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High death rate reflects an ageing community




The South African Jewish community has had an unprecedented number of COVID-19-related deaths, with a fatality rate higher than that of the United States and the United Kingdom. However, while it appears to be 11 times higher than the reported COVID-19 fatality rate in South Africa, it’s due to the aged nature of our community.

In fact, the average age of those in our community who died was 82.7. The youngest COVID-19 fatality was 47, and the oldest 101. Thirty-nine percent were female, and 61% male. Seventy-one percent of all COVID deaths in Johannesburg so far occurred in July.

“To date, about 106 Jews are understood to have died from COVID-19, which would extrapolate to a figure of 2 038 per million [using the published estimate of 52 000 Jews in South Africa from the Kaplan Centre Jewish Community Survey of South Africa 2019],” says Professor Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and former founder and director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD). “This figure is greatly in excess of the 179 deaths per million for South Africa, 502 per million for the US, and 685 per million for the UK.”

Jews, therefore, make up 1% of COVID-19 fatalities in South Africa, even though they are 0.09% of the population. If aligned to reported national statistics, the Jewish community should have only nine deaths.

However, the high death rate could have been much worse if it weren’t for the organisations, medical professionals, and community members working together to save lives.

Dr Daniel Israel, a general practitioner in Johannesburg, says, “There has definitely been a symbiosis between these three elements, with patients being aware of asking for medical attention, as well as many community members being socially responsible, organisations like Hatzolah treating and assisting patients, and doctors engaging intensively with both. We have done well because of our structures, and because of identifying deterioration quicker. There is no doubt that if our small community didn’t have these elements, the numbers would have been much higher.”

Professor Lucille Blumberg, the deputy director of the NICD, agrees. “The Chevrah Kadisha has been amazing in preparing its care homes for COVID-19, and when they had outbreaks, it responded quickly to contain them. We also saw this in Cape Town and Pretoria. Hatzolah must be commended for its active and aggressive home-support programme, monitoring deterioration, and quick provision of oxygen. General practitioners have played a key role, and the community has come together, making sacrifices like closing shuls and supporting each other.”

According to Chevrah Kadisha officials around the country, Jewish COVID-19 fatalities include 68 in Johannesburg, 27 in Cape Town, four in Durban, and seven in Pretoria. Records are meticulously kept because of the Chevrah Kadisha protocols implemented if the deceased is COVID-19 positive.

“The higher death rate is almost certainly a reflection of the age distribution in the Jewish population of South Africa. The median age for the general South African population is 26.4 years, against 45 years for the Jewish population in the country,” says Schoub. “In addition, only 6% of the South African population is over 65 years of age, while 34% of Johannesburg Jews, 46% of Cape Town Jews, and 58% of Durban Jews are over 60 years, according to the Kaplan Centre survey. Studies have universally demonstrated older age to be one of the risk factors for a severe outcome in COVID-19 disease.”

“One cannot compare the death rate in the Jewish community to the death rate in South Africa,” says Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson. “In general, as a result of health, education, medical aid, lifestyle, and communal organisations, I would expect that the Jewish community has a life expectancy in the mid-80s, and broader South Africa is about 63. We also have a higher proportion of elderly people in our community due to emigration.”

He says the Chevrah Kadisha and actuaries are running an excess mortality study, “and over time, we hope to gain a better understanding of the data and how our community has been affected”.

Jeffrey Dorfman, associate professor in medical virology at Stellenbosch University, says, “This [high fatality rate] seems surprising considering that we have spent a lot of time in lockdown, and even when that was relaxed, many of the activities that facilitated spread were curtailed, particularly communal davening.

“However, once COVID-19 was with us, the higher rates may have been hard to stop. It does seem that to keep our death rates as low as the general population, we, as a whole, would have needed to be more careful, particularly in Johannesburg. It’s concerning that these deaths have come up so strongly relatively early in Gauteng’s first wave. These revelations should also result in great caution when considering re-opening communal activities, particularly in Gauteng.”

Almost all Jewish communities report disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates, although South African Jewry’s rate is higher than some of these. For example, Britain’s Jewish community of 264 000 people, which comprises about 0.5% of its population, has lost about 458 Jews. This is two and a half times the COVID-19 death rate of the British population, which has the third highest COVID-19 death rate in the world. But it’s still lower than South African Jewry’s fatality rate, equivalent to 90 Jews having died of COVID-19 in South Africa. France’s 500 000 Jews, the largest Jewish community in Europe, has experienced a similar ratio of COVID-19 deaths to South Africa, with about 1 300 deaths.

