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Home and heart – how our elderly are coping

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As our senior citizens were the first to get vaccinated and have been isolated more than most because of comorbidities, the SA Jewish Report asked a select few to write about their experience of COVID-19.

Lionel Slier

You feel vulnerable at this age, and every time you cough or sneeze, you fear that this is the start of it. But I have been told over the phone that one of the signs of having COVID-19 is that you lose your sense of taste. I can still taste a cigarette.

I was affected by the Spanish flu of 1929, which took place in north east Poland and Belarus. My mother, who was born there, was orphaned by the flu, and brought out to South Africa by Isaac Ochberg as one of the Arcadia orphans, so whenever I hear the words “Spanish flu”, it resonates with me. I don’t think history is repeating itself, but it could be.

My biggest fear is that COVID-19 will bring me to the end of the road. I try to follow instructions like wearing a mask and not going to heavily public places or assemblies. It’s itchy to wear a mask, with a hint of forthcoming suffocation. I must admit, it hasn’t affected my public life to any great measure. I hardly go to the cinema now, but I seldom did it anyway. The same for theatre and concerts. But I do miss it. I miss restaurants.

COVID-19 has influenced our behaviour. Whether it returns to what it was, we can’t yet say. What will be, will be.

Be careful and obey the rules. The future is in your hands, or rather your chest. Keep your distance.

  • Lionel is a retired Johannesburg journalist who wrote for the Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Report, and SA Jewish Report.

Barbara Schneider

At the beginning of June 2021, my brother and sister-in-law, Simon and Maxine Schneider, passed away within hours of each other after contracting COVID-19. You can imagine how devastated the family is. Their seven grandchildren and their children, Cindy Silberg, Hayley Kissos, and Stacey Barnett will never get over or understand it. Neither will I or Maxine’s sister, Avril Epstein.

My social worker, Irene, arranged for my children, Glenda Sauer and Lance Schneider (my third child lives in the United Kingdom), to break the news to me, and she was so well prepared. Sugar water, tissues, new masks, etc. She has also come to see me many times. An amazing woman. Sister Selina and her staff come to check on me every couple of hours, day or night. Unbelievable! The waitrons knock on my door every time they pass my room to ask if I need anything and to give me lots of support. Zama, my cleaning lady, has sat on the floor and cried with me every day. The residents have been so supportive. It’s amazing how much they care. I would like to know if there is anywhere else in the world in which such care, compassion, comfort, and support is given to people not just in times of need, but always. I don’t think so.

This is my family’s COVID-19 history. All are now fully recovered. In March 2020, my daughter and her husband, Bob; in November 2020, my daughter’s partner, Adrian Levi; in mid-May 2021, my son Lance, his wife Lynssey, and my nephew, Yoav Kissos, as well as my grandson, Adam Sauer. It has been one of the worst periods of my life.

To know that my children and grandchildren are sick and I can’t see or help them has been devastating. I feel completely useless and helpless. When stressed, I don’t eat or sleep. I become moody and a recluse, not wanting to see or speak to anyone.

One of the children opened a family chat on WhatsApp, which made contact much easier. But like any mother, the spoken word tells far more than the written word. I can tell so much by their voices and, thank G-d, the voices are good. I’m slowly becoming normal again, but being locked down in our rooms isn’t helping, although I know it’s for our own good.

To be the matriarch of the Schneider family, and not be with my nieces when their parents were taken has made me feel inadequate and sad. Thank you to everyone at Sandringham Gardens who helped me through this very difficult time. I still worry about the kids – whether they’re at work or out shopping. So please, anyone out there who is going through this, know that my thoughts and prayers are with you.

  • Barbara is a resident at Sandringham Gardens.

Rosaly Katz

My name is Rosaly Katz. I have an older sister, Ruth Kur, who also resides at Sandringham Gardens. I have a brother, Theo Isaacson, who lives in Sydenham. I have a daughter, Fiona, who lives in Germiston.

Last year, just before winter set in, I was diagnosed with COVID-19. I had no signs of the virus. The nurse came to my room, and said I had tested positive. I packed my clothes, got as far as the hospital door at Sandringham Gardens, and passed out.

I remember the nurses came around with meals. I asked if it was breakfast, and they said, “No it’s supper time.” Whatever happened to the day? It was confusing not to know what day it was or if it was breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

I was out of things for quite some time. The worst was not to be able to see my sister, brother, daughter, and the rest of my family.

I had the best care from Dr Price, who is a fantastic doctor and person, and who gave me the very best attention. Thanks to her and the nursing staff, I pulled through, because all thought I wouldn’t. When I asked for ice cream, Dr Price thought it was my last request, and went all out to see that I had enough ice cream to last me a very long time.

I don’t remember much of my time in the hospital. When I did eventually come around, I was very weak. My breathing wasn’t great. I was on oxygen, and couldn’t do anything for myself. I had to learn to walk with a walker, and the oxygen was my constant companion.

Thanks to Rabbi Jonathan Fox and everyone in our congregation, overseas family, friends, and strangers, who prayed for me, I pulled through. I woke one time, and Dr Price was trying to put a mask on my face. I kept pushing it away. Eventually, they brought an oxygen tank and put the oxygen through my nose. That I accepted. I have no idea what happened after that. I was on oxygen the whole time I was in hospital (three months). No-one thought I would ever be able to go back to my room – they thought I would need help. But, with the help of a walker and oxygen in my room, I was able to function on my own.

