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Making matches in heaven work on earth

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In celebration of Tu B’Av, the Jewish holiday of love, Mirah Langer asked communal spiritual leaders to share their personal stories and insights about relationships.

Rabbi Yossy and Rebbetzin Rochel Goldman

Life rabbi emeritus, Sydenham Shul: Johannesburg

After 48 years together, the Goldmans’ advice is that “the first 25 years are the hardest”, jokes Rabbi Goldman. In actuality, in their decades together and as the parents of 11 children and numerous grandchildren, the couple are a wealth of wisdom when it comes to relationships. “Understand that you won’t change people. Learn to respect each other. ‘Love’ is a four-letter word. So is ‘work’. It’s a work-in-progress. Be patient. People who rush to the lawyer often regret it.”

The Goldmans have forged a life of Jewish practice and service, and it’s this, ultimately, which they see as having centred their marriage together. “Living an observant, traditional Jewish life and feeling the presence of Hashem in your lives adds to your quality of life. Practices like Shabbos and mikvah go a long way to enhance marriage and family life,” reflect the couple, whose union was bestowed with the blessing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe right from the start.

“Though we came from somewhat different backgrounds in terms of our families, we had similar values and goals in life. We also received the guidance and blessings of the Rebbe to go ahead with it, and that gave us confidence,” the couple says.

They first met on the suggestion of Goldman’s sister, who had come to know Rochel at seminary. “I was studying in Montreal and she was working in New York. I flew in for a quick first date, and when we saw there was potential, we dated on my next trip to New York for a few weeks.”

Married in June 1973, their unity is forged by a belief in the importance and sanctity of marriage. “Once we had children, keeping the family strong, stable, happy, and together was a priority in our lives. We believe in bashert, that we are soulmates, so we just have to work things out.”

The couple study Torah and Chassidic philosophy together “which gives life greater depth”. Since lockdown, they have also enjoyed the simple pleasure of taking walks together.

Rabbi Levi and Rebbetzin Chaya Avtzon

Linksfield Senderwood Hebrew Congregation: Johannesburg

“He’s going to marry that girl!” This was the confident declaration of Rabbi Avtzon’s sister after he came home “grinning ear to ear” from his first date with Chaya.

“Less than three weeks later, we were officially engaged. You might say, ‘Three weeks – so long?’” they quip, “The truth is, we were ready after two weeks, but waited for Chaya’s parents to come from South Africa to celebrate the engagement.”

Although Chaya is from South Africa, they met when she had finished at seminary and was teaching in New Jersey. At the time, Avtzon was living with his family in New York City.

After their marriage, which took place in the Johannesburg City Hall, the couple settled in New York City. However, it was Avtzon, who about a year after being married, initiated moving to South Africa. Chaya didn’t need much convincing.

“Within two days, it was finalised. We moved here not long after. We had zero job prospects, just a strong intuition that this place would be good for us. How right we were!”

This week, on the 14th of Av, they celebrate their 12th Hebrew wedding anniversary. The couple, who are blessed with six children, say that the core of every marriage needs to be about “lots of talking and sharing”.

“Two adults working on becoming better people is the simple recipe” for positive relationships, suggest the Avtzons. “Marriage is made out to be much more complicated and sophisticated than it actually is. Most issues in marriage aren’t marriage issues per se. They are his or her individual character flaws that need work and maturing [from]. If two people work on themselves each day, the marriage will flourish.”

The couple continue to build a life of shared values together, and in their downtime, also enjoy the art of constructing something beautiful: completing puzzles and even sometimes Lego together.

Rabbi Sam and Rebbetzin Aviva Thurgood

Beit Midrash Morasha at Arthur’s Road: Cape Town

It was as Bnei Akiva madrichim at the age of 18 that Rabbi Sam and Rebbetzin Aviva Thurgood first met. “We started off being friends, and I think that really is a beautiful way to start,” reflects the rebbetzin.

While Thurgood jokes that getting married was a “leap of faith”, his wife reminds him how a lighter moment during camp duties become a deeper sign of the kind of union they realised they might share in the future. “Sam was fun-loving, as he is now. He had this cap, a special one that he had got from America. We were doing something with the kids [at Bnei] and it was lots of fun. We ended up with excess flour, and we started throwing flour and water at each other.”

Although it “ruined his cap, for which he’s never forgiven me”, laughs the rebbetzin, “he did once say to me that in that moment, he knew that we would have fun together. I think that’s a great quality to have in a relationship”.

From this starting point, their relationship has “continued to develop over time” and they are united in knowing that “we can learn together and from each other”. The parents of four children also believe in the importance of having common goals. “We have always been heading in the same direction, and even when we are at different places, we’re still converging rather than diverging,” says Thurgood.

The advice he gives the couples he marries is that “a happy marriage isn’t a given and isn’t even the average; a good, happy, and strong marriage is an above-average result, and will require an above-average effort. You can’t rely on an average amount of forgiveness, compassion, kindness, and conflict resolution. You have to bring an above-average amount of commitment to all of those things for true results.”

