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New SAZF Cape director guided by tradition and innovation

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In an exciting move for the Cape Town Jewish community, Chaya Singer was recently appointed executive director of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) Cape Council. Young but experienced in communal, Jewish, and Zionist affairs, she could have taken her skills anywhere, but has chosen to stay and make an impact in this new role.

“I’m proudly South African, and want to contribute to the well-being of our community and our country in the tradition of generations of Jews who have helped to build what’s best about us.

“I’m hopeful for our country and our continent, and I believe that Israel has much to offer. My zaida, Rabbi Bernhard, used to say, ‘Go home or stay home.’ It’s sad to see our community disperse, but this platform also allows me to assist those who see their short or long-term future in Israel.”

Her vision for the organisation is “to establish the SAZF as a broad tent within the parameters of Zionist ideology, with a focus on communal and broader education. We want to bring South Africa everything Israel has to offer, a leader in innovation, technology, and international development.

“We want to bring value as an umbrella organisation that deals with a wide spectrum of the community, from youth movements to people looking to make aliyah, as well as addressing hard issues around politics and advocacy.”

Singer grew up in Johannesburg, with annual holidays to visit her grandparents in Cape Town. She went to Torah Academy, followed by a seminary in Israel, where she got a diploma in Jewish Diaspora Education. She did shlichut in various Jewish communities including in Sweden, Denmark, Russia, China, and the United States.

It was during her Bachelor of Music majoring in classical voice and art history at the University of the Witwatersrand that she joined the South African Union of Jewish Students and was elected national chairperson. She was then elected chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students, the only South African to have served in this position since the organisation’s founding in 1924. She held ex-officio positions on the executive boards of the World Zionist Organisation, the Jewish National Fund, Jewish Agency for Israel, and the World Jewish Congress. She also graduated from the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Herzliya with a master’s degree in government, specialising in diplomacy and conflict studies.

Returning to South Africa, she served for the past five years as the first parliamentary liaison for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and built relationships across the political spectrum, facilitating Jewish communal input on relevant legislation. She has numerous awards to her name, and has attended leadership programmes across the globe. She is a visiting research fellow at the Asia Policy Program at the Aba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the IDC.

While she grew up in Johannesburg, she’s familiar with the Cape community. “I’m particularly appreciative of the communal infrastructure of the United Jewish Campaign umbrella in Cape Town, which provides fundamental support and oversight for all organisations,” she says.

Looking at the challenges ahead, she says, “We foresee that 2021 will be a year of polarised threats and opportunities. On the one hand, the coronavirus pandemic in South Africa is far from under control. For the time being, this means that there can be no physical gatherings of significant numbers of people. The SAZF will need to continue to manage its primary activities through digital means so that we maintain the connection of our community to Israel.

“In sharp contrast, there is a renewed sense of optimism within the worldwide Zionist movement following the four seismic normalisation agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. All of these agreements were signed between August and December 2020, representing nothing short of a sea change in Arab-Israeli relationships. The year 2021 therefore presents a golden opportunity to seize this momentum.

“We will achieve this by strengthening the community’s identification with Israel and its Jewish identity through meaningful cultural events. We will seek to find the best international speakers to address not only the Jewish community but also non-Jewish communities in South Africa.”

She has already made a number of changes. “We are creating four new departments in the SAZF to focus on specific elements of our mandate,” Singer says. “This includes a business forum to encourage trade relationships and investment between South Africa and Israel, a legal forum to build institutional legal knowledge for the SAZF and to create opportunities for law students and practising lawyers in our community, and a sports forum to encourage sports as a bridge building tool between Israel and South Africa.”

Regarding the future of Zionism in South Africa, she says, “We are increasingly seeing warming relations with Israel, also in Africa. Hopefully, South Africa will similarly align itself more pragmatically in the future. With regards to Jewish and other Zionist communities, we are grateful to live in a country with a Constitution which protects freedom of religion and association.”

