Musical PTSD programme faces silencing from COVID-19
“I’m not supposed to be alive today,” says Dror Zicherman, aged 35. A personal trainer and gym owner, he seems like any other young Israeli.
But almost 15 years ago, he was critically injured when he prevented a suicide bombing with his own body.
He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but a music rehabilitation programme called Soul Key has assisted his recovery. After five years of working with PTSD survivors, the programme is facing closure due to COVID-19 budget cuts.
Recalling the moment his life changed forever, Zicherman told the SA Jewish Report, “We received alerts about a terrorist’s intention to bomb a Chanukah event. We built a blockade, and while we were checking cars, a Palestinian taxi arrived with a suicide bomber inside. We removed the passengers and he detonated 30kg of explosives. It instantly killed my commander, and I was critically injured. There was a massive evacuation. Honestly, I’m not sure how I survived. When I arrived at the hospital, I had little to no blood left, my body was completely shattered, I went through clinical death. I was in a coma, and woke up on the eighth day of Chanukah.
“I’ve had about 32 surgeries so far, six months of rehabilitation in hospital, and 18 more months at home. It was excruciatingly painful. I was pretty happy at the time – I was constantly surrounded by people, they called me a hero, and I accepted that role. After six months, I walked out of the hospital and the doctors all clapped.”
Then the tough part began. “I started experiencing flashbacks, anxiety, and panic attacks as well as depression. Suddenly I became an angry person and I wasn’t sure why. Anything would set me off. I kept returning to that awful scene. I was isolating myself as I felt a great deal of shame. I didn’t want anyone to know. It was a huge blow to my ego and the persona of ‘the hero’.”
Exactly three years after the injury, Zicherman had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with PTSD. “I was shocked. I thought people suffering from PTSD were freaks that were locked in psych wards. Suddenly, I realised that I had all the symptoms. Every day is another small step forward. For seven or eight years, I didn’t function at all. The switch began after Operation Protective Edge. I visited injured soldiers, people who were mentally broken, while everyone was calling them heroes. I decided to deal with my issues head on. I was going to help save people in similar positions to mine.”
The Soul Key programme helped him to rebuild his life. “I used to be anti-institutional, however this programme uplifts, supports, and helps me. It makes me believe in myself, my ability to succeed, the feeling that you are doing something that’s good for you, something that constantly picks you up.”
Yifat Greenwald-Cohen, the founder of Soul Key, is a clinical psychologist who treats PTSD at the Sheba Medical Center. She was injured during Tze’elim Disaster A on 16 July 1990. Five reserve soldiers were killed and 10 injured, including three seriously, when an artillery shell exploded during a training exercise. “I remember lying in hospital. I was listening to music and I started crying. Through the music, I was able to process the mental pain and connect to it,” she says.
“I felt the need to create a rehabilitation and reintegration platform outside of hospitals. We chose the musical path, since music allows us to make the emotional connection when words simply aren’t enough. Music allows participants to let their souls relax, as well as momentarily disconnect from society and gather their mental resources.”
Post-trauma is a breaking point in life, she says, “due to an event or series of events that a person experiences that their soul can’t fully comprehend. The person keeps living their trauma, displaying symptoms which make it difficult for them to be with others. This in turn leads to isolation.”
While the defence department funds PTSD treatment in hospitals, Soul Key fills a gap in that it’s a “normal, non-stigmatised environment”, as opposed to a hospital or clinic. It’s hosted at the prestigious Israeli Conservatory for Music in Tel Aviv, which gives even further impetuous to survivors to attend, feeling pride instead of shame. Soldiers come to the programme with a referral from experts in the field, and it has a waiting list.
The changes in PTSD survivors taking part are dramatic. “Many participants were unable to leave their home for years, unable to deal with themselves as well as society, and couldn’t take on any challenges or responsibilities. We have witnessed some amazing transformations in which people are able to regain control of their lives,” Greenwald-Cohen says.
“Often these successes lead to more successes: they begin enjoying their musical process, suddenly they are able to work, wake up in the morning, use public transport, even go out on dates. We are talking about significant behavioural change. And at home, they have their constant trustee and ‘mental anchor’ – their musical instrument. As one participant once said, ‘Soul Key is like a medicine. If you take it away, the participants will experience regression and prejudice.’”
