one wondering whether judges can comment at all or ever on peaceful solutions to global conflict.
“Judges in South Africa have over time, expressed extra-judicial thoughts and input and these leave behind a legacy of rich thought and wisdom. Our democracy should encourage this, not merely tolerate it – particularly [not tolerate it] from some whilst not from others.
“There was a time in our jurisprudence when judges had to remain silent,” Victor said. “With the arrival of the constitutional era, this changed. Even prior to it, judges have spoken out against immoral laws such as apartheid.”
To her, “Judicial officers, as guardians of civil liberties and freedom, aren’t barred from engaging in extra-judicial activities in which they speak out. Indeed, they have a duty to speak out when these rights are violated because, in doing so, they preserve the integrity of the bench. Judges frequently speak out on topics such as gender-based violence, sexual orientation, poverty, homelessness, and other socio-economic issues. They do so through their judgments and often in public addresses. If this is to be construed as political interference, political controversy, or a transgression of the separation of powers, then the limitations placed on a judge would be extreme and draconian indeed.”
Local antisemitism expert and emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town, Milton Shain, has written extensively about the double standards applied to this case. “If Mogoeng had ventured a political comment on the Myanmar or Ukrainian/Russian conflict, it would have been met with silence,” he says. “We have seen judge after judge entering the political field in the past. Judge Desai, for example, has spoken up on behalf of the Palestinians without so much as a peep from those who challenged Mogoeng. When one country is regularly singled out, and when that country is the only Jewish state, this is antisemitism in effect if not in intent.”
“The Helen Suzman Foundation is of the view that the minority decision [Victor’s] was persuasive in that it considered the comments made by former Chief Justice Mogoeng in their whole context,” Ramsden said. “Silencing a judge may lead to a situation where our democracy isn’t enhanced but actually degraded.”
She said the only other legal option open to Mogoeng at this stage would be to review the decision. “A review isn’t an appeal, and he would have to motivate why the decision reached by the majority was irregular and irrational. If he feels strongly enough, he would most likely use every option available to vindicate himself.”
Asked about its impact on the case against retired Judge Siraj Desai, she said, “The complaints against Judge Desai are distinctly similar. Both are accused of having breached the code by engaging in political controversy. The Judicial Conduct Appeal Committee’s decision in respect of former Chief Justice Mogoeng will likely be extremely persuasive in any deliberations in respect of Judge Desai.”
South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) National Chairperson Rowan Polovin said, “The SAZF is dismayed at the ruling against former Chief Justice Mogoeng which effectively censures comments made in the public discourse that are deemed to be pro-Israel. This is an attempt to silence any public figure in South Africa who expresses ‘balance’ or support for Israel by making him or her out to be a pariah.
“The former chief justice’s comments weren’t in themselves politically controversial, but were made so by the antisemitic BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement. The consequences of this ruling may have a chilling effect on our judiciary and serve to embolden extremist groups wishing to make politically motivated accusations. We welcome the minority opinion from Judge Victor.”
‘Happy-go-lucky’ twins’ tragic deaths raises questions
Identical twin brothers Leonard and Jason Rom – inseparable in life and death – were laid to rest side by side on Sunday, 16 January, at Westpark Cemetery on a bleak, grey morning attended by a small gathering of mourners.
No one knows exactly what pushed the brothers, aged 44, to take their lives in a dramatic, seemingly macabre, and grisly finale to what must have followed months of anguish, desperation, and despair.
Devoted to each other from birth until their dying minutes, the Rom brothers’ bodies were found on 10 January in their company-branded car in Simon’s Town, about 35km from Cape Town.
The bodies of Jason’s four beloved bulldogs, Hercules, Franky, Gucci, and Coco, were found with them in their small Peugeot. Attached to their car was a trailer containing all their belongings. Both divorced, Leonard leaves behind two young children, a boy and a girl.
His distraught son clutched onto the trolley carrying his father’s coffin for what seemed like forever as the twins’ coffins were wheeled side by side to their final resting place.
According to reports, Simon’s Town police were called to the scene at about 08:30, where they found the brothers with gunshot wounds to their chests. They were declared dead on the scene by paramedics.
Captain Frederick van Wyk told the SA Jewish Report that the circumstances surrounding the deaths are under investigation, and an inquest has been opened.
