Jewish SA expat killed in Afghanistan “didn’t die in vain”
Recent events in Afghanistan may seem like a million miles away, but the story of the late Private Gregory “Greg” Sher brings them a lot closer to home. Born in 1978 to a Jewish family in Johannesburg, Sher was killed in the early days of 2009 while fighting the Taliban.
Although his family emigrated to Australia in 1986, his legacy lives on in South Africa, and recent events have opened old wounds for family and friends here and around the world.
“The past few days have brought up a lot of memories,” says Mandy Strimling from Johannesburg. Strimling met Sher when she visited Australia on holiday, and his welcoming personality meant that they became good friends.
“The people trying to flee Afghanistan now are running away from the same regime that Greg fought against. He was there to help these same people. So for those who knew and loved Greg, it’s definitely opened old wounds.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his home in Melbourne, Sher’s father, Felix Sher, says that his son didn’t die in vain. “I understand that as a consequence of current events in Afghanistan, you might be thinking of all those soldiers who sacrificed their lives and their families. It’s not all negative however. An entire generation of women have been educated, Bin Laden was dispensed with, Al Qaeda was weakened, and much infrastructure, including schools and hospitals were built. The Taliban aren’t really united and cohesive as a whole. They may fragment when in power due to tribalism. Hopefully, the zealots will be contained, and some conservative common sense will prevail.”
Says his mother, Yvonne, “The Almighty might have decided to take Gregory in the most common way – accident, illness, or murder. But he chose the most honourable way. As a soldier sacrificing his life to do good.”
The second-born of their three sons, Sher’s passion for service and protection began at a young age. In a “last post” account of his life written by historian Aaron Pegram, which was made into a film at the Australian War Memorial, Pegram describes how “his love of Yiddishkeit earned him the enduring love and respect of all who knew him”.
“After leaving school, Greg worked for his father in the finance business, and at 19, he joined the Community Security Group, a professional security team that oversees the protection of Jewish schools, synagogues, and special Jewish events. Greg was, in every respect, a pillar of Melbourne’s Jewish community.
“Greg possessed an interest in soldiering at a very early age,” the account continues. “In 1998, he joined the Army Reserve and became a part-time rifleman. In November 2002, Greg was among a rifle company of army reservists deployed to East Timor to address the deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the region. On his return to Australia, Greg successfully qualified as a member of the Special Forces.
“He transferred to the 1st Commando Regiment in Melbourne, a part-time unit which enabled him to continue his involvement in the Community Security Group. It was around this time that Greg met his partner, Karen.
“In November 2008, Greg’s regiment deployed to Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan – the first deployment of an Army Reserve force on combat operations since World War II. Greg and his unit provided security for the Afghan population in areas controlled by Taliban insurgents. Not wishing to cause his family any concern, Greg had told his parents he was off on a lengthy training exercise.
“It was on one such operation around midday on 4 January 2009, that Taliban insurgents fired rockets into the compound where Greg and other members of the task group were resting before heading out on patrol. One of the rockets struck Greg before detonating on the perimeter wall of the patrol base behind him. Greg was killed instantly.”
The account describes Sher as “a highly skilled and experienced soldier. His comrades affectionately knew him as ‘the super Jew’. At the ramp [send-off] ceremony in Afghanistan, Greg’s brothers in arms had a Star of David made for him to lie under [instead of a cross, as the ceremony began in a chapel].”
When Australia left Afghanistan in 2014, “I asked if I could have that Magen David,” says Felix. “It was sent to me, and it now hangs in the shul of the cemetery where Greg is buried.”
Reflecting back on the ramp ceremony, he recalls that a number of Afghans asked to be there. “They signed an Afghan flag which they sent back with him. He really connected to people.”
Yvonne shares a story that brings this home. “When he was teaching Afghan soldiers how to use a new weapon, they were calling him ‘Mr Greg’. And when Greg left, the captain, who was there, said to the soldiers, ‘Did you know Mr Greg is Jewish?’ They said, ‘No, we’ve never met a Jewish person in our lives’, and ‘Wow, this is special, if this is what Jewish people are about.’”
Sher’s body was returned to Australia, where he was buried with full military honours in a traditional Jewish funeral at Melbourne’s Chevrah Kadisha Cemetery at Lyndhurst. He was 30 years old.
The Shers didn’t even know their son was in Afghanistan, and were awoken at 03:00 while on holiday, by their son, Barry, breaking the news to them. They had to rush home in the middle of the night, where they were met by the military. While it has taken them time to come to terms with his death, they are grateful that he has been honoured in many capacities and that their government continues to engage with them as a military family.