The programme costs $3 000 (R45 562) a year per participant, and donations are sorely needed. But even if one can’t contribute financially, there are other ways to help. “Now more than ever, it’s important to raise awareness, to shatter prejudice, and look around, perhaps even find another person with a similar condition that needs your help,” says Greenwald-Cohen. Her dream is to open similar programmes around the world.
Another participant in the programme is Avihai Hollender, aged 28, who was injured in Operation Protective Edge. His new song, Why father can’t find peace, has just been released and is a haunting and heartbreaking look at the effects of PTSD on children and families. It can be found on YouTube. Yoav De Paz is 40 years old and learning to play the flute. Throughout his service as a combat soldier, he was exposed to harsh scenes around Gaza and Ramallah, where his friend’s throat was slit, and he was diagnosed with PTSD.
Eyal Atzmon is 34 years old and learning to play the saxophone. He was injured in the second Lebanon War, and after his friend died in front of him, he was diagnosed with PTSD. Ofra Yitzhaki is 55 years old and a former military police officer. She was recently hospitalised in a mental institute during the day, and is learning to play the drums.
For Zicherman, who works as a mentor and lecturer and is soon to release a book, “Everything I do is still connected to PTSD, though not in a sense of surrendering. I’m writing a song about Ori, my commander who was killed. It’s a song about my experiences with him, not necessarily his memory. I admit that I’m not in touch with Ori’s family, and I’d rather stay away from that because it brings up a lot of demons within me … about the fact that those who die get treated with respect, which they truly deserve. However, no one thinks about those suffering from PTSD, those who were left behind and continue to carry the burden. In the song, I’m able to combine both these worlds – that of the trauma, and that of the mourning. I want to continue to spread that message – we are alive and we deserve to be, and more so, that we have nothing to be sorry for.”
To learn more and donate, visit https://savesoul.icm.org.il/
Wedding leads to a number of COVID-19 cases
Buffets of canapés and dessert, the sharing of snacks and dips, and horah dancing – allegedly without masks – were just some features of a Jewish wedding held at the height of the second wave in Cape Town, from which a number of community members contracted COVID-19. And while this was one wedding or social gathering that broke the law and flouted restrictions, there have been others.
The daughter of a Johannesburg rabbi and the son of a prominent Johannesburg Jewish family got married in early January 2021. Our source says that under the chuppah, “a man made a speech where he bragged about how his shul was circumventing COVID-19 laws by having people ‘enter secretly through the back’. The general feeling was that his community was more concerned about flouting health precautions in order to conduct Jewish ceremonies than protecting the community from the virus,” the source says.
He says there were about 60 guests, and at first, things seemed safe. “I wasn’t worried as I was sure that there would be a strict protocol that would keep everyone safe.
“On arrival, the staff sprayed hand sanitiser, a registry was filled out, and everyone was wearing masks.” Then things began to shift. “From what I saw, once the bridal party had their makeup on, they didn’t wear their masks. I wasn’t too worried, as there was still social distancing in place. But in the room where the groom was signing the ketuba, there were snacks and dips which everyone was sharing. I thought this was a bit irresponsible.”
He says that at the chuppah, the guests were seated far from each other to create social distancing, but “by the time the horah dancing started, the whiskey was flowing and by now, hardly anyone was social distancing or wearing masks. What also really worried me was the fact that the caterer served the canapés and dessert as a buffet, where guests shared sushi soy dips, finger-food dips, a self-service ice cream machine, and other foods that were obvious virus-spreaders.”
The venue’s owners insist, however, that “no alcohol was served by the venue in any part of the venue. Neither the staff, nor the independent wedding planner, nor the caterer saw any alcohol consumed.” They say staff enforced mask-wearing, and that only family participated in the dancing.
According to the source, “A few days later, I felt very run down and had an extremely sore throat and sinuses. I tested positive for COVID-19. As a healthy person, I have had no serious complications, luckily, but I still had a rough time. After I got sick, I heard from a secondary source that a lot of people at the wedding had caught COVID-19, including the bride and groom.” Another source says that at least two guests have since been in hospital with COVID-19.
“What I saw at this wedding was a general attitude of laxness when it comes to something so serious,” says the source. “The wedding could have been pulled off safely if they had considered a few obvious fixes: simply postpone the wedding until after the second wave; hold the horah dancing outside or cancel it entirely; and the caterer should have had better COVID-19 protocols such as separate dip containers for each person and plates of food rather than buffets.”