The first death in Cape Town was on 28 March, and in Johannesburg on 28 April. “In July alone,” Tomson says, “we conducted 110 burials, of which 44% were COVID-positive. This is more than double a regular July, and is an increase of 129% compared to the average over the past five years, which is 48 deaths. It is, in fact, the highest number of deaths since our digital record-keeping began in January 1994.

“In spite of a massive increase in deaths in Johannesburg in July, the staff and volunteers of the Chevrah Kadisha’s burial services maintained the highest levels of compassionate service,” he says. “At times, we had three teams working through the night ensuring the rapid collection of the meis [deceased] from homes and hospitals. Our mitaskim [the staff who collect the bodies] wore personal protective equipment for every collection to ensure their safety.

“Burials were conducted without delay [as per Jewish law], in spite of the immense pressure this put on our staff. They worked around the clock, sometimes having eight funerals a day. At this time, we recognise the tragedy of many family members not being able to attend funerals. This required heightened sensitivity and looking at alternative ways that the families could be included, such as Zoom calls.”

Gary Cohen, a volunteer at the Johannesburg Jewish cemetery, is a gabbai, ensuring a funeral is conducted according to halacha. He says they high number of funerals “really brings home the reality of how deadly this virus is, and how older people have borne the brunt”. Most funerals are tiny, with only close family members present, and often there will be volunteers to make up a minyan. He has only seen two or three funerals fill the full 50-person quotient currently allowed.

He emphasises that everyone from labourers to rabbis have worked to make the experience easier for the families. “The staff at the cemetery has had to literally double their workload, and this period must have taken a massive mental toll. However tired and depleted they are, they still show exceptional compassion towards the bereaved families, who may not have had contact with the deceased for several weeks,” Cohen says.

Tomson says that in the months prior to July, there were actually fewer deaths than usual. For example, in May, deaths were 24% lower than the previous five-year average for May. “The result is that although deaths in July were very high, overall deaths from January through July were up by 20% compared to last year, and 25% when compared to the previous five-year average.”

Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says, “The COVID-19 death rate in our community is of great concern. We are acutely aware that each fatality is a tragedy for the family, and our hearts go out to all who have been affected. We need to stress the importance of protecting those most vulnerable in our community. While we see a glimmer of hope in the reduction in infections, and our schools and shuls beginning to open, we urge every community member to continue to stay vigilant.”

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“Let my people in” – chief rabbi takes on travel ban



South Africa’s chief rabbi, Dr Warren Goldstein, has taken on the Israeli government over its sudden blanket travel ban in light of the new variant discovered by South African scientists.

He has been interviewed in Hebrew across multiple national radio stations, TV stations, print media, and online media in Israel.

In a plea to Israeli leaders, he said that shutting the door on world Jewry was a mistake for a number of reasons.

Many South African Jews were turned back in transit between 25 and 26 November, and others are desperately trying to get there because of important family commitments. But the chief rabbi emphasises that “Israel is home to all Jews, especially in times of crisis, and a total closure signals a separation between Israeli and diaspora Jews. The new variant doesn’t distinguish between Jews who have Israeli citizenship and other Jews.”

To him, there are two issues at stake. “The first is the relationship between Israel and the South African Jewish community. Our relationship with Israel is very much part of our value system, and we are a very Zionist community. This is expressed in many different ways, for example, our aliyah numbers, which proportionately are really strong. It’s also expressed in the high percentage of our community who have visited Israel, the fact that so many of our youth study in Israel, and especially in how so many of us have family in Israel. The connection goes very deep.”

To be blocked from entering Israel is therefore “a real blow to the South African Jewish community – spiritually and emotionally”. This latest blanket ban comes after almost two years of very intermittent access to Israel, and the new extreme levels of restriction were a tipping point for him.

“I felt I needed to make my voice heard in Israeli society. This is why I went to the Hebrew media, so that this plea would be heard by society and decision makers. I wanted to send a message on behalf of our whole community.”

He says he has seen the pain of these restrictions reflected in many ways. For example, specific incidents, like a father not being able to attend his son’s Barmitzvah, and a general sense of loss and distance.

The other reason he has spoken out is “for the sake of Israel itself, and for all Jews. Is Israel an ordinary state, or a Jewish state?” he asks rhetorically. “This is a direct plea to the Israeli government and goes to the heart of Israel’s identity. Israel is the only Jewish state, and we are deeply connected to it. In light of that unbreakable bond, if the state says some Jews can’t enter, it’s drawing a divide between the state of Israel and communities across the diaspora. That partnership between diaspora Jewry and the state of Israel is crucial, and if you break that bond, it will hurt Israel and world Jewry.”