Singer is excited to work with the newly elected SAZF Cape Council chairperson, Cape Town-based businesswoman Karen Marsden Sank, along with other highly respected businessmen, industry experts, and communal leaders. There are also three new co-optees on the SAZF Cape Council: Lauren Fine, a practising attorney, renowned motivational speaker, and all-round tech guru; tech entrepreneur Dale Imerman; and Jordan Seligmann, former SAUJS co-chairperson and the co-founder of the non-profit youth organisation Progress SA, which aims to promote liberalism and democracy in the country.

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It’s not a sin to stand up against abuse, say Jewish leaders

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Understanding, confronting, and reporting sexual abuse is difficult and painful for any community. Leaders tend to want to close ranks and cover up any impropriety. Survivors of abuse battle to have their voices heard, and fear the consequences. And the South African Jewish community is no exception.

These are some of the key messages emerging from a community webinar hosted by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein on Monday, 17 January, titled “Sexual abuse: let’s talk openly”.

Renowned American rabbi and psychotherapist Dr Tzvi Hersh Weinreb said we must normalise conversations about abuse. Today, it’s no longer a taboo subject compared to 30 years ago. He mentioned a ground breaking book by the late Rabbi Dr Abraham Twerski written in the 1990s about domestic violence in the Jewish community, called The shame borne in silence. This shame and silence endures.

“All communities have the tendency to hush things up,” said Weinreb. “They prefer not to see ugly things, and hope it will all go away.”

“We don’t want to sully our souls,” Weinreb continued. “But our souls are put into a body which faces material, physical, and sexual challenges and struggles throughout life.” People face temptations all the time, some of which cannot be denied or ignored. They have to be confronted to overcome them.

Dr David Pelcovitz, a veteran American psychologist and observant Jew, said, “We need to talk about [sexual abuse]. We need to shine light on places where there is darkness. It’s natural to want to recoil.” He stressed the critical importance of empowering victims and survivors, and said abuse was usually committed by someone known to the victim, especially within families.

Pelcovitz said parents need to develop a balance when speaking to their children about sexual abuse. They should tread between creating anxiety, building trust, nurturing self-esteem, and spurring action if required. He praised the South African Jewish community’s abuse-prevention programmes.

An abuse survivor often lacks confidence, particularly when facing defensive leaders and community members who want to bury the issue. Survivors need to feel safe, valued, and empowered to stop the cycle of abuse. “It’s not a sin to stand up,” Weinreb said. “People’s lives are at stake.”

The Torah promotes pikuach nefesh, the halachic principle that the preservation of human life takes precedence over almost all other religious rules. It also warns in Leviticus, “Lo ta’amod al dam re’echa” (Don’t stand by the blood of your neighbour), interpreted as an instruction not to be indifferent about what happens to other people. Both injunctions point to intervention against evil actions like sexual abuse. They provide a halachic framework for dealing with this issue.

The community needs to provide an environment of support, understanding, respect, and empathy, Goldstein said. By law, abuse must be reported to the authorities.

Resilience is extremely important in recovering from abuse. Pelcovitz said the three core elements of resilience are someone who cares; belief beyond the self; and chesed (kindness), helping others. He encouraged mindfulness to protect our children in an age of distraction. “There’s no greater protection than being there, eye to eye, heart to heart, to give them focus and courage. Nothing matters more,” he said.

The webinar concluded by highlighting two organisations in the South African Jewish community devoted to combatting abuse. Advocate Liza Segal is chairperson of the Abuse Review Board, set up by the chief rabbi in 2017 as a port of call for community members not satisfied with how organisations have handled complaints.

Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack head up Koleinu SA (Our Voice), established in 2014. They were both abused by a religious doctor in the Johannesburg Jewish community, and felt largely alone, not believed, and censured for supposedly “conducting a witch hunt”. Koleinu SA runs anti-abuse educational programmes at Jewish schools and shuls, a helpline, and provides support for victims. The helpline receives hundreds of calls, including reports of abuse by older children of younger siblings. Calls to Koleinu are treated in strict confidence. Koleinu draws on a strong support network of experts, including attorney Ian Levitt and child protection consultant Luke Lamprecht.