“I would just add, never stop enjoying being together,” says the rebbetzin. After all, throughout their relationship they have kept their bond with the same shared sense of joy and adventure that brought them together as teenagers. “Even when things are tough,” they always know that “we can laugh and have fun”, she says. Indeed, for a recent wedding anniversary – they have been married for 13 years – they went paragliding together. Next up, they hope, is a sky diving escapade!

Rabbi Greg Alexander and Student Rabbi Andrea Kuti

Temple Israel Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation

“We have been together for 20 years, and you don’t get there without being willing to apologise, forgive, be patient, understanding, agree to disagree, and make time for your relationship. All of this is important and holy work.” So reflects Rabbi Greg and student Rabbi Andrea Kuti on the path they have followed in their relationship.

The couple first met when he was at rabbinical school in London and she was running the cheder of the progressive synagogue in Budapest.

“The backstory is that [Andrea’s] rabbi was trying to shidduch [match-make] her with Greg’s chavrutah [study partner]. Before she met the chavrutah however, she met Greg, and then sat in on a text study session he was leading. They started to discuss Torah, and the rest is history.”

A week later, they begun to discuss marriage. Two decades and three children later, they have forged a connection on a number of levels. Together, they do Tai Chi and climb Table Mountain, and when it comes to principles and practices, they share “dreams, ideals, the way we imagine and dream about community, love of creativity, culture, ritual, love of theatre, love of being citizens of the world, love of music and singing together. Love. Work and more work. When things are difficult, you have to dig deep and work through it.”

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COVID-19 denialists cause headache for doctors

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Though the fourth wave of COVID-19 has been mild, those who deny they have the virus have caused a headache for doctors because invariably, they help it to spread.

Experts are aware that many didn’t test for COVID-19 as it might have ruined their holiday. It wouldn’t have been a problem if they had isolated themselves, they say, however, many chose to ignore their symptoms, spreading the virus further.

“Denialists are a big headache,” says Dr Solly Lison, a Cape Town-based family physician, “so ventilation and small groups are essential. Having a window open when you are driving is also crucial.”

Lison has seen statistics indicating that the number of new cases has been declining at a slower rate in the Western Cape than it did in Gauteng. “Maybe that’s because people from Gauteng were here in the Western Cape [for their holidays],” he says.

Hatzolah’s statistics show that the number of new cases has been progressively decreasing over the past four weeks in Gauteng. In the week of 10 December 2021, 714 new cases were recorded, while 63 have been registered this week.

Currently, Hatzolah has 174 active cases, six COVID-19 patients in hospital, and 16 COVID-19 patients on home oxygen. Most of its cases have been occurred in the 20 to 60 age group.

“From what we are seeing at the moment, the symptoms seem to be a lot milder than previous variants,” says Darren Kahn, the executive general manager of Hatzolah Medical Rescue. “We do notice that vaccinated patients [who land up on oxygen] are certainly coming off oxygen a lot quicker than those who haven’t been vaccinated. But in general, people are certainly not as ill as they were previously.”

Kahn believes many haven’t joined the Hatzolah programme during this wave because they aren’t so sick.

“Omicron, which dominates in South Africa, is highly transmissible but less virulent, causing far less morbidity and very low actual direct mortality,” says Professor Efraim Kramer, a leading international expert in emergency medicine with a specialty in mass gatherings. “It will, as expected, spread globally, which is good because it gives those infected a natural immunity without severe illness.

“Therefore, with Omicron, we are learning to live and cohabit with it, like every winter flu. Of those who do get infected, some are mildly symptomatic, others are asymptomatic, but both spread the virus,” he says.

“The only large factor is vaccination, and that’s a personal choice. So, should we all carry on as normally as we can with Omicron, with or without the virus, and get on with our lives? Yes. It’s not a case of denying it, it’s a case of living with this uninvited guest in our daily lives.”

Dr Daniel Israel, a family practitioner in Johannesburg, says, “The Omicron variant peaked in Gauteng over the holidays, and we saw larger numbers than we had in the third wave. That proves the contagiousness of it. From what we are seeing as GPs, serious patients and admissions have been few and far between. Our practice alone has had three admissions, two of which were unvaccinated.”

He and Lison agree that many didn’t test because they didn’t want it to ruin their holiday.

Lison puts this down to the cost of the tests and the many false negatives recorded. He says the latter is a result of “people immediately testing after being in contact with somebody who had COVID-19. That’s the wrong thing to do. You’re going to get reliable positive results only on day five or six.”

Doctors agree that the wave is dissipating.

“The epidemic curve should reach baseline within the next 10 days to two weeks in Gauteng, and perhaps slightly later in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal,” says Professor Barry Schoub.

Schoub, who chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines, says the fourth wave was almost entirely driven by the Omicron variant in South Africa and ranked as the most extensive in terms of numbers of individuals infected, but it was significantly milder than preceding waves.

He says more than 90% of severe cases of COVID-19 in the fourth wave were in unvaccinated individuals. He and other experts agree that though Omicron is a vastly milder variant, it’s not harmless, especially for the unvaccinated.

Says, Lison, “They aren’t getting the chest infections to the degree they did before, and they are feeling better quicker.”

