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Mother’s Day follows Lag B’Omer tragedy

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The Jewish Report Editorial

This Sunday, there is one South African-born mother who won’t be celebrating Mother’s Day. Tanya Hevroni, who is the mother of three little girls, is mourning the senseless death of her husband who was killed in the Lag B’Omer stampede on Mount Meron last Thursday.

She, like so many other mothers, is now forced to come to terms with what it means to be a single mom.

She’s not alone. There are many more in Israel who lost their loved ones in this tragic incident in which 45 people died and more than 150 were injured.

It was a celebration that all those who went looked forward to, but went horribly wrong. Lag B’Omer is the one night when observant people can really celebrate during the counting of the Omer. It’s 24 hours in which people can marry, cut their hair, and do a whole bunch of things they can’t do between Pesach and Shavuot.

While I have always enjoyed celebrating Lag B’Omer, I knew very little about the annual gathering at Mount Meron. Since this largest peacetime tragedy in the history of Israel last week, I have unfortunately had reason to find out more. And the more I looked, the more the irony and horror of what happened emerged.

Shortly before this disaster struck, there was the most incredible joy at the site of Rabbi Simon bar Yochai’s grave. I find the idea of this euphoria turning into terror and then devastation hard to absorb. I can’t even imagine how those survivors are going to live with this. Also, most of them were involved in the stampede that killed people, creating what has been dubbed “Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster”. How do they live with that?

Lag B’Omer marks the day Rav Simon bar Yochai died, but it also falls on the day that ended a plague that killed thousands of Torah scholars who had studied with – among others – Rabbi Akiva. I have to admit the fact that we are living through a pandemic (or a plague, call it what you will), which has mostly now been stopped by mass vaccination in Israel, gives me the shivers. This event was the very first mass gathering in Israel since the start of the pandemic, and it was allowed only because of the huge success of the vaccination drive.

Then, I read that 110 years ago, in 1911, 11 people were killed and 40 wounded when they fell from a balcony on Mount Meron on Lag B’Omer. They were said to have fallen about seven metres when the railing around the grave collapsed. It’s way too similar to the events of last week. Back then, it clearly wasn’t safe, and neither was it safe now. Especially not for 100 000 people dancing and singing. Apparently, there was supposed to be a limit of 15 000, but this wasn’t implemented because, it seems, there isn’t a specific body or authority that controls the site.

Every year except 2020, for about 600 years, observant Jews have flocked to this site on Lag B’Omer. Was it a tragedy waiting to happen? And why did it happen this year? We can search for reasons and try to make sense of it, but I’m not sure those answers are forthcoming. I guess it’s a matter of police work and your belief system.

However, I cannot imagine Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron will ever be the same celebration. Maybe I’m wrong. The tragedy will certainly have an impact on hundreds of people being able to view Lag B’Omer as a celebration again.

In fact, it will take Israel a long time to get over this massive loss.

I don’t believe anybody meant for it to happen. However, blame is being thrown around. People apparently need to find a culprit, a reason, a bad guy. They can’t blame terrorism or crime. And so, many are blaming the Israeli government. Some blame secular Israelis and others the Haredim themselves.

Do we always have to have someone to blame? Is having someone to blame and potentially charge with a crime going to help bring back these people? Will it make anyone feel better?

I don’t believe so. It certainly isn’t going to bring Tanya Hevroni’s husband back.

While I don’t pretend to know her, I have a good idea that she will step up to the plate and continue to be an outstanding mother to her girls. That’s what mothers do.

And as we celebrate mothers this weekend, I know many mothers who would always get out of a sick bed and do the impossible for their children. Their love knows no bounds.

While we may not all be mothers, we have all had a mother in our lives. And we know the love of a mother. She is the one who was always there for us, even if she had a full-time job. She is the one on whose shoulders we cried when our hearts were broken. Hers was the hand we held that made us feel supported. She was the one who made sure we ate well, kept clean, brushed our teeth, and slept enough.

Her love was and always is unconditional. Being a mother is no easy task, but it’s the most gratifying and precious job in the world. And, having lost my own mother, I know that nothing in the world will replace the person who nurtured my siblings and me, held us when we needed it, and gave everything of herself for us. For my own mother and every mother out there who knows this love, we at the SA Jewish Report salute you!

Shabbat Shalom

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The Jewish Report Editorial

100MW of light in the dark

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When I heard that King David School alumnus Gidon Novick was involved in taking over the lion’s share of South African Airways, I felt inspired and excited. Such good news!