“He loved the military, he loved adventure. He called himself ‘a protector’,” says Felix. “What really drove him was hearing that the Taliban was throwing acid in the faces of young girls going to school, and the harsh treatment of women.”
For Strimling, hearing that Sher had passed away at such a young age and in such circumstances “was surreal and hard to come to terms with. He was almost larger than life.”
While her friend has been honoured in many capacities, Strimling wanted to bring his legacy back home to where it all began. He attended Glenhazel Primary in South Africa, so she decided to donate a trophy to the school in his honour. The Greg Sher Remembrance Trophy for community service and helping others is given out every year. “It’s given to a child who shows up and does what Greg would have done, exemplifying what he stood for,” she says.
Strimling believes that Sher’s connection to this country remains strong. “He still has family here. But he’s connected in other ways too. I was involved in a really bad car accident about a year after he passed. The paramedic told me that I shouldn’t be alive. But I had a photo of Greg in my wallet, and I saw it as a sign that he was protecting me.”
She says death in such a faraway place has made her realise “how connected everyone is in spite of so much distance”. In light of recent events, she says, “I don’t think he died in vain. His death holds meaning. He was given a task, and he completed his mission. He wouldn’t see it as a sacrifice but as a service.”
“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.”
Community urged to be cautious as wave gathers speed
The Omicron variant is hitting the Johannesburg and Cape Town Jewish communities, with numbers rising rapidly but very few hospitalisations. Those hospitalised – at this point – are mainly unvaccinated.
However, many organisations have taken precautions to stem the tide to avoid a repeat – or worse – of what happened before. The machanot and Rage festival were this week cancelled, among many other private simchas.
The number of new infections in the community have increased rapidly over the past two weeks, says Darren Kahn, the executive general manager of Hatzolah Medical Rescue. There have been 272 new cases recorded this week, with 387 active cases in the community.
“To date, thankfully, there has only been one hospitalisation and we have two long-term patients on oxygen from the third wave,” he says.
“The current numbers are fast approaching our original planned numbers, and the wave is just beginning. The Hatzolah team is working around the clock to ensure the community is well cared for.”
Though Kahn said responders were fearful of a return to the COVID-19-positive numbers experienced only a few months ago, many experts believe this variant will be far milder than any we have had before if you have been vaccinated.
“We all enjoyed a couple of COVID-19-free months, but it’s unfortunately time to start being more careful again. We urge the community to go back to the basics: get vaccinated, wear a mask, keep a social distance, and sanitise. Let’s do this and get through the next wave together.”
To date, Hatzolah has vaccinated more than 30 000 people at its vaccination site.
In Cape Town, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Community Security Organisation (CSO) sent out an alert to the community on the morning of Wednesday, 1 December, with the subject line: “COVID-19 warning: fourth wave is on our doorstep!”
“CSO Cape Town has seen active cases on its COVID-19 Wellness Monitoring Programme surge from 0 on Friday, 26 November, to 28 cases on Tuesday, 30 November. While little is known about this new variant, we do know that its reproductive rate is at the same level as it was at the peak of the previous waves.”
After meeting medical advisors, Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein says shuls’ safety protocols haven’t changed. “This is rather just a call to reinforce what we have done so well since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “The message we need to communicate to our community is that there’s no need to panic and that, working together, our shuls will be safe places for them to attend, even at this time.”
Meanwhile, the Ballito Matric Rage festival was cancelled after one day, when 32 attendees and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
But Ronen Klugman, the founder and director of Plett Rage, says that the festival will go ahead from 3 to 7 December, with about 900 people attending. “We’re not cancelling because we’re the last line of defence against this disaster of the new variant. Kids are already arriving – I can see them on the beach – and if we cancel, it will make the situation much worse. They will scatter, and spread all over this town, and there will be no control,” he told the SA Jewish Report.
But with the festival in place, “The only way they can get into events is if they go through our testing centre. We have the responsibility to stick to our robust plan. Everyone is vaccinated, so that’s our first buffer. They have to take a PCR test before they leave. They present their vaccine certificate and PCR test on arrival. Then they go for a rapid antigen test. They get an AR band with a chip that only works for one day. Then they get tested again. If anyone tests positive, we implement contact tracing and take any contacts out of the festival.”