“Hospitals were much busier in December 2020,” says Lison. “There were many more PUIS [persons under investigation] who were dropping oxygen levels at that time. [Now] we don’t have to ensure that they get oxygen. They are coping better.”

Lison agrees that “people aren’t testing” when they show symptoms, and are often just isolating. He’s concerned that “people aren’t covering their noses” and that neck gaiters are “useless”.

“It stops you spitting as you speak, but you will get infected through it, and you will pass the infection through it as well. You need to wear a minimum three-layer mask covering your nose.”

The outlook for 2022 with regard to new variants is unclear, Schoub says, but it’s reassuring that “the great majority of the South African population do have antibodies to the virus, and this partly contributed to the relative mildness of the fourth wave. Hopefully, this will also contribute to ameliorating the effects of subsequent variants which may arise in the course of the year.

“Unfortunately, more than 50% of individuals in South Africa still haven’t been vaccinated. It’s imperative that every effort needs to be made to increase vaccine coverage in the population if we hope to bring the pandemic under control.”

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From pandemic to “twindemic” as global cases soar

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As South Africans heave a sigh of relief at the improving COVID-19 situation, other nations are recording record infection levels, reporting new variants, and even worrying about the rise of a “twindemic”.

Although Israel has been mustering record morbidity levels amid the Omicron-driven wave, new coronavirus guidelines for Israeli schools came into force on the weekend with vaccination rates no longer a factor in whether classes can meet in person.

The country had been adopting a “traffic light” plan, in which the vaccination rate of each class determined if students attended school in-person or remotely.

A bigger stir has been caused by a woman in Israel being diagnosed with “flurona” at the start of January. However, this condition has been around for at least two years. Flurona is just the term for having COVID-19 and flu at the same time.

Strict measures to control the spread of coronavirus were expected to prevent flu transmission, which appears to have largely held true for 2020. Efforts to track flu cases face challenges, as flu tests are scarce and the illness can be confused with others, including COVID-19.

Israel is noticing flu spikes this winter after historically low case levels last year. After hitting record lows as coronavirus surged, flu cases in the United States (US) are rising this year. Europe’s flu season, meanwhile, is just starting.

Although Australia successfully contained outbreaks of coronavirus, about 86 000 of the 1.1 million cases it has amassed since the beginning of the pandemic have occurred in the past two weeks. It’s now getting close to attaining record levels of COVID-19 infections following the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

Several countries in Europe have already achieved that feat. On Wednesday, 12 December, daily cases in Germany (80 000) and Bulgaria (7 062) hit record levels, while Turkey logged a record level of more than 74 000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

In contrast, on 12 January, the United Kingdom (UK) reported that COVID-19 cases fell nearly 45% from the previous week in what was the biggest drop since the arrival of Omicron. Professor David Heymann, an epidemiologist from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, claimed that the UK would be the first country in the northern hemisphere to tame the pandemic.

The picture isn’t so rosy in the US, where COVID-19 hospitalisations reached a record high on Monday, as a surge in infections strained health systems in several states. On Tuesday, the Indiana health department reported that more people were hospitalised with COVID-19 in its state than at any other point in the pandemic, and Oklahoma reported record-high numbers of new COVID-19 cases on the weekend.

Faring north, the Canadian province of Quebec, facing a new wave of infections, has announced plans to impose a “health tax” on residents who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccination for non-medical reasons.

In terms of new variants, a Cyprus researcher recently discovered Deltacron, a reported new variant of COVID-19. It apparently combines the Delta and Omicron variants.

And, according to scientists in France, the new B.1.640.2 variant, named IHU, could be stronger than the Omicron variant. IHU has been detected in a vaccinated man who travelled to Cameroon, the host of this year’s Africa Cup of Nations. Researchers say this doesn’t mean IHU originated in the central African country.

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have passed 310.5 million globally, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of confirmed deaths has now passed 5.49 million. More than 9.46 billion vaccination doses have been administered globally, according to Our World in Data.

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‘It’s about respect,’ couple says on seven decades of marriage

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Israel and Vera (nee Wilkov) Bulafkin were high-school sweethearts when they first fell in love, and it has remained a romance for the ages as they celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary last week.

“Israel is 92 [born in 1929] and Vera is 91 [born in 1930],” says their son-in-law, Stanley Pincus. “Israel is from Krugersdorp and Vera from Randfontein. They met at Krugersdorp High School in Standard 6 [Grade 8]. It was love at first sight, and they got married on 6 January 1952 at the Berea Shul in Johannesburg.”

Israel is a pharmacist who ran a pharmacy called Medicine Chest in Northcliff. Vera worked with him throughout the time that they ran that business until they retired some time ago. They lived in Krugersdorp all their lives until they moved to Johannesburg about two years ago to be with their children. They have three children, Helene Pincus, Alan Bulafkin, and Malcolm Bulafkin (all married), eight grandchildren (four of whom are married), and three great grandchildren.

The couple say the secret to a successful marriage is “essentially to respect each other. Try not to argue much, but if you have an argument, don’t go to bed until you resolve the issue. Always put your spouse first!”

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