Not least of all because I know Novick to be a smart, innovative mensch of a businessman who understands the airline industry, but because now finally SAA will be run like a business.

And while it has sucked up so much taxpayers’ money already, it will no longer be a drain on our economy. To top that, if Novick and crew do what they plan to do, we may even have an airline we can be really proud of. Let’s wait and see, but isn’t it fabulous to have some good news to share?

This doesn’t seem to fit the general mood of our community. I guess we can’t ignore the rise in antisemitism and how COVID-19 is really hitting us. We certainly can’t ignore the huge numbers of us who are sick and others who have died. Yes, it’s frightening at best.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, and we need to recognise this for our own benefit.

While you have been worrying about COVID-19 and rattling on about all our woes, have you noticed that the rand is 30% stronger than it was this time last year, when it traded at R18.50 to the dollar? Now, it’s about R13.70 to the dollar. I don’t claim to be anything of an expert, but this has to be good news.

Then, this may have passed you by, but for a long time, there has been a call for the ceiling on self-generated electricity to be raised, and the minister of minerals and energy, Gwede Mantashe, has dug in his heels. What this means is that until now, you had a very limited amount of electricity that you could generate yourself without relying on Eskom. So, mines and huge industry had no choice but to spend fortunes on electricity from Eskom. But now, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who we all criticise for not being decisive enough, has overridden Mantashe and raised this ceiling on self-generating electricity without the need for a licence from 1MW to 100MW. In fact, those fighting for the increase were hoping for an increase only to 10MW.

While this may not affect us in our day to day life, it’s a big deal, and one that we can really be positive about. It will help our economy in a big way.

Also, it appears that following all the allegations of corruption on the part of Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, the president didn’t just sit back and take it. He actually put Mkhize on special leave. Kol hakavod! It bodes well in tough times, and times aren’t going to get any easier for the president.

Then, on 10 July, an extradition treaty between the United Arab Emirates and South Africa will come into force. Why on earth is this important? Well, the dear old Guptas are hanging out there and wouldn’t it be nice for them to be brought here to have their day in court after all they have done to South Africa? They will probably make a dash for it, but at least they will be shaken up a bit.

Then, when we heard about the destruction of millions of Johnson & Johnson vaccines that were about to rolled out because they were believed to be contaminated, we all thought: more bad news! But the good news is that pharmaceutical company Aspen has assured us that it will have 300 000 new and uncontaminated vaccines ready to be rolled out by Monday. And more to come the following week. So we should be right on track. Not bad going!

Now, I cannot take credit for all this good news because to be honest, it hasn’t been easy for me to look upwards with this heavy cloud hanging over us. I’m grateful to have a board of directors who recognise how important it is for us all to see the silver lining. I have to thank Howard Sackstein, Benjy Porter, and Herschel Jawitz for inspiring me. And a little bit of help from Peter Bruce’s excellent writing too.

The point is, they were on a roll and could see all these positive changes that were happening in front of us, but so few of us were looking for them.

While we need to keep looking for good news to uplift us and change the way we view our future, we can’t ignore our vital choices about how we deal with the third wave of COVID-19.

We can go into denial and believe it’s never going to hit us … until it does. We can tempt fate and hold or go to parties, hoping like hell that they don’t become super-spreader events. And we can rationalise our chances, and decide that we are healthy and strong so it won’t hurt us. That’s naïve and foolish and certainly won’t help anyone, rather it will exacerbate the problem.

If we continue to ignore the protocols, our numbers will continue to go up. That’s our choice. The responsibility belongs to each and every one of us. The sooner we observe all precautions, the sooner the third wave will end.

As we commemorate 16 June this week on Youth Day, we recall a time when we thought the country was about to enter a civil war. Children were killed and wounded by police brutality. The world condemned the apartheid government and saw white South Africans as pariahs. They imposed sanctions on South Africa and put pressure on the government. We couldn’t see that our country could be healed, and South Africa went through a dark time.

In the end, there was real change, which was hard to imagine at that time.

And there will be an end to the pandemic. We just have to do what it takes to get us there. This, too, shall pass. We will weather the storm, and we will triumph over this situation. We are survivors.

Having said that, let’s not take any chances. Stop holding and going to parties and events! Batten down the hatches, and take time to enjoy your homes with your nearest and dearest. Do what you need to do to stay safe and COVID-19 free.

