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Learning about what’s important

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Voices

I’m not sure if you’re aware of an amazing feature on the website Reddit. It’s called “TIL” shortened for “today I learned”. It has amazing mostly useless facts that people have just become aware of.

So, for example, yesterday I learned that The Star-Spangled Banner became the anthem of the United States (US) only in 1931. This followed a huge outcry caused by Robert Ripley, who denounced in one of his famous “Believe It or Not” cartoons that the country had no official anthem up until then.

I was floored. I genuinely had no idea this was the case, and was even more shocked that I reacted as if I cared. I’m sure that I didn’t actually care, or at least I hope I didn’t. After all, if the people of 1931 could hardly be bothered to settle the matter, then who was I to?

It might be that as the US was dealing with the Great Depression, its citizens were more concerned about feeding their families than they were about having an official national anthem. This makes sense if you think about it.

It raises an interesting question: how do we prioritise what we worry about? It’s obvious that a person in the jungle running away from a charging elephant won’t be concerned about potentially sullying his new shoes (bought recently on Spree). However, mostly we aren’t living in a fight or flight scenario, and so the spectrum can be a little vague.

The last few weeks of my father’s illness demonstrated that. As much as I’m intrigued and adore politics, global events, and pretty much anything aside from the Grand Prix, in the time that led up to his death, I could hardly have cared if Trump, Biden, or Borat for that matter, was elected president of the US. What became important was the minutia of how many millilitres of fluid my dad consumed, about his pain level, and who was on duty. Suddenly, making sure that my phone was charged was more important than whether Cyril Ramaphosa announced Level 2 or 16. For a few weeks, priorities evolved unintentionally, until the world shrunk to the size of his room.

This makes the re-joining of the world so much more difficult. In many ways, the week of mourning – shiva – protects the mourners from what they will perceive to be irrelevant. That is until the time is over, and the need to slowly assume some form of normalcy is required. It’s by no means an easy process. In my experience, after the loss of both parents in the past few years, the day of re-entry into the world is one of the most difficult days. Because just like things hadn’t mattered for some time, they now need to.

It has been a few days since we re-entered the world. In just those few days, I have endeavoured to understand what makes a community turn on itself.

Today I learned that less than two weeks after losing a parent, it’s more important to try save oneself than it is to try and save a community.

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Voices

Eric Samson a giant of SA Jewry

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South African Jewry has long been regarded as a model diaspora community. We are famed for our excellent communal infrastructure, high level of identity and involvement, and we have a deserved reputation for punching above our weight on the international Jewish stage.

All of this, of course, was made possible only by the deeply committed men and women who, over the years, have devoted so much time, effort, and resources to their community. These have included many remarkably generous benefactors, who in addition to what they contributed to the wider society, have consistently dug deep to ensure the continued well-being of their fellow Jews and viability of their communal institutions, whether religious, educational, Zionist, welfare-related, or cultural.

In the pantheon of Jewish philanthropists, few have matched and none have exceeded the record of Eric and Sheila Samson. Innumerable organisations and individuals benefited from his support throughout his life. This was true not just for our own community, but for the people of South Africa as a whole and for Israel. Earlier this week, we were heartbroken to learn that Eric had passed away. As our press statement put it, he was a visionary leader and nation builder, one whose multifaceted legacy would benefit our country long into the future.

One of the primary beneficiaries of Eric’s unsurpassed generosity was the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). He was unstinting in his support for the Board, recognising the vital importance of its work to protect the civil liberties of South African Jewry and represent its vital interests, locally and abroad. The SAJBD pays fulsome tribute to a South African giant, the magnitude of whose achievements was surpassed only by the greatness of his heart.

In everything that he did, Eric was supported and assisted by his dear wife, Sheila. May she and the family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may Eric’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration for all those who follow in his footsteps.

Rabbi Desmond Maizels, zt”l

The sudden passing in Cape Town last week of Rabbi Desmond Maizels is another loss that will be deeply felt not just by his congregants and Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) and Cape Beth Din colleagues, but by the whole of South African Jewry.

A true doyen of our community, Rabbi Maizels was someone whose dedication and expertise in the field of halacha went hand in hand with his whole-hearted love for his fellow Jews. Whether in his work on the Beth Din, as a congregational rabbi, or as an esteemed community leader, he epitomised ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) in all that he did. Rabbi Maizels was renowned in particular for his work in the field of kashrut in Cape Town, and the extraordinary lengths to which he went to create a system that would encourage and facilitate its practice. We extend our sincerest condolences to the family and his colleagues in the UOS, Beth Din, and the Rabbinical Association.Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Give schools a break

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We need to give schools a break. They are forced to find a perfect balance between trying to educate our children, keep them and the teachers safe, adhere to the sometimes confusing and always changing regulations, all while staying afloat financially.