Local virology expert Professor Barry Schoub told Sky News, “All the cases [of the new Omicron variant] so far have been mild to moderate cases, and that’s a good sign.”
Dr Efraim Kramer, a leading international expert in emergency medicine with a specialty in mass gatherings, told the SA Jewish Report, “At the moment, we’re still groping [for information about the new variant] because tests are being done in a laboratory. We’ll find out in the next one to two weeks exactly what its transmissibility is and what kind of clinical profile it has.”
Dr Carron Zinman, a pulmonologist at Netcare Linksfield Hospital, told the SA Jewish Report that there had been differences in the symptoms of people who had presented with the new variant.
“They are saying it’s presenting atypically. In general, people are complaining of loss of taste or loss of smell. The GPs are seeing a lot of extreme fatigue with nothing else. In terms of my patients in hospital, one came in with something unrelated, not knowing she had it. So, it’s behaving differently, and the bloods are looking different as well.”
Zinman believes the Omicron variant is the reason for most of the positive tests at the moment, and thinks the new variant is more contagious.
Kramer agrees with President Cyril Ramaphosa, who said on Sunday that South Africans need to learn to live with the virus. “The days of trying to run away from it, trying to evade it, being in lockdown, and those kinds of things are gone,” Kramer says. “It’s here almost to stay, and every time we think it’s gone away, another cousin arrives.
“I don’t think there’s anything mysterious anymore about COVID-19. The president said we were staying at level 1. His statement was exceptionally positive in what he said, and exceptionally positive in what he didn’t say, if you read between the lines. In the meantime, we’ve kept the country on level 1, so we carry on.”
Kramer encourages people to go to shul. “There hasn’t been a single COVID-19 case in 20 months in people going to shul. Probably 99% of the people coming to shul are vaccinated,” he says.
If people want to go on holiday, they can as long as they take COVID-19 into consideration in everything they do, Kramer says. “The only mandatory aspect of that lifestyle is that people must get vaccinated so that if you do get it, you don’t get it severely. Our community is highly compliant in terms of COVID-19 vaccination. That’s fantastic as it means that life can almost carry on for them.
“If they want to go on holiday, they must go on holiday. If they want to get married, they must get married. We can’t knock people around anymore. We’re going to have a generation of dysfunctional kids if we carry on this way. People must do what they want to, they must just be careful.”
Kramer has criticised the “political panic” around Omicron, saying, “They believe that by closing doors, they’re going to keep it out. What they don’t know is that it’s there already. They just don’t know who’s got it, how many have got it, and how quickly it’s going to spread.”
“Closing borders doesn’t make scientific sense,” Schoub told Bloomberg TV. “What we have to recognise is this measure is politically motivated, which is highly damaging to countries like South Africa that depend on the tourist industry.”
Kramer says unvaccinated people shouldn’t be named and shamed. “We don’t know why people haven’t been vaccinated. It could be because they choose not to, because they’re scared to have it. It could be that they’re allergic to the preservative in the vaccination and they’re not allowed to have it because they’ve been anaphylactic before.” But he warns, “The people that are landing up in intensive care are the ones that aren’t vaccinated.”
Asked if the vaccines we have protect us from the new variant, Zinman says, “All of that needs to be worked out. I think that you have to accept that there’s got to be some protection from the vaccine, because the vaccines to date have shown efficacy against all the variants.”
SA Jewish leadership confront Israeli PM over travellers’ ordeal
Orthodox spiritual leaders in South Africa have expressed their shock and dismay over the treatment of South African travellers turned away from Ben Gurion Airport last Friday night.
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, South African Rabbinical Association Chairperson Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, and the dayanim of the Beth Din of South Africa wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on 30 November expressing their unhappiness.
The group of five travellers from South Africa included two who were going to Israel to comfort the Kay family after the murder of their son and brother, Eli Kay, in a terrorist attack on 21 November.
They were in the air when Israeli authorities decided to ban South African travellers in light of a new COVID-19 variant discovered by South African scientists. On landing in Israel, they were forced onto a flight back to South Africa via Dubai on Shabbat.
“We were shocked and dismayed to hear that a group of Jewish travellers from South Africa, who arrived at Ben Gurion Airport this past Friday, were denied entry into Israel and forcibly returned to their country of origin, and as a result were compelled to desecrate Shabbat,” wrote our religious leaders.