Happy Youth Day and Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Keep calm and carry on fighting COVID-19

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Too many in our community are contracting COVID-19, and too many are dying from it. What’s too many, you might ask? One person is too many, and the numbers are so much higher than that (see Dr Daniel Israel’s story on this page). What’s worse is that they keep growing.

At this point, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t got someone they care about who is sick with this dreaded coronavirus. This week, my best friend contracted it. Now, you don’t get closer to home. She is my confidante and is super-precious to me. She was as careful as most of us and has no idea how she got it. That’s so often the case – how do you tell where you contracted it unless you attended an event that became a super-spreader or you found out that someone you spent time with had contracted the virus before you?

For the most part, we’re all running blind. We’re also all so tired of this seemingly endless pandemic that keeps resurging just when you think it’s about to die down. And we all – I believe this to include every one of us, young, old, male, and female – just want to get on with our lives. We all want some kind of normality again, whatever that’s going to look like.

But we can’t escape this clever coronavirus unless we are meticulous in observing all the protocols. Trust me, I know how hard they are to maintain. We have to do it, no matter how sick and tired we are of sanitising, wearing masks and, hardest of all, keeping our distance from people.

I don’t know about you, but I love hugging people I care about. Not being able to connect with people is unnatural for human beings.

Nevertheless, we have to persevere and live our lives like this until this pandemic subsides or until we are all vaccinated.

Many in our community are vaccinated, and so many more wish they could be. A while back, we ran a story about people jumping the queue for vaccines. Some people commended us for this piece because they felt it wasn’t morally acceptable to jump a queue if there is one. Others were angry with us because apparently, we made people feel bad for legitimately wanting to be vaccinated, thereby stopping those who would have had an opportunity by now. As I understand it, many vaccines have been thrown away because there weren’t enough arms to put them in.

In hindsight, seeing the devastation caused by the third wave that is upon us here in Johannesburg, I apologise for dissuading anyone who honestly went about getting their vaccine as soon as possible. I am now of the belief that the more people who are vaccinated, the sooner we move from this pandemic.

I don’t subscribe to people lying their way to a vaccine, but I certainly believe that whoever you are, every person vaccinated takes us one step closer to what used to be called herd immunity. It’s also one step closer to freedom from this prison the pandemic has created for us. And it’s a tad closer to ending the madness and sadness that COVID-19 leaves in its wake.

In our newspaper last week, we had a page one story about a phenomenal woman who passed away. In truth, we put the story about the late Zoe Cohen on our front page because her daughter is married to the son of the United States president. And, in spite of criticism of our choice to use it on the front page, I’m so glad we did. Here’s why. Cohen was a true unsung hero. She wasn’t just involved in adoptions, she was responsible for hundreds and maybe more of Jewish children finding beautiful families. She was renown in the country as being one of the top in her field, and because of the selfless work she did, she was buried in the section of honour at West Park Cemetery.

After her death, the Chev was inundated with letters and tributes from children and families she had helped.

So, why didn’t we know about her, and why didn’t we honour her before she died in the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards or something like that? Well, it’s simple, says Saul Tomson of the Chev, “That’s the thing about heroes, you don’t how special they are unless you know.” He went on to tell me, “Even her husband came to me after her funeral and said he really never understood the scale of her impact until now. She didn’t shout it out, she kept a low profile, but there was none like her.”

Life works in mysterious ways. Whatever the reason we chose to put her story on our front page, it was important that she got the kavod she got because of what she did for others.

Our community has come under a lot of fire recently, what with the pandemic and issues around Israel, creating a lot of anger. I have felt it sitting in this seat. People who normally wouldn’t be critical of what we do are hypercritical. And not just about our newspaper, but as a general rule. People are hurting and angry because of what’s happening, and need a place to direct it. I understand that.

And I appreciate that on this newspaper, we can make mistakes, but we give our absolute best to keep you informed.

We make choices that in hindsight may not be the same choices you would make, but we make them and so we carry responsibility for them. Suffice to say, we make the decisions with our readers’ best interests at heart, and we don’t make them lightly.

Last year this time, our newspaper was practically filled with stories about COVID-19 and lockdown. It was like that for a substantial amount of time. Why aren’t we doing the same now, you might ask, especially in light of the impact on our community? It’s simple, I believe we have COVID-19 fatigue and no desire to read a newspaper full of COVID-19-related stories, so we keep it to a minimum. Also, there are other issues that are having a significant impact on our community, and we need to focus on them as well.