He isn’t asking Israel to jeopardise the health of its citizens. Rather, he’s asking that the same criteria be applied to Israeli citizens returning to Israel and Jews needing to visit. Israeli citizens who want to return are allowed to do so if they are fully vaccinated, do a PCR test, and go into quarantine.

“If you combine these three strict requirements, the Israeli authorities have deemed that the risk becomes negligible. If they are good enough for Israeli citizens, any Jew in the world should be allowed to enter on the same basis.”

Goldstein is speaking up now in particular because “vaccines have completely transformed the risk profile. We can see this in the current wave in South Africa.” He has written about it before, but not as extensively as now. “I’ve learnt that one needs to use multiple platforms and address Israeli society directly.”

He says the message has found “tremendous resonance with journalists. I haven’t spoken to one Israeli interviewer who wasn’t sympathetic. They have challenged me, and I have clarified that I’m not asking for more than what’s granted to Israeli citizens. There has been a lot of support and interest.”

He says the incident in which South African Jews were forced away from Israel on Friday 26 November and made to fly on Shabbat was “an absolute disgrace and totally unacceptable for any state, but for a Jewish state, was unthinkable and beyond the pale. This is especially considering the circumstances of two of these Jews going to comfort the Kay family, whose son gave his life for the state of Israel. At the very least, the Israeli government must apologise for this conduct and promise its citizens and Jews around the world that such a thing will never happen again.”

Finally, he says “vaccination is everything. It’s a blessing. Thank G-d for it. Take it with both hands: it is a big mitzvah to protect yourself and others.”

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World mourns Eli Kay, son of SA Jewry



At the beginning of November, the Kay family celebrated the happiest of simchas in Israel – the wedding of Avi and Devorah Kay’s eldest son. Three weeks later, they again gathered in the Jewish homeland, but this time for the darkest of tragedies: the funeral of the Kays’ second eldest son, Eliyahu (Eli), who was murdered by a Hamas terrorist in Jerusalem on Sunday, 21 November 2021.

A South African oleh who was building a beautiful life in Israel, 25-year-old Kay was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman in Old City, near the Kotel. Four others were hurt. Horrific images of blood being washed from the Jerusalem stones were seen online after the attack.

The Jewish world is now mourning the senseless loss of a soul who embodied the best of the South African Jewish community and its commitment to Judaism and Israel. Indeed, that deep love of his faith, history, and identity was what brought Kay to the Kotel on Sunday. He was living his purpose but was killed for being a Jew.

An ardent Zionist, he made aliyah from South Africa without his family in 2016. His parents and siblings later joined him, with his parents leaving South Africa last December amidst tough COVID-19 restrictions. They settled in Modi’in. Avi’s parents, Cliffy and Jessie, remain in Johannesburg, while Devorah’s parents Rabbi Shlomo and Rebbetzin Lynndy Levin of South Hampstead Synagogue, live in London. The tragedy of grandparents burying a grandchild is unfathomable.

The family are pillars of the Johannesburg Jewish community, and played a vital role in building Torah Academy over generations. Both parents, as well as their four children, were alumni of the school. In its statement, the school pointed out that Kay was killed while holding his tefillin and a Likutei Sichos [The ‘Collected Talks’ containing the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe] – devoted until the very end to his Judaism.

He accomplished much in his short life. After arriving in Israel, he studied at a Chabad yeshiva in Kiryat Gat in the south of Israel, and then enlisted in the army. “He was a squad commander in the paratroopers, which is a big deal for a lone soldier in my view,” says Ron Feingold, who served with him. “He volunteered for the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and then excelled enough to lead people in it. I will never forget our conversations about the duty that we felt to our people.”

After completing his military service, he volunteered at the Nirim kibbutz for a year in the Eshkol region of Israel. Writing on Facebook, Shira Silkoff recalled meeting him when she arrived on kibbutz.

“The first time I met you [Eli], you were walking in one direction and I was walking the other. I was shy, unsure of how to go about meeting people who already all seemed to be friends. But we spoke for a few minutes, on that kibbutz path, with you holding a tub of slowly melting ice cream. Because that was you. You had time for everyone. No news report can capture your spirit. Your smile. Your passion for life, your ability to hold deep conversations at absurd hours, and absurd conversations at any hour. None of the news reports can capture your enthusiasm, your determination to achieve everything you set out to do.”

