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Illicit engagement party roils Australian Jews in lockdown

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(JTA) Video from a packed engagement party is roiling the Jewish community of Melbourne, Australia, amid a growing outbreak of COVID-19 that has extended yet another stringent lockdown there.

Compliance with local rules has been spotty across Melbourne during the latest lockdown, which comes after a year and a half of intense restrictions meant to stop the spread of coronavirus there.

But the local Jewish community is again emerging as a hotspot. Local authorities are planning to set up vaccination and testing sites in the heavily Orthodox suburb of St Kilda East after a mother and son there tested positive, and sites in other Orthodox areas, including Caulfield and Balaclava, have landed on the growing list of locations with known exposures. In Melbourne, 25 people tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday.

Meanwhile, the engagement party video has offered what many say is hard proof that some Orthodox Jews aren’t taking the pandemic seriously. The video, which is circulating online, shows a groom speaking to a crowded room of unmasked guests, at one point joking, “Clearly this is legal, because this is a group therapy session.” Laughter follows.

“Many people will have seen a video from the engagement party circulating. I have,” Philip Dalidakis, a Jewish former legislator who works for Australia Post, wrote on Facebook on Sunday. “There are people in it that I know and I am speechless. I am genuinely shocked at the brazen disregard for our laws.”

According to Rafael Epstein, a journalist with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 68 people were present and contact tracing is taking place after someone at the event tested positive for COVID-19.

“If you’re angry, believe me you are not as angry as almost all of the Jewish community,” Epstein tweeted.

Among those expressing anger was the Australia Jewish News, which called on local Orthodox leaders to condemn gatherings that violate the city’s lockdown rules and to penalise local rabbis who have condoned them.

On Sunday, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria issued a statement urging local Jews to “comply with all government restrictions without exception”, then it issued a stronger comment after criticism from the newspaper and others.

“For the removal of any possible doubt, this includes all illegal gatherings including for prayer,” said the unsigned clarification, which was posted to Facebook. “We implore anybody considering flouting the law to refrain from doing so. We unreservedly condemn such actions, which bring risk and shame to the entire community.”

But the group didn’t suggest that it would name or penalise rabbis who have participated in gatherings, which local Jews said had been happening for a variety of reasons throughout the pandemic.

Responding to an Australia Jewish News Facebook post, Rabbi James Kennard, the principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College, a modern Orthodox school, wrote that such condemnation is needed, and signalled that a wide array of gatherings had been taking place in contravention of local rules.

“It’s painful to speak out against fellow Jews in public. But at this time, the danger of staying silent is too great,” Kennard wrote. “Because the law states that we must stay at home, because the experts tell us that this is the way to save lives, because of the risk of terrible chillul Hashem [desecration of G-d’s name], every rabbi and leader must cry out. We must take the heartbreaking path and stop the gatherings – for prayer, for s’machot, for school. Just stop.”

Speaking on Australian television, Daniel Aghion, the president of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, said, “We’ve heard about a number of non-compliances. That’s actually quite disturbing for us.”

Australia has experienced perhaps the world’s most stringent restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, Australians and permanent residents have effectively been barred from leaving the country, while only a small number of people have been allowed to enter. Under the current lockdown in Victoria, Melbourne’s region, all gatherings in private homes are banned, and the only kinds of gatherings allowed are funerals of 10 people or fewer.

Tension over compliance with COVID-19 rules has emerged around the world in and around Orthodox communities since March 2020, when rules aimed at stopping the spread of disease made minyans, or the quorums required to say some prayers, illegal in many places.

Early in the pandemic, Melbourne police raided several sites where Orthodox Jews were illegally holding minyans. Last October, private citizens confronted a group of Haredi Orthodox men leaving a school.

Dalidakis wrote that most local Jews were adhering to the rules. But, he said, “small pockets of our Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox community need to see this event as an opportunity to reset and reflect on just how dangerous and selfish their behaviour has been”.

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1 Comment

  1. Andrea

    Aug 20, 2021 at 3:24 am

    It’s the same story over and over, “This won’t happen to me or us !”

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Stories from hell: SA Jews remember 9/11

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September 11 2001 was 20 years ago and seemingly a million miles away, but for some South African Jews who were eye witness to the events, it remains close to home.

“I still have nightmares,” says Jonathan “Jonty” Kantor, who was meant to meet a friend at the World Trade Center (WTC) that day. He slept late, and woke to news of the attack, which profoundly changed his life.

“We didn’t know what was going on, and we honestly thought the world was coming to an end,” he says, a sentiment echoed by other South African Jews who were there. With all communication cut off, those who witnessed the chaos and horror had reason to believe it.