The caterer told the SA Jewish Report that she felt pressured into catering the wedding, but “it should never have taken place”. At first she thought she would drop off the food, but was then told to do “normal” catering in the style that the couple wanted. She emphasised that the main meal was plated. She was also asked to cater for the Shabbat dinner and the sheva brochas, but refused. As far as she knows, both those events went ahead. She says a number of rabbis attended the wedding.
Another source recalls being told that it would be a small wedding of 40 people. “The venue was excellent about sanitising, taking temperatures, and registering – it even gave everyone their own pen to write their details. Everything was legally permitted, but I think the lesson our community needs to learn is that at some stage, guests dropped their guard. Being careful 90% of the time isn’t necessarily enough.”
Yet another source who only attended the chuppah says, “The bottom line is that assurances were made that this wedding would be done in a safe way. I’m not entirely sure those assurances were kept.”
Professor Efraim Kramer, the head of the division of emergency medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand who has worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of the community during the pandemic, didn’t mince his words. “Those members of our community who continue to ignore and deny the reality of death and destruction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are playing a critical game of Russian roulette with their lives and the lives of others.
“They are breaking the law of South Africa, and Jewish law, and therefore acting simply like criminals, nothing less, bringing shame and disgrace on the Jewish community as a whole. It’s a pity we don’t excommunicate anymore.”
“If these facts are true, then it’s a great disappointment,” says legal expert Professor Michael Katz, a member of the board of directors of the Solidarity Fund. “It may have breached the law, and it’s a danger to human life and health.”
Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), says, “We are very disappointed to learn that a wedding took place under these circumstances. Super-spreader events such as what this could potentially have become are precisely why the second wave of the pandemic has been so devastating to our community and South Africa as a whole.
“Any event which takes place now must meet level-three regulations – there is no compromise. Each infection and loss to the pandemic is a loss to our community and South Africa. Our principal aim is the preservation of life, and we will do what we can to forward that aim.”
Stuart Diamond, the executive director of the Cape SAJBD, echoed these sentiments. “By following the rules, you’re not only protecting yourself, you’re protecting our community. And by doing that, you’re saving lives and ensuring our communal resources aren’t stretched financially and in terms of manpower.”
“We are a five star, tourism-graded venue, set on four acres of grounds with only a small venue on the grounds,” say the venue owners. “There is ample space outside. We allocated six tables inside in a room certified for 150 people. Although they are 12-seater tables, we allowed only six people to be seated at each. The room has frameless, sliding stacking doors on two sides of the venue and four large opening doors on the smallest side. All doors were open. Families sat together at these tables in their own bubbles.
“All serving staff wore gloves, masks, and some wore additional face shields. There was ample sanitiser at several points. The bar has a Perspex shield across it. The wedding ceremony was in the open air, at least 200m from the venue, and the chairs were placed at the correct social distance. We have heard that someone who was at the wedding tested positive the following day. This person must have been contagious at the wedding and could have spread it, but was in no way caused by the venue.”
One of the owners says she was against the wedding going ahead, and has since closed her venues for the next two months. She emphasised that they had no control over the food, and everyone left by 19:30 because of the curfew. “We have won many tourism awards many years in a row, so we are rigorous about the implementation of safety protocols,” she says.
- The SA Jewish Report reached out to both families who hosted the wedding, but they chose not to comment. The newspaper chose not to use the names of the parties involved in order for them not to be targeted.
Vaccine refusal isn’t personal, it affects others
While people around the world line up for vaccination against COVID-19, only 53% of South Africans plan to get vaccinated when it becomes available to them. This is according to a recent Ipsos pollconducted in partnership with the World Economic Forum.
Vaccine hesitancy within and without the community poses a real threat to being able to stem the coronavirus pandemic.
“This would indeed be a major headache for planners if the aim is to reach 67% of the adult population in order to achieve herd immunity,” Professor Barry Schoub, the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines told the SA Jewish Report this week.
The reality is that we need 40 million adult South Africans to be vaccinated so that herd immunity can kick in and put an end to the cycle of pain and suffering. However, uncertainty, fear, and dread surround immunisation against COVID-19 in spite of a considerable amount of research that reinforces the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines.
“There is no doubt in my mind that I would take the vaccine. Not tomorrow. Today,” said Johannesburg doctor Anton Meyberg, who is working at the coalface of the illness.
“The sooner the better. It’s considered pikuach nefesh [preservation of human life] at the highest levels to get vaccinated to protect ourselves and our fellow man,” he said this week amidst growing vaccine hesitancy.