Kay then began working at the Kotel as a guide at the Western Wall Plaza. Some reported that he was murdered on his way to pray, others that it was on his way to work. But for Kay, these tasks were intricately connected. At the end of the day, he was there because he loved Israel and the Jewish people. According to The Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Kay “warmly greet[ed] everyone he met, doing his sacred work”.

Hearing the news was one of the most difficult moments for members of the South African Jewish community. “I was broken, gutted,” says Rabbi Levi Avtzon, who taught Kay when he was a teen. “Eli was quite a character: he was feisty and demanded a lot of himself and others. He didn’t have time for nonsense. He was a great guitar player and a natural leader. He was a searcher, looking for the truth. And when he saw the truth, he would go all the way in following it.”

Avtzon says these values came from the incredible upbringing he received from his parents. He describes Avi as “a gentle soul” and “an incredible financial advisor”, who continues to do this work in South Africa even though he now lives in Israel. “Until they left for Israel, Devorah was the life and soul of Torah Academy Girls High – loved by everyone and really dynamic.” The family’s door was always open. For example, they graciously hosted Avtzon’s parents when they visited him after he first moved to South Africa as his flat was too small.

Contemplating what Kay’s future would have looked like had his life not been stolen so senselessly, Avtzon says, “No matter what he would have done, he would have done it well. We need to take pride that this is the kind of mensch that our community raises.”

Kay’s cousin, Eli Landes, wrote on Facebook how he remembered “dancing with you [Eli], laughing with you, learning to play ‘mouth trumpet’ with you, studying with you, making up fake British sentences with you, talking about life with you. In life, you defended us. Guarded us. And now, I have no doubt you stand at G-d’s right hand, continuing to fight for us and protect us.”

Kay’s fiancé, Jen Schiff, said, “I felt it was important to share how much Eli loved this country, and how he came here by himself, and fought for this country. He always treated everyone with love and respect. And I know that when this happened, he didn’t feel alone.”

The outpouring of grief and support came from the very top of Israeli society as well as from around the globe. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid and other Israeli leaders expressed condolences. Minister of diaspora affairs, Nachman Shai, personally wrote to the South African Jewish community, saying, “My heart breaks with yours. [Eli] was a son of both of our communities … Eli represented the best of the Zionist spirit nurtured in Johannesburg.”

Shai represented the Israeli government at the funeral, which took place at Har Menuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. Thousands of people from all walks of life attended in person, and almost 2 600 people (mostly from South Africa) watched on YouTube. There, Shai described him as “the paratrooper, the yeshiva student, warrior … the best of the best”.

Kay “would have been a great husband and father”, said an emotional Rabbi Motti Hadar, the principal of Torah Academy Boys High School, contemplating the brightest of futures cut short. “That is the hugest tragedy. And while his time came too soon, I think there is almost no other way he would have chosen to go than literally sacrificing his life for what he believed in, which was Israel, his Judaism, and living life to the fullest.”

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Miss SA future uncertain as Israel hatred boils



It’s touch and go whether Miss South Africa will get on a plane to Israel to compete in the Miss Universe pageant next month, after a week of high drama in which the South African government bizarrely withdrew its support for the young university graduate.

The government had the anti-Israel lobby licking its lips at the prospect of her dreams being crushed. This lobby was determined that Lalela Mswane would never compete on an international stage in the coastal town of Eilat.

There are many who want her to go to Israel and represent her country, learn, engage, and prosper and there are those – a bunch of Israel haters – who are pulling out every stop to prevent it.

So far, the 24-year-old KwaZulu-Natal beauty has stood her ground. She is due to meet about 70 of her counterparts from all over the world – including the Arab world – in the Holy Land in a few weeks’ time.

Just how long she, the private Miss South Africa Organisation, and its chief executive, Stephanie Weil, can withstand the heat created by the small but predatory anti-Israel lobby is anyone’s guess.

At the time of going to press the odds were stacked against them in a fast moving developing story that has everyone guessing.

“It’s a rollercoaster ride,” said one insider.

Behind the scenes, a myriad of supporters have rallied around the young beauty queen, desperate to help her as critics stop at nothing to prevent her from representing her country at the Olympic Games of beauty pageants.

“It’s precarious, complicated,” offered another.

There has been more time and space allocated to this issue in the media than FW de Klerk’s death and his funeral arrangements, hung local councils, and coalition talks. Never mind the country’s dire electricity crisis, abysmal unemployment rate, water cuts, and critical crime levels. Social media has been lit with those fiercely in favour and those vehemently against Mswane attending the pageant.