Though there’s a lack of trust in the police and justice system in South Africa, “we use what we have and try to fix its flaws”, said Hendler. “Abuse can stop only by reporting it. We can no longer turn a blind eye. We can all do better. We need to make this a space where perpetrators feel unwelcome and scared.”

Abuse cuts across every fault line in South Africa, from the poorest communities to the most affluent. No community is immune. “We must talk openly about this problem,” said Goldstein. “We must air the ugly issues. By shining light, we begin the process of making the world safer. We have incredible child protection organisations as the first port of call.”

  • The Koleinu SA Helpline is 011 264 0341. Its website is koleinusa.co.za

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Selling dolls for Sammy’s Kitchen

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What started as a fun pastime for Belinda Daniels, a South African emigrant in Australia, has resulted in the establishment of a soup kitchen that’s feeding hundreds of people in Orange Farm, Gauteng.

Daniels, a generous donor to The Angel Network, started crocheting clothes for dolls as a form of recreation during COVID-19. The dressed dolls ended up flying off the shelves and raising almost R100 000 for Sammy’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen named after her son, in the informal settlement of Tjovitjo in Orange Farm.

The kitchen was set up by The Angel Network, founded by Absa Jewish Achiever 2021 Humanitarian Award winner Glynne Wolman, and has been feeding 600 people every week.

It was set up in memory of Daniels’ late son, Sam, who tragically died eight years ago at the age of 21. A plaque in his memory will soon be unveiled, and T-shirts sporting his photograph and name will be given to volunteers.

For Daniels, this is a bittersweet initiative because she would rather have her son with her than an initiative named after him. However, she says, she knows that “he would love it. He was just so kind”.

The initiative, says Daniels, was “really just a matter of fate”. A friend of hers gave her a lot of dolls which Daniels and her group crocheted clothing for to raise money for charity. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this initiative didn’t take off, so Daniels showed the clothed dolls to her friend, another ex-South African, Louise Fisher, who was running a Christmas-present drive in Australia for those who had suffered during the pandemic.

“Louise is an advocate for charity and The Angel Network, and she said we should sell them,” recalls Daniels. Daniels didn’t believe that people would buy them, but Fisher was convinced otherwise.

They both wanted to use the dolls to raise money for those in need back in South Africa and to do it to honour Daniels’ son. So, Fisher stumbled on the idea for Sammy’s Kitchen.

“When we had R80 000, the kitchen was feeding about 15 000 children,” says Fisher.

When they had raised R90 000, they could provide 24 000 men, women, and children with at least one meal. Alternatively, Sammy’s Kitchen could have chosen to supply about 1 000 meals a week to support 200 people for 24 weeks with one hot, hearty meal a day, five days a week.

“It’s going to feed people for at least a year,” says Fisher. “It’s just been an incredible project. Everyone in Australia knows about it. We’ve got money from America and Canada and everywhere. Basically, from absolutely nothing, we will get to R100 000.”

Daniels has been overwhelmed by the communities who supported the project from all over the world. “The dolls flew out the door. I could hardly keep up with the crocheting. I’ve done about 120 dolls. A lot of people donated money without actually wanting the doll. Those dolls we gave to Australian needy children.”

They have been inundated with requests for dolls via social media, their marketing platform. Though the majority have sold in Melbourne, some have been sold in a Sydney-based shop. Another talented ex-South African, meanwhile, made an exclusive range of girl dolls that are being sold at La Luna Boutique in Vaucluse, Sydney, for the same cause.

Daniels and Fisher have loved seeing photos from parents and grandparents sharing the joy on the faces of their kids enjoying their new companion. Daniels is waiting for a new batch of dolls, and hopes to keep the kitchen going.

“I’m passionate about helping South Africa,” says Fisher. “I travel there a lot and volunteer if I can. I work very closely on different projects. I love helping. I love Africa.”

  • If you want to buy a doll, donate, or get involved in helping others, message Louise Fisher on her Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/louise.r.fisher

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COVID-19 won’t disappear, but it may get milder

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Israeli Professor Manfred Green is optimistic that we are in the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, although he admits we’re not getting rid of coronavirus so easily.