Kantor now lives in Johannesburg, but he was a student at Yeshiva Somayach Monsey at the time. He remembers that when he woke up, “everything was so quiet. Then I saw other students in a panic. They believed we were all about to die. They told me that planes had hit the WTC. I had always wanted to go there, and had arranged to meet a friend there that morning, but we both thankfully survived.”

He was also teaching a class whose students all had parents working at the WTC. By some miracle, all the parents survived. He also remembers that there were two brisses that day, which delayed people from going to work.

In the weeks that followed, “it was the same heaviness in the whole city that you see in a dead body. The only light was seeing Hatzolah rushing in to help. And you couldn’t walk more than a block without people hugging you.” This was in complete contrast to the city he had arrived in at the end of 2000, where he found people to be incredibly unfriendly.

Soon afterwards, he decided to return to South Africa. “I realised that nothing was more important than being with the people I love. 9/11 taught me that we shouldn’t take for granted the life we have. We complain about the small things, but they’re actually not important. Here in South Africa, we have a really good life, even with the difficulties. If we focused more on the positives, we could be happier.”

Port Elizabeth-born Grant Gochin, who now lives in Los Angeles, was supposed to be on United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into Tower Two. “Our friends Dan, Ron, and their three-year-old son David had been on vacation in Rhode Island. We were in Manhattan. We were supposed to meet up and fly home together. My son, Bryce, was only about five months old. He was as cranky as hell. I was so frustrated that I said to [my husband], Russell, ‘Let’s just go home.’”

“We came home on the Monday. On the Tuesday morning we had the television on. The first plane hit, and I thought it had been an accident. Then United 175 hit, and I asked Russell, ‘Wasn’t that the flight we were supposed to be on?’ We realised that Dan, Ron, and David were dead.”

American born and bred Stacie Hasson now lives in Cape Town, and has some unsettling links to 9/11. Her close friend lived next door to lead hijacker Mohamed Atta, who lived and trained in South Florida in the months before the attack. “We would spend so much time at my friend’s house, and Atta would be around. He was always wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses,” she says.

Not only that, but she also lost a friend in the attack. “I remember exactly where I was at just 21 years old, learning that my childhood neighbour, Michelle Goldstein, lost her life in Tower Two shortly after calling her mother to say she was okay after Tower One was hit. She got married six months to the day before it happened. Finding Michelle’s name at the memorial was unlike anything I could have prepared myself for.”

“I saw people jumping out of the towers,” says Elise Barron Jankelowitz, who was visiting New York with her brother after attending her other brother’s wedding in Chicago. They were going to stay at a friend, but landed up staying at the Marriott Hotel that linked the Twin Towers.

“We arrived the night before, and woke up to a blast. The hotel’s alarm was going off. Our windows were starting to crack, and we saw smoke and debris.” At first they were told to stay in their rooms. If they had, they wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

“Eventually, they told us to get out. We got dressed, grabbed passports and travellers cheques, and started walking down the stairs from the 15th floor,” she says. “The lifts weren’t working. We heard people shout, ‘A body hit my [hotel] window!’ Lots of people were in pyjamas. As we were ushered out, policemen said, ‘Cover your head and run.’ As we were crossing the road, we heard this insane noise of a jet engine, and then the second plane hit.”

That was when they saw people jump. It was also when her brother told her “these buildings are coming down – we need to get away”. He also said they should stay near water in case they needed to jump in.

That was when the first building fell. “I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. A man appeared and it looked like his eyes were bleeding. He was covered in ash. I gave him a bottle of water, and as he washed his face, he said, ‘I’ve just come from hell.’”

They were waiting by the Staten Island Ferry when the second tower fell. “We hid under a truck. Everyone thought bombs might fall, or another plane might hit.” Eventually, they made their way to Staten Island where they bought essentials and got hold of family. They lost everything they left in the hotel, but were grateful to be alive. “As we flew out of New York six days later, there were fighter jets on either side of us. I’m so grateful my brother thought so smartly. We went back a year later to retrace our steps.”

Rabbi Levi Avtzon, now rabbi of Linksfield Shul, was a 17-year-old yeshiva student when he saw the second plane hit. “In the corner of the large study hall, which was on the fourth floor of a large building in Brooklyn, there was a fire escape. If you stood there, you had a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline.” He heard that smoke was coming out of the towers, so he and others went to look. Some drifted away, but he stayed. “A plane suddenly showed up. I was sure it was from the fire department coming to spray water. A split second later, the top half of the south tower blew up. It looked like a 50-story fire – like a bubble of fire.”

Later, visiting Ground Zero, “I remember the stench. It was all-encompassing. The whole experience made me feel unsafe. I would stand at the same fire escape and check that the Empire State Building was still there. Twenty years later, I still struggle to make sense of the events of the day.”