They have unenviable and impossible decisions to make. And they do this in the full knowledge that no matter what they decide, someone’s mom or dad or grandmother is likely to be outraged.

Ahead of the schools’ decision, the department of education was to meet to establish the approach for the country. The private schools were waiting for the outcome of this meeting before deciding what they would do. They had consulted their medical teams and their own principals and boards, but needed the ruling before informing parents.

This is the context in which I received a letter from our school informing us about the plan for the week. My daughter had been checking in with me in 15-minute intervals to see if we had heard from the school. She got wind of the fact that an email had dropped, and came running in to the room to ask me if school was starting or not.

While she stood there in eager anticipation, I read the email. Then I reread it and skimmed it one more time. I looked at her expectant face, and felt the failure that I knew I would be when I uttered the words, “Honestly, I have no idea.”

“But you are reading the email!” she shrieked as only a 16-year-old on the brink of maybe Grade 11 could do. “Yes,” I replied. “And I genuinely have no idea. Maybe ask mom.”

It should have taken just one reading of the school’s communique to realise that I wasn’t equipped to understand it without a master’s in engineering. It needed a methodical approach, maybe even some coloured pens if I was to get a grip on what it had decided. I thought initially that a quick Excel spreadsheet would assist me in figuring out which grades were going to school for orientation only, when they would be on campus, and when they wouldn’t be. It should then have been easy to see which years would go back full time and what the reasons were, as well as the dates of travel that would preclude children from doing so.

I whipped it together in no time at all, only to give up when I realised that I needed to introduce a new tab for hotspots, weddings, and illegal minyanim.

The communication shared by some of the private Jewish schools last week was a perfect representation of how challenging the task is. It illustrated above all else how hard they are trying in full knowledge that very few would be happy.

What’s remarkable is the expectation we seem to have of our schools. The truth is, no one knows what the next day will bring in terms of COVID-19. Also, there’s not a country or government in the world that has got this right. Add to that the fact that parents will lie to the school about their own behaviour, and you see how astounding it is just how high the bar has been set.

As parents, we need to take it down a notch. We need to take a moment to appreciate just how much the schools care, how hard they are trying, and applaud the unbelievable effort they put in to educate and care for our children. Even if we don’t always understand their emails.

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Voices

Second waves and second chances

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The closing weeks of 2020 brought with them the long-anticipated onset of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. Over the December period, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) continued to co-ordinate meetings between the communal leadership and medical experts to assess the situation and plan and advise the community accordingly.

We have since participated in several national initiatives aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of civil society and faith communities in responding to the serious challenges of the day. Last week, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn participated in an African National Congress civil society engagement with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and other cabinet members titled “COVID-19 response and vaccines: the role of progressive civil society”. On Sunday, together with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Kahn, and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk, I attended a meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss how the religious leadership can assist government, particularly in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that all members of our community need to continue to do their part in minimising risk to themselves and anyone they come into contact with. Once again, I urge people to make full use of the guidelines and regular updates by Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and other medical experts on the SAJBD Facebook page and website to ascertain how best to conduct themselves in terms of vigilance and safety practices.

Restorative justice

Last month, we were able to resolve a long-standing hate-speech case between ourselves and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini for remarks he made at the University of the Witwatersrand, on PowerFM, and social media in 2015. Successful mediation was facilitated by the SA Human Rights Commission at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. We are satisfied with the outcome of this matter. As SAJBD National Vice-President Zev Krengel put it, Dlamini’s recognition that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive, together with his genuine apology, enables us to heal from the hurt he caused.

It should never be forgotten that South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian, bitterly divided, and conflict-ridden country to the robust multiracial democracy we have today was accomplished because South Africans, without forgetting the injustices of the past, were prepared to work together in building a better future. Expressing regret for one’s previous conduct, sincerely apologising for it, and undertaking to mend one’s ways going forward has thus assumed a great deal of importance in our society, and this is particularly true when it comes to racist behaviour. Once said, offensive words cannot be unsaid, but a heartfelt apology goes a long way towards removing their sting, and makes reconciliation possible.

Our Gauteng Council chairperson, Professor Karen Milner, stressed the importance of taking a restorative approach to justice wherever possible whereby the offender acknowledges what he or she has done wrong and expresses genuine remorse. Dlamini met these criteria, and was a successful example of what’s possible with this approach.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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