It appears from thousands of social-media posts that many more are in favour of her fulfilling her dreams and wish her well than not.

The drama started with a statement issued on Sunday, 15 November, by the department of sports, art, and culture announcing that it would no longer support the pageant because of Miss SA organiser’s “intransigence and disregard” of advice against sending Miss SA to Israel, which it said would have a negative impact on her reputation and future.

The ministry, headed by Nathi Mthethwa, has come under fire for its lack of compassion for struggling artists during COVID-19 and the minister’s general ineffectiveness together with his department’s mismanagement of funds.

The African National Congress (ANC) made its views clear by backing and welcoming the government’s decision to withdraw support for Mswane.

The Democratic Alliance’s deputy shadow minister of sports, art, and culture, Veronica van Dyk, told the SA Jewish Report, “Miss SA is a private company, and as such must deal with the government as it sees fit. We don’t intend to be drawn into a fight between the two. A beauty pageant should never be politicised, and this is exactly what the ANC is trying to achieve. We should be weary not to fall into their trap.”

Department of international relations and cooperation (Dirco) spokesperson, Clayson Monyela, said this week that in spite of all of the anti-Israel rhetoric, South Africa had “no intention of suspending any diplomatic relationships with Israel”.

He told The Citizen, and later repeated to the SA Jewish Report that Mthethwa’s announcement reflected the government’s stance on the matter falling under his portfolio, “but didn’t indicate any intentions of cutting ties with Israel”.

“We have diplomatic relations with both Israel and Palestine. What has happened with Miss South Africa cannot be anywhere close to cutting diplomatic ties. We can’t do that because if we do that, it means we can’t engage with Israel so are excluding ourselves from being part of the solution to the conflict, because if you cut ties with a country, it doesn’t have to engage with you,” said Monyela.

However Miss SA’s future hangs in the balance, as negotiations behind the scenes continue ad nauseam.

Zev Krengel, the national vice-president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, lambasted the anti-Israel lobby for its bullying and intimidatory tactics, and said Miss SA was being used as a political scapegoat.

“Miss SA is a young woman, she is an easy target,” he said.

South Africa, he said, participated in various team sports, namely baseball, tennis, and soccer, against Israel, and where was the outrage?

Speculation has it that the signing of the Abraham Accords could eventually lead to Israel co-hosting the 2030 FIFA World Cup with its Arab neighbours.

“Do you see South Africa pulling Bafana Bafana out? No, this is pure bullying of a young woman, it’s outrageous,” he said.

He said he was bitterly disappointed in the government for withdrawing its support of Miss SA saying it was “on the wrong side of history, and while the rest of the world opens up and benefits from relations with Israel, including several Arab nations, South Africa is determined to remain on the sidelines of progress”.

People from all over have weighed in on the controversy.

The former Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, tweeted, “Wait, wait! Governments offer no support for this non-governmental contest. And the SA government made no decision whatsoever. A single ministry stated a viewpoint. Where is the story here other than the hateful noise the anti-Israel lobby is peddling?”

Author Khaya Dlanga took to Instagram saying that the government had “crossed the line” by withdrawing its support for Mswane, and had thrown her under the bus.

“They have put a young woman in an impossible position,” he said. “This government hasn’t imposed sanctions against Israel or travel restrictions. Instead, it’s grandstanding on the shoulders of a young girl. Why throw her under the bus when it hasn’t made meaningful commitments? Let her go.”

The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) said it was “appalled” that the government was “self-sabotaging” the country’s hopes and chances of participating and shining in Miss Universe just because it happened to take place in Israel.

“Our country is simply signalling its isolationism and irrelevance on the world stage,” it said.

The government had been silent on serious human-rights abuses occurring in many other countries where South Africa participates in sports and contests but “self-righteously reserves its opprobrium for the world’s only Jewish state”, the SAZF said.

“If our country were interested in bringing peace to the Middle East or carrying any moral weight in playing a mediatory role between Israel and the Palestinians, we have now ensured that our one-sidedness and unilateralism will prevent us from doing so,” the organisation said.

Meanwhile, the Miss South Africa Organisation broke its social-media silence this week with an Instagram post about Miss SA 2020, Shudufhadzo Musida’s, participation at Miss World in Puerto Rico on 16 December.

While Miss SA seemingly had the world at her feet just weeks ago, it remains to be seen if she will participate in Miss Universe.

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