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Abraham Accords, one year on

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This week a year ago, Ebrahim Dahood Nonoo switched on his television set and like the rest of the world, heard the surprise announcement that Bahrain, a tiny country of 33 islands situated between the Qatari peninsula and the north eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, was making peace with Israel.

Nonoo was stunned. As head of the Bahraini Jewish community that comprises only 36 Jews, he had no idea what had been happening behind closed doors.

“For me it came out of the blue,” he says while we walk through the local souk (marketplace) where his grandfather sold spices after arriving from Iraq in the early 1900s. The tiny shops on the cobbled streets all advertise the same clothing, spices, and antiques, regardless of what the pushy merchants claim as we walk past.

“We knew the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was signing peace with Israel and that was a huge step forward,” smiles Nonoo.

“We were thinking, ‘Oh G-d, is it going to be us next?’ But we didn’t know. And then, of course, after it was announced, all the newspapers wanted to know more details and I went to the foreign minister and said to him, ‘Listen, they’re all asking us to give information. So what do you want us to do?’ He said, ‘Well, just tell them whatever you want.’”

Just two days after the announcement, a signing ceremony was held at the White House.

Israel, the United States (US), the UAE, and Bahrain signed the historic Abraham Accords in which the latter two recognised, for the first time, the state of Israel and set about normalising diplomatic relations with her.

Later, two other Arab nations, Sudan and Morocco, followed suit and joined the Accords, raising the number of Arab states with formal diplomatic ties to Israel from two to six.

The Abraham Accords weren’t just a diplomatic victory. They opened up  collaboration on tourism, trade, technology, and more. But because they were a foreign policy win for former American president, Donald Trump, his successor, Joe Biden, didn’t exactly call attention to this year’s anniversary. In fact, the current US administration’s spokesperson has never used the term “Abraham Accords”.

Trump predicted at this time last year that about five more Gulf countries would sign similar normalisation agreements with Israel in the ensuing months. Although this hasn’t happened – nor is it expected to any time soon – the good news is that experts agree the inked deals, at least, are here to stay.

“For more than 70 years we have been in a state of no war, no peace, stagnation,” says Dr Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, the chairperson of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence in Bahrain. We meet in his air-conditioned office where he regales me with stories about his first visit to Israel at the end of last year.

“This is a historic moment for us. My generation has wasted time with hatred, wars, and violence, as everyone knows. People in Bahrain have changed in recent years. If you mentioned Israelis 20 years ago, it would evoke war, violence, and hatred. Today it’s different.”

Al Khalifa insists most Bahrainis support the deal in spite of the Palestinians claiming to feel betrayed.

“We really have to end it. There’s no way that we can continue living in a state where we aren’t really in a war with Israel and we aren’t at peace. It should have been done years ago, especially as we in Bahrain have no enmity with Judaism as a religion. For us, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are one,” says Al Khalifa.

Bahrain’s Jewish community is one of the smallest in the world although its origins date back more than a century. Arabic sources record Jews living in the area at the time of the Islamic conquest in 630 CE.

Nonoo, sporting a black yarmulke, meets me at the souk at midday. It’s the worst time to visit as the temperature has climbed to 45 degrees Celsius and most prospective shoppers have gone home to return later in the evening. But as soon as they notice Nonoo, there’s a lot of “Salaam alaikum” and back-slapping.

“This is where commerce started in Bahrain,” he tells me, pausing to sip some dark Arabic coffee. “All these little shops sold mostly materials and Jews were very good at that. Many of the first Jews who came here, came from Iraq looking for opportunities. They had an edge because they were able to transact with suppliers from across Europe. They would take container loads of goods and sell them and pay the suppliers back later. There was so much Jewish participation in the market that on Saturdays, everything closed here for Shabbat. Even the local Bahrainis, the Muslims and Christians, used to close.”

Since the 2000s, Bahrain has had quiet relations with Israel and especially the local pro-Israel community didn’t need a lot of convincing to buy into the Accords. But several Bahrainis I talk to, off record, and who ask not to be named, say they are still suspicious of Israel and any peace agreement.

“You can’t expect us to change our views overnight,” one university student proclaims. “There’s still the occupation and Israel continues to build settlements on Palestinian land!”

But while there might be anti-Israel sentiment in some quarters, albeit the minority, Nonoo insists that antisemitism has never been a problem in the country. It’s a view echoed by everyone I meet. And Nonoo’s grandfather?

“If he was alive today, he wouldn’t believe that something like the Abraham Accords could happen. It’s absolutely amazing,” his grandson declares!

