Journey from reverend’s daughter to rebbetzin
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.
Jewish activists take on alleged Hermanus rapist
Two Johannesburg Jewish gender-abuse activists are at the centre of a battle to try stop an alleged rapist from preying on more young women travellers in the seaside town of Hermanus in the Western Cape.
Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack run a non-profit organisation called Koleinu, which offers a helpline to victims of abuse in the community.
Earlier this year, it was brought to their attention that a man accused of sexual harassment and rape was working as a surf instructor and owner of a guesthouse and surf school in the popular coastal town renowned for whale watching. The man, whose name is known to the SA Jewish Report, hasn’t appeared in court or been formally charged, and for this reason, he cannot be named. He has vehemently denied all allegations against him.
Said Hendler, “Koleinu received information from a caller to our helpline informing us about victims she knew of. She was advised to put them in touch with us as soon as possible.”
So began a mammoth task of gathering information and supporting victims to expose him.
In the course of their investigation, Hendler and Sack have taken statements from two international female tourists to South Africa who claim they were raped by him. One was allegedly raped in February last year during her stay at his guesthouse and surf school, the other seven years ago in Cape Town while she was a foreign student.
With the help of abuse activist Luke Lamprecht and attorneys specialising in the field, Hendler and Sack have compiled information on the man’s alleged inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment, which they say spans several years.
Following a recent article in Daily Maverick highlighting the women’s horrific ordeals, news of the man’s behaviour has shocked the Hermanus townsfolk. The local surfing community held an anti-gender-based violence demonstration last week near the Hermanus Magistrates Court, where all concerned citizens of the town were invited.
Although the man’s hostel and surf school has an excellent 9.1 rating on Booking.com with some glowing reviews, Tripadvisor last week posted a message saying that it had been made aware of recent media reports or events concerning the property “which may not be reflected in reviews found on this listing”.
“Accordingly, you may wish to perform additional research for information about this property when making your travel plans,” the site said.
The two victims, whose names are being withheld to protect their identity, are grateful to Koleinu.
“When I left South Africa, I was traumatised and in denial,” said Melanie (not her real name), “Koleinu has given me hope that other women won’t become victims of his abuse. Its comfort and guidance has been wonderful. I feel that in some way, I have played a small part in stopping him.”
Melanie, who lives in the United States, and Julia (also not her real name) from the United Kingdom, connected for the first time on social media after Melanie reached out to fellow travellers a year ago online in a bid to find people who may have experienced a similar ordeal.
“I had never looked him up before, and as soon as I saw his Instagram page and all the pictures of him with young women, it was like being hit by a lightning bolt,” she said.
She direct-messaged women from the surf school’s Instagram page, posting how she had met the owner of the surf school when she was 20 years old studying abroad in South Africa six years ago. After he befriended her and showed her around Cape Town, she wrote, “On our third meeting, he drugged and aggressively raped me in his truck outside of a bar. It took me years to process this, to actually realise what happened and get over it, but I was in denial at the time and didn’t press charges. I’m reaching out to anyone who has ever associated with him and inquiring if this behaviour is a pattern. Has he done anything to you? Or anyone you know?”
To her astonishment, she was flooded with responses by women from all over the world, including countries like Israel and Mexico, alleging inappropriate sexual behaviour and harassment.
One of the women was Julia, who said he had raped her in a bedroom at his Hermanus guest accommodation in February last year.
The man has denied any involvement, telling the SA Jewish Report, “Those allegations are completely twisted, false, and damaging. I would never drug anyone. It’s an extremely hurtful allegation.”
He said he was talking to attorneys in Cape Town with a view to suing for defamation.
“I would like to add that these allegations were started by a girl seven years ago with no connection to my business who messaged thousands of my Instagram followers telling them I date drugged her.”
In relation to the other victims’ allegations, he said, “Some allegations are from a rival business owner in my road who wants me out of the picture. Proper scandal.”
Hendler and Sack are hoping that the publicity will encourage other victims to come forward and alert tourists and locals about the possible danger he presents.
“We need a local victim to come forward and be willing to lay criminal charges against him,” said Sack, “In this way, a legal case can be instituted. It’s difficult – if not impossible – for the two women to lay charges against him while they don’t live in this country.”
Although the two tourists’ ordeals differ, Hendler said the alleged perpetrator had preyed on their vulnerabilities.
“These types of abusers often have a radar for people’s vulnerabilities, and they zone in and demolish their victims’ defences,” she said.
From dozens of posts online, the man openly body shames women, and has been described as a sex pest and pervert.
One Johannesburg teenager who met him during her brief stay at his surf school told the SA Jewish Report that he was “weird and creepy”.
“From the minute I met him, I felt uncomfortable. He was dodgy from the start,” she said.
One local 22-year-old resident said that on two separate occasions, once in Cape Town the other in Hermanus, he had made her feel very uncomfortable.