Today I don’t need a walker or oxygen. I’m back to who I was before. It’s all thanks to prayers, and Dr Price and the nurses who looked after me. I thank them all from the bottom of my heart.

  • Rosaly is a resident at Sandringham Gardens.

Clara Taub

I’m Clara Taub. I have done many things in my life.

I contracted COVID-19 in July 2020. I couldn’t believe it. In the beginning, I wasn’t ill at all – that is, until the doctor told me my temperature was high and my saturation low. She organised for me to have a test and to go to hospital immediately. I was shell-shocked! Immediately! The ambulance arrived to take me, but it was the coldest night of the year, and I refused to go. They came back early the next morning and insisted as my test had come back positive.

I went into freeze-frame mode, and just went along with the process. I was whisked into a ward, into bed, with my buddy, Oxygene, and there I stayed for two and a half weeks.

All the doctors and nurses looked like space men, with their PPE (personal protective equipment) and masks on. Oh wow! Scary!

Bells were rung and whistles blown every hour on the hour – “sanitise, wash hands”. I could tell the time by this action. I would start at 07:00, and then count down from there – a game, yeah, I had found a game to play!

But what really supported me in this conflict were the three things I did every day, all day.

I kept my sense of humour. Viktor Frankl says, “Humour is another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation.” I really tried to find humour in everything. The conversations I overheard [mainly out of context] were really very funny. My doctor visiting me in the middle of the night, looking like an insect hunter! Saying something like, “Hey, there’s one in here!” Cracked me up!

I said the Shema. I say it all the time.

I said Psalm 23, something I have always said when I’m troubled. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

These helped me, and I survived. But let me say that I’m afraid every day. It was horrid and scary. Even now, after being vaccinated, I’m afraid. My message is to be positive, and believe that Hashem will protect us. “Shema Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one”.

  • Clara is a resident of Our Parents Home. She led in the field of drama, working as a teacher, textbook author, as well as writing poetry and story books.

Avrille Amler

I’m Avrille Amler. I have lived Our Parents Home for four and a half years. My favourite occupation is reading.

COVID-19 means that some of the people that I love have taken ill, but behatslacha, they have recovered. The memory of the anxious wait is still clear. Unfortunately, other friends and family haven’t been so blessed, and their loss hurts.

I have felt safe and protected since coming to live at Our Parents Home. Many in the crowd outside were people unknown to me. Unfortunately, these anonymous people have now got names and faces. I have shared some history with them, and they are no longer just numbers in daily reports.

Like most of us, I have never experienced these conditions before. We are battling with the lockdowns, although we understand how necessary they are. “Lockdown fatigue” isn’t an expression any longer, it’s a reality. We are really tired of it. We want to be able to go beyond our protective fence and walk freely around a shopping mall, or even just go into one shop and wander around. We want to be able to do our own thing.

Family and friends have been helpful in doing our shopping for us, but for me, writing a shopping list has now become an activity. Photographs have to be taken of the item required if it’s not a regular purchase. Likewise, exact sizes and quantities, colours, and shapes need to be listed and sometimes things aren’t always what you want them to be!

I find that participating in crosswords and quizzes is a fun way to keep myself occupied, and it’s a bonus to be rewarded with sweets and chocolates. Reading has always been one of my favourite occupations, and working with the books in the library on Friday mornings has become one of my favourite activities.

  • Avrille is a resident of Our Parents Home. She worked for many years in the law and insurance fields, and now enjoys working in the library and excelling at quizzes

Brenda Solarsh

Although there’s a common response to living through the pandemic, we all have our own experience. Our lived response to what it means to manage a living nightmare is significant disappointment, pain on an emotional or physical level, isolation, anxiety, and anticipatory grief. The term “coronacoaster” sums it up so aptly. People talk of the “stuff of fairy tales”, this has been the “stuff of horror stories”.

We hear how we can turn our limitations into strengths. Perhaps, unwittingly, that’s what happened to me. As COVID-19 appeared, my family turned to me in great anxiety. I had battled cancer twice in my life, and many years later, a benign brain tumour. I have some other issues as well.

They were worried about my tendency to catch infections and not recover easily. A dear niece was particularly concerned about my vulnerability, having lost her mother – my sister – relatively recently. My GP strongly advised shielding, and so my lockdown, stay-at-home life began.

Thankfully, I haven’t been infected by COVID-19, but it has had a significant impact on my life.

Being so cautious and rarely going out has probably protected me. Possibly the person I became as a result of ill health, particularly my life threatening illness, shaped and strengthened me to face such a dramatically different lifestyle.

I learned that one can’t control everything. So, I respond to chaos or threat with calmness and pragmatism. Life has taught me that “this too shall pass”. My experiences have taught me that one can endure pain and discomfort.

Having faced my own mortality, I had no illusions about the nature of the virus. I stayed home, learned to order everything online, and on the few occasions I had to venture out, I followed all PPE requirements, doing whatever was within my control.

I make the best of my situation. I have enriched my life by doing online courses and watching documentaries and films that are uplifting and interesting. I read and write when my mood dictates, and rest and relax when I need to. I learned how to care for my mental health during a traumatic time, so I asked for and shared support, friendship, and humour with friends and neighbours. I deeply appreciate these connections.

Home has been best because the Chev has done whatever possible for all its residents.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my well-known pet, Georgie, the black pug – the best vaccine invented.

  • Brenda is a resident of Golden Acres. She has a Masters in social work, and a 45-year career in the field, half of which she spent at the Chev.

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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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Community

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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Community

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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