“We need to prepare for a much wider spread with possible new variants. That’s the possibility,” said Green, a professor of epidemiology at Haifa University. “We are watching out for these new variants. It’s still a major health threat, but we could be seeing the beginning of a milder epidemic.”

Green, the founding director of the Israel Centre for Disease Control and a University of Cape Town alumnus, was speaking on 18 January at a Telfed-organised webinar titled, “The COVID-19 Pandemic: when will it ever end?”

Based on what we have seen from pandemics in the past, coronavirus should lose some of its virulence as it spreads, he said. “That’s not unusual. Pandemics eventually end, although I’m not going to go into the Black Death or something which could go on for many years. I’m talking about in recent times.

“We know now that because of the variants in the current pandemic, people who have been sick from the one virus can actually get sick again from the other virus. In other words, if you got sick from Delta and recovered from it, and you get infected by Omicron, you can get sick, usually with a milder disease because you have some memory. But it’s still not enough to prevent the disease entirely. So, one of the problems is how we are going to deal with the disease. Because of these variants, it’s not something that will go away quickly.”

Vaccinated people can transmit the disease because, as Green explained, “You produce antibodies in your blood, but not where the virus actually enters the body.” The virus, he said, can get into the nose and throat. It then replicates, which doesn’t infect the vaccinated person, but can pass the disease onto others.

“The big question we’re asking ourselves is whether this disease will become seasonal like flu,” said Green. “If that happens, it will no longer be an all-year-round phenomenon. It will exist for a couple of months of the year, and hopefully will be much milder.”

He described the possibility of the normality of pre-COVID-19 life returning at the end of the pandemic as “very unlikely”.

“We probably need to get used to living with what we call a ‘new normal’ and living with COVID-19 as another flu-like seasonal disease,” he said. “If there’s an effective vaccine, an acceptable level of morbidity and mortality, and what we call tolerable moderate restrictions during the season, I would think we would still want to suggest, if it was seasonal, maybe use masks. I would think it would be a good idea to use masks in closed spaces in the winter months.”

He said the best new vaccines would be ones such as an intranasal vaccine because they produce antibodies where the virus goes into your body. “Those are the most effective, similar to the oral polio vaccine, which produces antibodies in the gut, where the virus usually enters the body.”

Vaccine hesitancy is making controlling the pandemic more difficult, Green said. “People who aren’t vaccinated are actually giving the virus the opportunity to spread widely and mutate.

“The vaccines are effective, even though we may need to give multiple doses. We shouldn’t be too concerned about giving multiple doses. The new treatments look very promising. We need the co-operation and compliance of the public. The bottom line is that we [in Israel] aren’t facing a national disaster, as some would say.

“The pandemic or epidemic in Israel has now reached the stage where it’s very difficult to control the spread. It’s such an infectious virus. All of you have probably experienced the fact that you’ve done everything you thought was right, yet you got infected. What we’re trying to do now is basically smooth out the numbers and make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.”

Green gave some interesting facts about COVID-19. “There are seven coronaviruses that have infected humans. The coronavirus comes from animals. In this case, it might have come from a bat. Seven coronaviruses have changed enough to infect humans. Four of those cause a common cold.

“Some of them are caused by other coronaviruses, one being SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] in 2003. Probably because that disease was so severe and we were able to isolate patients very quickly, the actual virus disappeared. It’s very unusual, but it did. One causes MERS [Middle East Respiratory Syndrome], which is seen mainly in camels but does cross over to humans. That has pretty much been limited to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. For some reason, it hasn’t spread very widely.”

Although the current pandemic has had a much lower mortality rate than the 1918 influenza pandemic, there weren’t the same kind of facilities and medications in the early stages of the 20th century.

Green believes the two pandemics resemble each other in many respects. “The Influenza virus became endemic and less lethal, and it’s still with us,” he said. “The same influenza we have today, which we call the H3N2 and the H1N1, is basically the great-grandchild of the 1918 virus. It’s the same virus. It has just mutated. In other words, COVID-19 may develop into a virus which will hopefully produce milder disease, become seasonal, and remain pretty much indefinitely.”

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