“I told him more than three times to stop touching me, but after expressing that he would, he still continued being inappropriate towards me and I felt I was being sexually harassed. I believe he needs to be stopped as soon as possible.”
Said Hendler, “Violent crime against women in this country generally isn’t reported. It’s only by empowering victims to find their voice and join in support of one another that we can hope to make any kind of change. We implore any other victims of this man to follow the example of these two courageous young ladies.”
Stoney sign demarcates graves at Westpark
Westpark Cemetery in Johannesburg has opened a new Jewish section at the top of the cemetery – called section E – in which only “flat tombstones and standard Jewish emblems will be permitted”, according to a notice posted by the Chevrah Kadisha Burial Society on the fence.
The instruction about the tombstones and symbols is on what used to be the east boundary fence of the Jewish cemetery and is now a clear demarcation line between the “old” section with upright tombstones, and the newly opened section, which allows only flat slabs or tombstones not more than 0.5m high.
The change comes as Jewish graves around the country have been vandalised, particularly in country communities, the most recent incidents occurring in Oudtshoorn in August 2020, when 33 gravestones were vandalised, and Bloemfontein, where 125 gravestones were smashed. In those cases, work has been done to repair and relay the upright tombstones flat at the expense of local Jewish organisations and families.
But the new rules at Westpark aren’t primarily motivated by vandalism, although “future vandalism” is a factor, according to a member of the Chevrah Kadisha who wanted to remain anonymous.
“A number of families don’t live in South Africa any longer – COVID-19 has made this particularly clear to us,” he said. “Therefore, there’s nobody to maintain the tombstones if they fall over. Sometimes, we flip them over on their backs, but sometimes they fall and smash the grave bed. If that happens, it can cost about R20 000 to fix.”
This issue was highlighted by a tornado in Johannesburg a few years ago which took down about 12 tombstones, he said.
“We try to trace the families to do repairs, but often we aren’t able to.” In that case, the grave is left broken, as the Chev doesn’t have the budget to maintain graves.
Another reason for the change is that the new section E is “far away from anywhere”, he said, so it’s more secure to have low tombstones as “vagabonds hide behind vertical tombstones to attack mourners”.
Tombstones are fast becoming a luxury few can afford. In the United States, the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts, the largest Jewish cemetery association in North America, changed its rules to prevent mourners – even those who could afford a gravestone – from putting up a tombstone if they hadn’t paid for a funeral, according to an article in The Forward published in 2016. In those cases, only a small flat stone with room for some words would be allowed “in the interest of fairness”.
South African stonemasons say that the cost for flat tombstones is actually higher than upright ones as a full slab can be mandatory with a flat grave whereas upright tombstones often don’t include a full slab. But they point out that horizontal tombstones are better – and fast being adopted, particularly in Cape country communities – because there is “no fear of them being stolen”.
A rabbi closely associated with the Chev, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said that while they “try not to be too dogmatic”, the prescription is a maximum tombstone height of 0.5m.
It was easier to introduce the new prescriptions at Westpark upon opening a completely new Jewish section, the rabbi said, so the demarcation would be clear. He has no idea when – or even if – the enormous fence dividing the two Jewish sections will be removed.
Although all Jewish graves in Westpark are required to have a Jewish inscription including the Hebrew name of the deceased and the name of the parent/s, the situation is trickier when it comes to emblems, the rabbi said.
The aim of the rule about “only standard Jewish symbols” is to exclude “secular symbols” from tombstones – such as soccer balls, the rabbi says. Even Kohanim hands and Shabbos candles are frowned upon, but he insists that overall, these rules are intended to keep things “tasteful”.
“A tombstone is a holy monument,” he said, pointing out that the uniform look of a Jewish cemetery comes straight from a decree from our sages that tombstones be standardised. In fact, during interviews for this story, it was pointed out that Westpark has a rule that all gravestones be made out of grey granite, although the rabbi said that there was “no rule regarding what stone is used for tombstones”.
“Death is the great equaliser,” he said. “We shouldn’t make a grave stand out. Hashem will decide who is truly great.”
SA Jewry’s pandemic response unique and robust, experts say
The South African Jewish community’s response to the pandemic has been singled out as unique, efficient, and robust in an academic paper that tracks how the community galvanised itself from March to October 2020.
From the start of hard lockdown, “It became apparent to me that our response as a community was unusually speedy, pro-active, and comprehensive,” says Leah Gilbert on what motivated her to write the paper. “I was impressed with the fact that we used the expertise available among us to inform the community. In addition, the quick emergence of support programmes for people who were infected was unique.”
Gilbert is emeritus professor of Health Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she taught and researched health and disease in the social context for 35 years. Her daughter and fellow author of the article, Shirli Gilbert, is professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London, and academic director of the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre.