While the country scrambles to secure enough doses to obtain herd immunity – a situation in which most of a population is immune to an infectious disease, giving indirect protection to those who aren’t immune – the question is whether all this effort and money amounts to nought when scores of people are reluctant to get the vaccine.
Johannesburg pulmonologist Carron Zinman told the SA Jewish Report she felt as if COVID-19 was winning the war. “Sadly, people haven’t modified their behaviour enough to control this deadly disease, and no one wants to stay locked away for the foreseeable future. Vaccination is our only hope of halting COVID-19 in its tracks.”
She said that by the time the vaccine is accessible in South Africa, it will have proven its safety and efficacy. “It makes no sense whatsoever for anyone to refuse something that could save your [or a loved one’s] life.”
Experts insist that nothing has more effectively contributed to the health of humankind than the provision of clean water and administration of vaccines.
The enormous pressure on vaccine manufacturers to produce an effective and safe vaccine as soon as possible is widely documented in the light of a devastating pandemic which has claimed more than two million lives.
In less than a year, manufacturers have been able to produce about 10 different vaccines which are in widespread use throughout the world. This contrasts with the 10 to 20 years it took to produce the vaccines of yesteryear, Schoub said.
“Public opinion on COVID-19 vaccines has ranged from the eager ‘why the delay?’ to the hesitant ‘I’m unsure about that vaccine’, to the militant ‘anti-vaxers’ with their science-fiction conspiracies,” he said.
In tackling the “vaccine refusal problem”, it’s important to distinguish vaccine hesitancy from anti-vaxers, he said.
The breakneck speed at which vaccines have been developed and put into use, as well as the uniqueness of the platforms which have been used to construct these vaccines – some completely new to humans – “has raised legitimate concerns in the minds of many anxious citizens”, said Schoub.
Much of the vaccine hesitancy centres on a fear of side effects, especially unknown, long-term side effects. There is also uncertainty about whether the vaccine will be successful against mutations of the virus, and lack of understanding about the differences between the various vaccines.
Anti-vaxers, Schoub said, “are a different breed”.
“Fortunately, they are a relatively small minority in this country, but they are, at the same time, a rather vocal minority, who exploit social media to spread wild and wonderful tales.”
Some of these tales include that COVID-19 is the result of 5G radiation and COVID-19 vaccines contain embedded microchips from Microsoft’s Bill Gates; or that the vaccine can alter our DNA.
“These folk will obstinately cling to these tales and refuse to listen to reason, preferring the comfort of conspiracies,” said Schoub.
It also doesn’t help when people in prominent positions voice their fears based on unscientific, unproven misinformation.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng sparked outrage last month with some of his bizarre comments about the “devil vaccine”, and a handful of public servants have also voiced seemingly illogical concerns.
Realising the importance and urgency of herd immunity, certain politicians including Julius Malema and Blade Nzimande have recently encouraged people to listen to science and get the jab.
Schoub said vaccine-hesitant people “do have very legitimate and understandable concerns” about the new COVID-19 vaccines.
“Sometimes their opinions are coloured by anti-vaxer stories; sometimes it’s misinformation; but usually it’s [as a result of] a lack of correct, scientifically validated information. Often, hesitancy is merely reluctance to be a guinea pig,” he said.
“Often, just seeing their friends, neighbours, or relatives being vaccinated, and being reassured that they are hale and hearty after the vaccination while boasting of now being immune to infection is enough to dissolve their hesitancy,” he said.
Careful and non-condescending messaging is important, he said. “For example, the fact that the mRNA vaccine contains absolutely no DNA and cannot alter one’s DNA, and is, furthermore, very rapidly disposed of in the body after its work of stimulating immunity is done.”
Experts agree that it’s important to educate the public about the rigour with which vaccines are monitored for safety and efficacy, from the clinical-trial stage through to international and national licensure, all of which needs to be publicised.
An often-heard objection to the COVID-19 vaccine is the mantra of human or individual rights. “I will choose what’s done to my body”, people say. The choice, however, said Schoub, isn’t between getting vaccinated or not getting vaccinated. The choice is between the perceived risk of getting vaccinated against the real risk of getting the disease.
“There’s no neutral position. Moreover, with infectious diseases, the choice to refuse a vaccine isn’t a choice for the individual alone, it’s also a choice affecting others.”