“That this took place in the Jewish state is simply unconscionable,” they wrote. “To further compound the trauma, two of the passengers were making their way to Israel to spend Shabbat with the Kay family, who are mourning the loss of their beloved Eli in last week’s terror attack in Jerusalem. From the reports we received, no attempt was made to accommodate the passengers by allowing them to remain in quarantine over Shabbat.
“To force fellow Jews to desecrate Shabbat is a violation of the Jewish identity and Jewish values of the state,” they wrote. “The manner in which the religious rights of these individuals have been infringed isn’t something one would expect of any country, and certainly not the Jewish state. On behalf of South Africa’s rabbis and the communities we represent, we wish to record our strongest objection to the forced desecration of Shabbat.”
One of these travellers, Ilana Smith, says the incident led to more stress and trauma for the Kay family, who tried to help the travellers in spite of being in mourning. “I was going to Israel only to be there for the Kay family. I was staying nearby, and was going nowhere else. And now the Kay family had this extra stress on their hands – the last thing they needed! Kasriel Kay was phoning the rabbi in Dubai, trying to help us. My family back home went into Shabbos not knowing if I would be stuck in Dubai. There are post-traumatic repercussions from this ordeal.”
Melissa Genende was travelling to Israel from South Africa to see her grandchildren on the same flight as Smith. “We had no knowledge of the flight ban, and weren’t stopped until we arrived in Israel on Friday afternoon. Our passports were taken from us. We were marched underground and came up at the departure gate for the flight going back to Dubai.
“We were threatened that if we didn’t board the plane, the police would be called,” she said. “This in fact did happen while we explained that we didn’t want to fly on Shabbat. At this point, we had no choice but to get on the plane. I’m not fully shomer Shabbos, but I would never travel on a plane on Shabbat. I have travelled many times in my life, and always make a plan that I don’t travel on Shabbat, often with a lot of extra cost.”
She’s angry that all the other people on the plane entered Israel with no problem. “We came from South Africa on the same plane, so why were we not giving any other option? We could have gone into bidud [quarantine] for a few days. We had all been tested, and I had already prepaid for PCR tests at the airport. I understand the panic. What I don’t understand is how they make a decision for five people and let everyone else in the country.”
The group had no opportunity to get food or water while waiting in the airport. “Kosher food was also unavailable to us for the entire two flights. When we landed in Dubai, it was already Shabbos. We had nowhere to wait all night until our flight at 05:00. We managed to find a lounge that would allow us to pay $32 [R513] for four hours. There was no kosher food there. We arrived back in South Africa at 12:00 on Saturday. Our luggage didn’t arrive, and we still have no idea where it is or when will get it back.”
Genende has since been ill from dehydration and travel sickness. “I’m taking this as far as can. I’m hoping that the Israeli government will do something about the staff at the airport. At the very least, I want a new ticket to Israel. I will fight until I get answers and compensation.” Emirates, she says, won’t reimburse her as she has “used” the return flight.
Even though she was able to get home, she says she would have preferred to be stuck in Israel than to have experienced this. She says she and the other South Africans have since been asked to go to the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria to meet the ambassador. She’s waiting “with bated breath” to hear what’s said. She’s had no other communication from anyone in Israel.
Former MK and olim advocate, Dov Lipman, has worked tirelessly with his organisation, Yad L’Olim, to assist olim and their families to deal with travel restrictions throughout the pandemic. In the past few days, he has barely slept as Israel went from one extreme to the other in a matter of hours.
“It’s been a really difficult time for South African Jewry,” he says. “I hear their pain, I hear their cries. The incident last Friday was nothing short of tragic, and I use that word deliberately. It’s a tragedy when someone arrives in Israel legally and is turned away.”
He says the incident has been covered extensively by the Israeli media, “with strong criticism of the government for the way it was handled from all segments of Israel’s population. At the very least, this kind of thing won’t happen again because of the degree of criticism.”
He was involved in trying to assist the South Africans. “I had a hard time enjoying my Shabbat knowing that people were in transit to who knows where. It was very painful. I’m now even more motivated to help olim and their families around the world. I believe all of our efforts will lead to a better situation.”
In response to queries from the SA Jewish Report, the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria released an official statement. “We deeply regret the unfortunate incident that occurred at Ben Gurion Airport on 26 November when a group of South African citizens were deported and had to violate their religious beliefs. The incident took place immediately after the imposition of new strict COVID-19 regulations. The incident is being investigated, and necessary conclusions will be drawn. Needless to say, if the embassy had been informed of these events in time of the occurrence, this unfortunate chain of events could have been prevented.”
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