  • Paula Slier is the Middle East bureau chief of RT, the founder and chief executive of Newshound Media International, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Women in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

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Mangoes and the Queen Mum: new book documents Jews of Kampala

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Janice Masur is keeping alive the memory of one of many Jewish communities that disappeared in the past century – the Jews of Uganda.

The history of Eastern European Jewry in Kampala had all but died out when Masur recently brought out a book believed to be the only one devoted to the Jewish community in the capital city of Uganda.

Titled Shalom Uganda: A Jewish Community on the Equator, the well-researched book begins with a historical overview of Jews in Africa, and goes on to tell Masur’s story of living in a little-known Ashkenazi Jewish community in Kampala from 1949 to 1961.

Although this tiny and remote community had no rabbi or synagogue, its 23 families formed a cohesive group that celebrated all Jewish festivals together and upheld their Jewish identity. Sadly, while Kampala Jewry made every effort to survive, the community eventually withered under the hot African sun, leaving few traces of its existence.

However, Masur’s desire to bear witness to the place where she spent her childhood has resulted in its history being preserved in this compelling memoir, supported by interviews, photographs, and in-depth research.

The idea for the book originated in a modern East African history class she attended at Simon Fraser University in Canada. She began writing in 2005, travelling to interview octogenarians and nonagenarians who had arrived in Kampala earlier in their lives.

Masur herself was born in Eritrea, where her parents chose to move from Palestine in 1942, presumably for better job and financial opportunities. They settled in Uganda in 1949 after Masur’s father, Helmut, was hired to manage the isolated Kampala Tile and Brickwork Company.

“I am a second-generation Jewish woman and have only one cousin who joined us in Kampala with his family,” Masur told the SA Jewish Report from her home in Vancouver, Canada. “We visited South Africa in 1961 when travelling by car from Uganda to Durban – and stayed in a Jewish hotel – to board a cargo ship which deposited us in New Zealand [where she attended university].”

Today, she is strongly rooted in her Jewish community in Vancouver, where she lives with her husband.

“I visited South Africa again in 2001, meeting a childhood friend in Cape Town,” Masur said. “I visited Namibia in 2010 – not really South Africa.”

In one of the anecdotes as a nine-year-old in Kampala, Masur writes in her book that “a rabbi was imported from South Africa for Yom Kippur” in 1953. He stayed with her family, and held the service in their house. Her parents told her to eat breakfast in the bathroom so that the rabbi would be unaware of her not fasting.

“Many years later, I learned that children under the age of 12 were permitted to eat on the fast day of Yom Kippur, so it seems that Jewish law wasn’t fully understood. Still, my parents did their best with whatever they remembered,” she writes.

Masur shares another experience in her book, the significance of which she discovered only later in life. While living in a single-level house that had an avocado tree and a badminton court, she often saw her family’s “houseboy”, Odera, dancing and singing around the house.

“My mother spent a lot of time screaming at the houseboy in frustration at his supposed inability to follow instructions, which I later learned was a passive tactic of rebellion against British rule,” she writes.

From 1957 to 1960, she attended the government (semi-private) Highlands School in Eldoret, Kenya, and noticed that post-war antisemitism was endemic. “Unkind girls in Eldoret would sometimes bully me by telling me that I was a misfit because my nationality was Jewish, not British, although I was naturalised British and my religion was Jewish!” she writes.

On several occasions, Masur stood with her mother in the driveway outside the gates of Government House in Entebbe with a crowd of other people to watch the arrival or departure of Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother.

In preparation for the visit of the latter in 1959, all the shops on the main street were scrubbed and painted, the road islands were dolled up, and flags and bunting feverishly bought. To meet the dress requirements, Masur’s mother and aunty had to borrow gloves and hats from friends. Soon, the duo laughed to see their picture shown on the front page of the Uganda Argus newspaper with the Queen Mum.

Masur hasn’t returned to Uganda since leaving Kampala for New Zealand as she thinks that “perhaps memories are best left to glitter in the distance”.

That said, her formative years in the country have left a lasting imprint. “To this day, I love mangoes, and growing up in Kampala has made me feel comfortable in the company of all ethnic groups,” Masur recently told the Canadian website Jewish Independent.

Today, Uganda has about 2 000 observant Jews known as the Abayudaya – the “people of Judah”. Having converted to Judaism in passive rebellion against British rule in 1921, the Abayudaya is a now-thriving, self-sufficient black Jewish community in Mbale, boasting synagogues, Jewish schools, a mikvah, and a cemetery.

However, there isn’t even a cemetery to mark the existence of Masur’s family and 22 others who managed to create an Eastern European Jewish community in Kampala. Masur hopes that her book will document and honour what she describes as “an imploded star vanished in the diasporic galaxy”.

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