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Journey from reverend’s daughter to rebbetzin

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SA News

Born into a Christian family, South African born Rebbetzin Elisheva Goldschmidt never felt that she quite belonged. When a trip to Israel sparked a passion for Judaism, she followed an unexpected path to becoming a rebbetzin in Kochi, India.

“As a child, I felt external to my human experience,” said Goldschmidt speaking at a Sydenham Shul webinar this week. “I never felt like I fitted in, and I had no idea why.” At an early age, she found her calling in singing, music, and dance, yet this didn’t detract from her unexplained feeling of otherness.

Growing up in a small town where her father served as a reverend to the church, Christianity was the prevalent religion. Goldschmidt, an only child, was never exposed to anything except conservative churches. “Anything that was other was shied away from and not explained. I never met a Jew until much later.”

While she was a bit like a chameleon who adapted to her surroundings, Goldschmidt felt very little connection to her peers or family. “Internally, I grew increasingly distant from everything and everybody.” She felt there was no one to talk to about her feelings of dislocation. When she encountered an energetic pastor at one of her many choir performances who claimed to have spoken to G-d, she decided to try to do so too to find some form of connection, albeit unsuccessfully.

Goldschmidt was about 16 when her parents divorced. “Knowing the private reasons surrounding their split, I could no longer keep up this farce of spirituality,” she said. “I lost all faith in the church and the system of which I was a part.” It led to extreme rebellion. “I got into all sorts of trouble and landed in abusive relationships, all while still shining on the music front. I had this dual life. I was struggling with all these things that one wasn’t allowed to talk about in our community. Inside I was screaming for attention and acceptance.”

After moving to a new town with her mother and joining a new church, Goldschmidt began vocalising all her long-held questions – something that was strongly discouraged at school and church.

When her history teacher began preaching religion, telling the class that if they give their hearts to Jesus, they would be alright for the rest of their lives, Goldschmidt questioned this idea. Kicked out of the class, she wouldn’t be silenced, and decided to read the Christian Bible cover to cover.

This gave rise to even more questions, especially as she was forced to prepare for a pledge of allegiance to the church at the end of the school year. She caused such a “disruption” in her classes at the church that the pastor paid a visit to her mother telling her that he’d prefer it if she didn’t return. Goldschmidt therefore left the church. Afterwards, she explored all sides of Christianity, searching for meaning, eventually investigating the Messianic movement. Yet, she battled to find a sense of belonging in any of the belief systems she encountered.

That’s when a friend suggested that Goldschmidt travel to Israel. At the age of 19, in the midst of her music studies, she took the trip that would kickstart a greater journey. “When I stepped foot on the El Al flight, it was the first time I’d heard Hebrew spoken or met a Jew. I was intrigued. In Israel, I was on cloud nine all the time, it was like walking into a world that I didn’t know existed.” As she approached the Western Wall, Goldschmidt felt something within her shake. “I sat down and started crying. I had no idea why, but I couldn’t stop. The reason is that I heard the call of home.”

Giving insight into the world of converts, Goldschmidt said, “At the beginning, when Hashem created this beautiful collective soul of am Yisrael, it was almost like a container with glitter. With the fall of Adam HaRishon [the fall of man], that lid came off, and some of those sparks went flying and landed in people like me – other people. And we hear the call of Shema to come home.” Indeed, someone recited the Shema as Goldschmidt sat on the steps approaching the wall. “My little spark could no longer sit on that step, I had to find my way home.”

Yet it was still a long road to conversion. After returning to South Africa and marrying and divorcing within a year, Goldschmidt embarked on an international opera tour. Escaping an abusive relationship that began during this time, she returned to Israel. “I went back to where I felt I had an identity, back to where I felt a sense of belonging.” There, she began her conversion process and met her future husband, who later helped her complete the process back in South Africa.

She believes her journey was part of a greater plan. Though she’d never learned about the Holocaust as a child, Goldschmidt says that she’d suffered from nightmares for most of her life. Some were about going into half-moon shaped ovens. Others were about being stuck in a train in a tiny wooden cart packed with people, when a soldier opens the door and they step out into the snow. “Since coming out of the mikvah after converting almost 10 years ago, I’ve never had another nightmare,” she said.

She and her husband married in Cape Town, and soon made aliyah. The couple joined a shlichut kollel, which sent rabbis and their families to run kollels (study institutes) abroad. It was Goldschmidt’s idea to ask for a posting in India as her husband had frequently travelled there and loved it. His family also had longstanding business connections in the country. And so, they moved to Kochi and took over the Pardasei Synagogue, the oldest shul in the commonwealth, built in 1568. This is also home to the only kosher mikvah in the south of India.

Today, the Goldschmidts have three children and are a central part of Jewish life in Kochi. While only 24 families remain in the area, they are committed to supporting this colourful community. “It’s an aging community, so I want to make sure that if anyone, G-d forbid, passes, we’re there to help them transition in a beautiful way,” said Goldschmidt.

“When tourism resumes, we also hope to keep serving the couple of thousand Israelis who pass through each month. We’re the only shul in the south of India – the closest one is a two-hour plane ride away.” And so, the rebbetzin’s journey continues.

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Barbara Bont

    Aug 19, 2021 at 6:31 pm

    Beautiful.. So proud of you 💕

  2. Derick

    Aug 19, 2021 at 10:16 pm

    Such a beautiful amazing story Baruch Hashem may your faith only get stronger and stronger PG….

