Melville Edelstein murdered by outsiders, say former Soweto pupils
He was senselessly killed during the Soweto uprising of 1976, in the wrong place at the wrong time because of his dedication to the disenfranchised. And yet, while many know the name Dr Melville Edelstein, few know what he stood for and what really happened to him on that day.
Now, a SA Jewish Report webinar has shed new light on his final moments for his own children, and offered an opportunity to build his legacy.
During the webinar, former pupils of the Morris Isaacson High School who were involved in the uprising told Shana Edelstein Rosenthal and Janet Goldblatt (Edelstein’s two daughters) that it wasn’t possible that school students killed their father, saying it was done by others who didn’t know him.
“We always thought it was the students who killed him. But the people on the webinar said it may have been others – people who didn’t know my dad,” says Goldblatt. “That lines up with what famed press photographer Peter Magubane said – if they had known it was Dr Edelstein, they never would have killed him. He was part of the community.” Magubane found Edelstein’s body.
Omry Makgoale, who was in matric at Morris Isaacson in 1976, told the Edelstein women on the webinar, “It was probably unemployed youth [who killed him]. The students of Morris Isaacson knew him and would have protected him. We had white teachers at the school, and we protected them. The people who killed him were aware that we [the students] weren’t there and we were already in Orlando West.”
“From Morris Isaacson High School to Orlando West is a distance of 7km to 8km. So, most of the Morris Isaacson students were 7km or 8km away,” said Phale Modise, who was in Grade 11 at the school in that year.
Reflecting on what they heard on the night of the webinar, Goldblatt said, “We were gobsmacked. We had never heard that story before.” It was especially relevant because Edelstein died near the school. In addition, the school was seen as the “crucible” of the uprising. It was named for Morris Isaacson, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who set up a fund for black students to complete their education to university level. He also donated enough money to build a school with 10 classrooms. It opened in 1956 with 300 pupils.
Edelstein was a sociologist and respected academic who devoted himself to social-welfare projects in Soweto for 18 years. He instituted many projects to assist the youth, disabled, poor, unemployed, and marginalised.
Earlier on that fateful morning, he greeted students as they passed his office on Mputhi Street. He was hosting the official opening of a branch of his sheltered workshop programme in Orlando East, designed to provide employment for the disabled.
When news of the student protest reached the project, the ceremony was brought to an end. Concerned about the safety of a female colleague, Edelstein drove through crowds of students to get to his office. He rushed through the offices, instructing staff to leave immediately.
By the time he emerged later that morning, the political temperature was high after deadly police shootings. In the heat of the moment following the shock of the killing of schoolchildren by the police, he was stoned to death.
“It has always troubled us as Morris Isaacson students that because of our school’s proximity to where Dr Edelstein was killed, people spoke of his death as if the school children at Morris Isaacson were complicit. That’s understandable given the proximity,” said Modise.
Modise and others on the webinar didn’t know Edelstein personally, but they knew who he was at the time, saw him at work, and were impressed with his quiet dedication to the people.
“It was subsequent to the shootings in Orlando West, as anger spilled around Soweto, that Dr Edelstein became a victim. Black youngsters who would have been in that office were unemployed youth seeking to prove to authorities they were looking for work. Tsotsi elements also took advantage of the disorder.” He also noted that all of those arrested for the murder wore soccer shirts with the number 15 indicating that they were possibly part of a group or gang.
“I felt I should share those thoughts directly with them [Edelstein’s daughters],” Modise says. “I was touched meeting his direct blood relatives for the first time and hearing about them as victims also of that fateful day, sharing their loss.”
Goldblatt was 12 years old when her dad died, and she has been the unofficial family representative and spokesperson ever since. Goldblatt said that the Jewish community hasn’t always recognised her father’s story, and she knows that as a humble man, he probably would have preferred to stay out of the spotlight. But at the same time, having the opportunity on the webinar “to tell his story as Jews” was very meaningful, and a chance to bring his humanitarian stance to the fore.
“In a world full of polarities, he showed that you didn’t need to have a political agenda. His only agenda was kindness, love, and equality – bringing Torah values to the world. That was the story of his life.”
She hopes that the Jewish community can integrate his story into schools, museums, and education, and identify that Youth Day is very much part of our history. “We should be lighting a candle and be inspired by him on that day,” she says.
She also hopes that South African schoolchildren and communities can learn more about what her father did and stood for as a white Jewish man trying to improve the lives of the most underprivileged during the height of apartheid.
Goldblatt has quietly taken on her father’s legacy, bringing education and emotional intelligence programmes into Soweto. She once conducted a workshop close to where her father died, but didn’t realise it until a colleague pointed it out to her and the group. “Everyone was crying” she recalls. Meanwhile, her sister hopes to build an education centre in his honour in Soweto.
Goldblatt says his legacy is “completely Torah-based. His values were that everyone belongs, everyone has a place, equality, and being non-judgemental. He davened, laid tefillin, and learned Torah. He kept Shabbos. I remember walking with him to Sydenham Shul every Shabbat. His purpose was [derived from] a love for humanity.” She hopes these values can inspire people today.
Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.
The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.
The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”
The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.
“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.
The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.
“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.
Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.
“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.
Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”
The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.
“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”
JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.
This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.
“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”
The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.
“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”
The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.
Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”
Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”
Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”
Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs
ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.
The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.
Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.
“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”
Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”
On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”
Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”
ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.
Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity
Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.
Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.
He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.
Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”
Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”
They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”
Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.
Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.
“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”
Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”
Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.
When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.
Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”
Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.
“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”
Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”
Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”• The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco
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