The Roms’ untimely and sudden deaths have left many reeling in utter disbelief. Those who knew them were aware that the brothers were extremely close and did everything together. They lived together and were in business together as the former owners and partners of 1 Two 1 Cellular, a cellphone repair company in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.
“They couldn’t live without each other. I have never seen a brotherly bond like this,” said their friend, Quentin Neuper, who described them as fun-loving, warm, and friendly.
“They were awesome guys. I adored them. They would go out of their way to help customers, often driving to their homes. Every time I was in the shop, they made me laugh and made my day.”
He said Jason loved his dogs “with his life”. “They were his everything. They both loved animals. We are all trying to make sense of this.”
The brothers apparently didn’t leave a note, but no sooner had news of their passing spread, so too did rumours and wild speculation.
Was it a hit? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Were they on the run? Was it a moment of blind madness fuelled by drugs or alcohol? Were they simply in too deep, above their heads? Or did they fall prey to the endless cycle of depression and anxiety exacerbated by the brutal COVID-19 pandemic?
The twins may have taken the answers to their graves, but they have left behind loved ones hanging on to lasting memories.
Jason’s ex-wife, Monique Cardona, told the SA Jewish Report that she last spoke to Jason about two weeks ago. She kept in regular contact with the brothers, even though she had been divorced from Jason for 10 years.
“I’m shocked, this was totally unexpected. They seemed ok, things were hard, but they weren’t more down than usual,” she said.
“They weren’t just brothers, they were best friends, attached at the hip. They even wore matching clothes sometimes and always had this way of making people smile,” she said fondly. “They came as a package deal, and always ran things by each other.”
She’s aware they had sugar diabetes and heart issues, but they never spoke about depression. She said as far as she knew, they wanted to make a new life for themselves and start over.
Initial reports last week suggested the brothers were tourists in the Mother City, but it has since been established that this wasn’t the case.
There was no summer holiday for the beleaguered twins, who had experienced financial difficulties in recent years to the point of closing their shop and working from home. It’s believed they left Johannesburg a few months ago in the hope of starting a new life after a series of financial blows which left them with few options. Some said they were thinking of starting a food-truck business.
Their company was once successful and thriving with clients far and wide. It was even rumoured they assisted Oprah Winfrey on one of her visits, and the company was once nominated for a 702 small business award.
Things were good for a while, said friends this week. They were known for miles around for providing excellent, personal service. Jason took care of the customers in the front of the shop, while Leonard was the technician.
Having started out in the early 2000s, the company grew steadily. Sadly, the business took a few knocks, and after some time, Jason sold his house in Fairmount, just a few houses from Leonard’s house. It’s believed a series of break ins, some bad luck, and the pandemic finally took their toll. Relationships fell apart, and the close-knit brothers lived together before deciding to try their luck in Cape Town sometime last year.
Customers this week praised the pair for their expertise and professional service, many recalling their jovial, friendly, and good-humoured demeanour.
“This is a story I cannot get my head around,” said Rabbi Shaul Bacher, describing their passing as “a calamity” and a “tragedy of such magnitude”. Speaking at the funeral, he said, “There are no words to give comfort.”
Bacher said it was “hard to believe” that both brothers were in such a bad way that neither could see a way out or persuade the other that they were making a grave mistake.
“I work in drug rehabilitation, I have seen depression, but I have never seen something like this. You can’t make this up,” said Bacher.
Like most, the rabbi is dismayed at the circumstances surrounding their passing. “None of it makes any sense,” he said, urging the urgency of addressing depression and anxiety.
“All of this is hard to fathom, but we need to take something from this that will encourage those in need to reach out and get the help they desperately need. People should also make it their business to become aware of those suffering around them.”
The twins’ half-sister, Beverley Mans, who lives in Israel with their sister, Sharon Slimowitz, said the family was heartbroken and in shock. “We are all devastated beyond words, we can’t believe it,” she said.
“They were such happy-go-lucky boys, we cannot believe what transpired. Whoever you ask is in total shock. They didn’t say much, we know times were tough for them as for everyone else. They wanted to start a new life in Cape Town.”
She said the Rom boys were born in Johannesburg, and made aliyah with their late mother in 1994. They returned to South Africa, where they were first involved in the towing business before starting 1 Two 1 Cellular.
Their loved ones are waiting for the results of the inquest, hoping it will help them to reach closure.
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