  3. Ruth

    Aug 23, 2021 at 6:22 pm

    So is the Bet Knesset in Sydenham still open…went there years ago as a teenager.

    Interesting story especially your connection to the Holocaust

    Sending your family blessings and a happy new year from Shmuel and me in Jerusalem. He turned 80 last month.

    God bless

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News

Community urged to be cautious as wave gathers speed

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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.”

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Israel

SA Jewish leadership confront Israeli PM over travellers’ ordeal

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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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Israel

Citizens take government to court over Miss SA bullying

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Citizens for Integrity (CFI) has accused the government and the minister of sports, arts, and culture of acting unconstitutionally and irrationally in its “bullying” of Miss SA.

The non-governmental organisation has filed papers in the North Gauteng High Court taking the government and Minister Nathi Mthethwa to task for withdrawing its support for the local beauty queen in November, and for calling for her to withdraw from the 70th Miss Universe pageant to be held in Israel in less than two weeks.

In a press statement issued this week, CFI said that as an organisation “aimed at protecting the rights of citizens and the public against abuse, unconstitutional action, and irrational government decisions which affect citizens’ rights”, it took issue with the government and the minister.

It has demanded an apology and an immediate retraction of the statement withdrawing its support for the Miss SA organisation and Miss SA, Lalela Mswane.

Mswane, a University of Pretoria LLB graduate who was born in KwaSokhulu in Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, has consistently stood her ground through a steady stream of harassment and vilification by Israel-haters and politicians hell bent on scuppering her once-in-a-life time opportunity to participate on the international stage.

In spite of this, she left for Israel at the weekend in preparation for the pageant, with the full backing and support of the Miss SA organisation and countless fans who have steadfastly continued to support her in her decision to participate.

Following weeks of intimidation by anti-Israel lobbyists, Mswane, dressed in a bright yellow, summery jumpsuit left the country telling her fans, “We will Rise”, and expressing how grateful she was for the opportunity to represent her country.

The Miss SA organisation posted, “We stand united with you @lalela_mswane. You have already made us so proud, and we know you will continue to do so. We love and adore you.”

Willie Hofmeyr, the retired head of the asset forfeiture unit at the National Prosecuting Authority, and also one of the founders and directors of CFI, said this week that it was an “important issue to address”.

“We need to ensure that all citizens in the country are treated equally well and fairly. It appears as if Miss SA has not been treated fairly,” he said.

Sibongile Cele, the deputy chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC) Women’s League Johannesburg, also insisted that Miss SA’s rights had been infringed upon. “As a committed Christian, I felt it was important to look at her rights as a woman and her rights as Miss SA,” said Cele, who is also a spokesperson for the CFI.

“Her rights shouldn’t be infringed because of politics. The Miss Universe pageant shouldn’t be politicised, and as a citizen of this country, she has the right to compete in the pageant. She shouldn’t be held back, she won the title of Miss SA, and she is our ambassador,” Cele said. She isn’t afraid of a backlash from the ANC saying, “ I am a Christian before I am a member of the ANC, we report to G-d first.”

The CFI said in papers before the court that the government’s decision also “didn’t constitute a legitimate purpose of government” as it didn’t “fall within the legitimate powers and objectives conferred upon the government by the Constitution”.

“The government has not only failed, but has deliberately transgressed its obligation to respect and protect the human rights guaranteed to all in the Bill of Rights,” it said.

Although Mswane is already in Israel, the CFI launched an urgent application in the Gauteng North High Court to be heard on Tuesday, 7 December to have the government’s statement declared unconstitutional, said Cele.

She said the organisation’s attorneys had written to President Cyril Ramaphosa demanding an apology to South Africans “for exceeding the bounds of the government’s authority, and interfering in the rights of citizens”.

“The South African government’s decision to support a boycott of a country with which it has diplomatic relations and withdraw its support for a citizen – who will participate in a non-political cultural event in that country – is also irrational, especially in light of the fact that countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel are allowing their citizens to participate and are furnishing them with due support,” said the CFI.

“That agents of the South African government approached Miss South Africa and attempted to coerce her to withdraw from her legitimate participation in the Miss Universe pageant is unconscionable and disgraceful by all normal standards of governance,” it said.

The decision constituted “a standard of bullying by government” and also induced “a sense of unease” that the government may arbitrarily and unconstitutionally pick on any citizen “regarded with disfavour”.

Meanwhile a smiling and ecstatic Mswane has posted pictures of herself on Instagram in Israel dressed in locally designed outfits.

After a long silence, the 24-year-old took to social media before she left, saying attending Miss Universe was “not only an honour but also a huge responsibility”.

“I am determined to serve our country proudly in the best way I can. I stand today as an empowered woman because of so many before me who fought for our voices to be heard. I feel my duty is to do the same for the women of the past, the women of today, and the women to come.

“There is no greater time to shed light on issues affecting women, to choose courage over comfort, and to be steadfast in my beliefs regarding the advancement of women and our rights.”

Mswane said she viewed her participation in the pageant as a “unique opportunity” hopefully to contribute to the process of dialogue and peace.

“I am deeply thankful to all the amazing people who have supported and uplifted me, and brought me joy and comfort during the lead-up to this moment. I wish to compete with the support of South Africans and do my country proud,” she said.

In spite of the anti-Israel lobby’s attempts to harass contestants into pulling out of the pageant, not one country is boycotting. Several have pulled out due to COVID-19, but none have withdrawn for political reasons. The Israel-haters spread fake news that countries such as Greece and Barbados had withdrawn because they were boycotting Israel, however this was proven false.

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