Acceptance as back-to-school goes back online
Jewish schools are resuming online teaching, and while the situation is causing some frustration, parents have expressed support for the schools’ caution.
From playschool to matric, most students in the community began the school year this week. Following the government’s announcement that the opening of public schools has been postponed to 15 February, Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi appealed to private schools to do the same to avoid putting strain on the province’s struggling health system.
Consequently, Jewish schools such as King David, Yeshiva College, Maharsha, Hirsch Lyons, and Herzlia have opted to continue with online lessons following an initial two-day orientation held on campuses early this week.
“We brought the kids onto campus on different days for orientation, and then will be moving online for three days,” says Rabbi Shimon Pinski, the principal of Maharsha Boys Primary. “We will assess the situation towards the end of the week after the government gazette has been finalised.
“We’ve seen the positivity of kids studying at school in spite of all difficulties. We are vigorously keeping all protocols laid out by government, and following the recommendations of Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Michael Setzer. We hope that our postponement will end soon, and we can get our kids back to school depending on numbers, regulations, and doctors’ advice.”
“Our nursery school will be open on campus from this week, with all protocols in place, but Grades 1 to 12 have gone online after an initial orientation,” says Rabbi Steven Krawitz, the academic principal at Hirsch Lyons. “We’re waiting for the government to clarify the way forward for private schools.”
Andries van Renssen, the executive director at Herzlia, says parents’ reactions to the way in which the school has reopened have been mixed, though they are generally much more favourable towards in-person teaching.
“During orientation, it was clear how excited the children were to be back and how eager they were to start the learning process,” he says. “Teachers and management are making a real effort to create the safest possible learning environment.”
These efforts are clearly being recognised by parents across the schools, in spite of the frustration the situation is causing.
“Infection numbers are very high at the moment, and schools are using good systems to cope with the pandemic,” says Adina Roth, whose seven and 11-year-old children attend King David Victory Park (KDVP). “I trust King David, and I feel it’s wise to wait for a while until things are a little bit safer.
“The school hasn’t tried to sugar coat anything, and it has made its commitment to in-person teaching clear, which I find reassuring. Expectations have to shift in a pandemic, and we can’t carry on as normal when people are dying.”
Nonetheless, Roth firmly believes that online teaching is no substitute for the classroom experience.
“It’s not just about receiving knowledge but the interactions which come with learning,” she says. “It’s challenging on a personal level when you need to help the younger ones with their classes and work at the same time, but there’s a bigger picture here. We need to deal with the situation and support the school.”
Lara Jersky, whose son began Grade 1 at King David Ariel this week, says that she felt nervous at the thought of him going back to school in person.
“The orientation was good, but I feel more secure that my son will be at home from school for now,” she says. “Yes, it means some stress for me in terms of work and looking after him, but we’ll have to see how it goes. In-person school is an added stress, so I’m happy with the way things are for now.
“Of course, human interaction is gold for kids, and it’s what we want, but schools are definitely doing the right thing.”
According to mom Bianca Rubenstein, Yeshiva College is the only school which hasn’t reopened its nursery school for in-person teaching, causing some strain.
“I’m still dealing with the post-traumatic stress disorder from online classes last year,” she laughs. “I have four kids, the eldest is in Grade 3, and it was a nightmare to run from room to room to see that they were all online.
“My youngest son was to go back to nursery school until Sunday, when we got an email to say things had changed. It wasn’t easy to accept. I was happy for him to go. I could then focus on the other kids online.
“I’m annoyed that he won’t be going back, but I trust Yeshiva’s protocols. You can’t complain or blame in this situation You need to see it for what it is.”
Shelley Meskin says that the changes haven’t been easy for all kids to accept. Her children, eight and 11 years old, attend KDVP.
“My 11-year-old is in mourning,” she laughs. “Last year’s online schooling was incredibly difficult for her. She works off the energy of the other kids and the teacher, so it wasn’t the ideal system for her.
“It’s sad that they can’t be at school, but it’s difficult to decide the right thing to do in this situation. We don’t know whether we should stop our lives or carry on. We want to see our kids back at school because we are growing a generation that won’t know how to deal with things in person after staring at a screen all day.”
Nonetheless, she stresses that parents need to make safety a priority. “People need to listen and do what’s safe,” she says. “Our community hasn’t been so good at that. If we don’t listen, we’ll suffer the repercussions. Whether you agree with the decision or not, you need to follow the rules. If we do that, we’ll get our kids back to school before long.”
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