The article has already been accessed almost 1 000 times online, a high number for an academic study of this kind. The authors hope it will be useful for understanding communal responses to the pandemic in South Africa and in other communities worldwide.
Of all the Jewish communities in the world, why did they decide to focus on this one? “During the first lockdown in Johannesburg, observing through my professional lens my society’s relationship to health and disease, I had the idea of documenting our community’s response to the pandemic,” says the elder Gilbert.
“It began with the first SA Jewish Report webinar with medical experts, and the subsequent dissemination and sharing of knowledge and activities,” she says. “I approached my daughter, whose research focuses on the South African Jewish community, and we started collecting relevant material.
“The community’s response to the pandemic spanned the gamut from physical and mental health to religious observance, home schooling, financial relief, food aid, and social-welfare support,” Gilbert says. “The common theme among the initiatives was the efficiency with which resources were mobilised, something possible only because of a robust and highly centralised pre-existing communal infrastructure and strong networks of social capital.”
In their paper, they note that, “The unique response of the South African Jewish community to COVID-19 must be understood within the larger context of the relationship between Jews and health. Scholarship suggests that Jews have a heightened concern for health relative to other groups.”
They also write that “unlike other diaspora communities, in South Africa, a great deal of emphasis has historically been placed on communal unity”. Another unique factor is that “following the transition [to democracy], communal investment in outreach has expanded significantly”.
“Taken together, the centrality of health, robust communal infrastructure, and strong community social capital against the background of the Jewish community’s particular positioning in post-apartheid South Africa helps to account for the uniquely co-ordinated, energetic, and multipronged nature of the community’s pandemic response.”
However, the community also faced many challenges during the pandemic. “The ageing nature of the Jewish community in South Africa meant that the percentage of vulnerable people was relatively high,” says the elder Gilbert.
“This higher risk profile helps to explain the motivation for the quick and powerful mobilisation of resources. There was some friction around the question of how support for Jewish communal welfare fitted alongside South African Jews’ commitment to broader South African society. On the whole, however, evidence suggests that community support for both ‘inreach’ and ‘outreach’ initiatives has been generous and widespread.
“The pandemic has also been difficult for this community in particular because of the extent to which Jewish families are dispersed across the world, which meant long periods of time for families to be apart.”
Another challenge has been resources, especially financial. As they write, “despite the robustness of the community’s infrastructure and its still considerable resources, there are concerns about its long-term health and prospects. On 19 June , the Chev [Chevrah Kadisha] was forced for the first time in its 132-year history to call for emergency financial support. Its work in both residential care and financial assistance – sectors especially impacted by the pandemic – left it severely exposed, and with almost no state support and overwhelming reliance on private donor funds, it was placed under unprecedented strain.
“The community remains highly vigilant, and co-ordinated leadership continues to be delivered by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the office of the chief rabbi, and the Chevrah Kadisha, together with other organisations and in partnership with Jewish experts,” they write in their conclusion. “Some cracks, however, are already beginning to show. The extent to which it will be possible to retain the strength and co-ordination of these responses as the pandemic’s severe effects persist remains to be seen.”
They researched their subject by collecting data from all issues of South African Jewish publications during the period under study (March to October 2020). This included the SA Jewish Report, the Cape Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Life, and Jewish Affairs, as well as websites, social media, and other public communications of major communal institutions, the office of the chief rabbi, and Jewish-led relief initiatives and organisations. “The analysis of the data took two months, after which we wrote up the article itself,” says the younger Gilbert.
The SA Jewish Report was one of their prime resources, “since it provided granular detail of what was happening on a weekly basis, both events and ongoing discussions and debates. The SA Jewish Report webinars were also key as they were helping to provide support and access to information that the community needed,” she says.
Asked how they think the South African Jewish community will emerge from the pandemic, they say, “The conclusion [of the paper] is a paradoxical one. On the one hand, the article emphasises the robustness of the community’s infrastructure and its considerable resources, which have allowed it to mount an impressive response to the pandemic.
“On the other hand, the enormous challenges posed by the pandemic have also heightened existing feelings of precariousness and vulnerability within the community. The economic future of largely self-funded Jewish communal organisations is uncertain, emigration is ongoing and possibly increasing, and the self-employed (among whom Jews are strongly represented) have been hard-hit,” according to the elder Gilbert.
Asked if they will conduct research on the South African Jewish community in future, the younger Gilbert says, “My historical research on the South African Jewish community is ongoing. I’m working on a study of German Jews who came to South Africa in the 1930s, as well as a special journal issue on South African Jews co-edited with Professor Adam Mendelsohn. In October-November 2021, I’ll be teaching a six-part online course on Jews in South Africa for the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre. Everyone is welcome.”
- The academic paper can be accessed by searching “South African Jewish Responses to COVID-19” on Google.
- The Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre course can be accessed by looking at the “What’s On” tab on www.sirmartingilbertlearningcentre.org
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