However, having said that, I implore you to take every precaution you can to avoid contracting this potential killer coronavirus. There has been too much death and destruction in its wake. Let’s avoid parties, gatherings, and places where we might be at risk. Let’s stay home if we can. Please, let’s do whatever we can to avoid this virus and save lives.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Getting to the critical, elusive truth

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What’s true and what’s not? This is getting really confusing. I feel the need to check everything I read or hear because there seems to be so much fake news out there. Even what would appear to be reliable sources don’t always seem to get it right.

Yes I know, coming from a journalist and the editor of a newspaper, this could be worrying for our readers. The truth is: I find it distressing. Having said that, we at the SA Jewish Report ensure that we check and check again. I know you expect it from us, and I’m grateful for that.

What you don’t know about are the stories that have fallen by the wayside because we haven’t been able to prove them. Rather than take the chance of getting it wrong or publishing fake news, we let them go or hold them over until we have proof or proper corroboration.

If every story was a page, we would have a mountain of pages on our newsroom floor of stories we don’t publish. It’s sometimes disheartening for journalists who have put their heart and soul into getting that story for you when it doesn’t stand up to the truth test. We don’t take chances, and we do our utmost to avoid errors. But errors sometimes unwittingly find their way into our newspaper.

This week, someone wrote to us to ask “what has happened to the standard of journalism” as she pointed out that we had the word “infinity” when it should have been “affinity” in a sentence. She was right. We made a mistake, and we apologised.

This week, we were going to lead the newspaper with a story about an alleged Jewish multi-billionaire who was about to give South Africa a lot of his money, but decided to withhold the funds because the president made anti-Israel statements. We picked the story up in a reputable Israeli newspaper.

We even managed to get a copy of the letter that was allegedly sent to the president, and it was fairly convincing, not least of all considering that those who also got a copy of it were in important positions in the United States government. It was an astonishing story and so convincing.

However, our exceptional journalist on the story, Tali Feinberg, had a hunch that there was something amiss. Ultimately, we learned that the man was a fraud and received articles to prove it.

Suffice to say, I’m still not 100% sure either way. If the man is a fraudster, he’s really good at covering his tracks. Either way, we are still digging.

If it’s 100% fake, what was the person behind it trying to achieve? Think about it? If you weren’t Jewish and you didn’t love Israel, what would you think of a Jewish person who decides to withhold money that he had promised to our economy because he wanted to “force” the president to be kinder to Israel? There’s a good chance it would reinforce antisemitic stereotypes, don’t you think? So, who was behind it? Watch this space!

Then, this week, Facebook removed a post that went viral, getting about 25 000 views. It was said to include an Israeli soldier kneeling on a Palestinian child’s head, reminiscent of the George Floyd saga – only worse as this was a child. The words that went with it were: “An Israeli soldier kills a Palestinian child and the world has not moved for him[.] Share the picture until it rotates in the world to show the Zionist brutality in Palestine.”

It turns out that if you look carefully, you can see it isn’t an Israeli soldier at all, but a Chilean soldier. What’s more, it’s not the first time this photograph has gone viral under the guise of being an Israeli soldier. It happened in July 2020 and before that. The photograph was apparently taken in 2016 in Chile. This was pure fake news with the clear agenda of communicating how violent and vile Israel and its people are.

There are so many such ‘fake’ photographs, particularly with wounded children, out there to make Israel look bad. It’s a clever tactic, unfortunately, because it works.

Flip that around, and just how many factual stories aren’t being told for fear of what they might lead to? There is a great deal of fear out there, and people who prefer to stay under the radar, not wanting to make the news.

We were told that following the protest outside Beyachad two weekends ago, there was a Hatzolah ambulance that was taking an elderly lady to the hospital. They needed to hurry for her sake.

Allegedly, they got caught up in the anti-Israel protest, which slowed them down, but then managed to get onto the highway. This should have been their chance to get to the hospital fast, only people from the protest in large cars allegedly prevented them from take their offramp and causing distress.

We believed this story to be true because if it was, the community and the world should know what certain people are willing to do to us while still insisting that it is Israel and the Jewish nation that are bad. However, as long as nobody was willing to corroborate it, we couldn’t tempt fate by publishing the story without it.

Again, if it was made up, it could have been much more elaborate and exciting, but if it wasn’t, we should be publishing it. However, it’s impossible to force people to speak, even off the record.

I’m saying that, even as a reader, you should check the source of the story. Not every journalist is as ethical as ours. And not every story is as it seems.

I wish you all a great month of June.

Shabbat Shalom!

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