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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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Community

COVID-19 crashes the party for kosher caterers

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The sudden closure of Gary Friedman Caterers, one of Johannesburg’s largest and much-loved kosher caterers, has left the community in shock and shone a spotlight on a troubled industry dramatically affected by the pandemic.

During the best of times, kosher catering is tough, the overheads and costs are high, the margins are small, and the community is dwindling, say insiders. During bad times, it’s seemingly impossible, and many are hanging by a thread.

According to many insiders who wish to remain anonymous, the world of kosher is fraught with a toxic blend of favouritism, nepotism, and fierce competitiveness which has led to market cannibalism and an unsustainable future for many.

Kosher industry players are doing what they can to stay afloat. Innovative ideas by one caterer advertised on Facebook are sometimes copied the next day by another, sometimes for less. Several establishments are selling the same products or dishes, often at lower prices than their neighbouring kosher competitors. The exorbitant and rising cost of meat and chicken continues to rear its head and plague consumers.

Even before COVID-19, but certainly during the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of home industries that profess to be kosher but aren’t certified by the Beth Din. These are run by people who are also trying to make an honest living. However, they are having a negative impact on the bigger players who have Beth Din kosher licencing fees, mashgichim fees, high rentals, large staff complements, and other business overheads to account for.

Kosher caterers and restaurateurs have been hit doubly hard by the see-saw, stop-start nature of business during wave after wave of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. An industry heavily reliant on simchas, celebrations, and festive good times, it has taken an irreparable knock. In spite of impressive pivoting, unprecedented resilience, grit, and hard work, many say it has become too difficult.

“It’s a very difficult time,” said Leonard Meyerowitz of Kosher Pie Works and Jozi Coffee Pizza Pasta. COVID-19 restrictions with no seating at eateries or very limited numbers at functions; the drastic drop to zero simchas from shul brochas, brit milah, weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs have taken a toll.

“Add to this the number of days we are closed because of Shabbos, fast days, and Jewish holidays, rising emigration, not to forget Eskom power cuts, it’s really hard on all of us,” he said.

South Africa has enjoyed being a flagship of kosher food around the world, but it’s slowly losing its big anchor establishments, said one concerned supplier.

Just after noon on Tuesday, 6 July, Gary and his wife, Tamara, dropped the bombshell in a letter to all their clients and suppliers explaining that their company was no longer able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

It brought to an end an era of simcha and revelry at the HOD, where he largely operated from. Friedman declined to comment further.

Several caterers and kosher suppliers this week expressed genuine sadness, perhaps seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of his company’s demise. “I was devastated when I heard the news,” said trained chef and caterer Hayley Hack. “Gary is such a good, kind man.”

Hack and her former partner, Sharon Sheer, parted ways amicably when COVID-19 decimated their once thriving, small catering and function co-ordinating business.

“It simply wasn’t financially viable to work as a team anymore, especially with 90% of our functions being cancelled. We walked away with a heavy heart, but at least we didn’t incur debt. It’s very sad because we were established in the industry,” she said.

In the beginning, they tried to make money by selling delicious salad dressings and delivering meals, but found that it wasn’t viable, so parted ways to work on their own after terminating their contract with function venue The Middleton in Morningside. Hack continues to cater on a small scale and Sheer remains hopeful that functions will resume and things will get better once lockdown is lifted.

Long-time caterer Estelle Sacharowitz of Love is in the Kitchen said she was “heartbroken” when she heard about Friedman. “He has an incredible legacy. This is a sad loss for the industry,” she said.

Ian Isenberg, of Spice Premium Biltong & Butchery said, “Gary is the ultimate mensch in the industry. He gave me a chance as a newcomer, and even when the chips were down for him, he still helped to cater a wedding [last month] for a couple who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot for the community and his staff. This is a huge loss.”

Some caterers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion say the Gary Friedman closure goes far beyond caterers.

In spite of a humbled Beth Din following the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal and the continuing saga of the high cost of kosher food, the organisation is seemingly unsympathetic at this time, they say.

“The Beth Din has improved its accessibility and receptivity, but it’s still not customer-centric and now more than ever, it needs to be,” said one kosher caterer who wished to remain anonymous.

“Where is the Beth Din now when we need all the support we can get?” asked another.

“Kosher food and catering is prohibitive. The Beth Din has to do something about the exorbitant cost of kosher meat and chicken, end of story,” said another commentator, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Kosher chicken breasts cost between R244 and R268 per kilogram. Something isn’t right. It has become utterly unaffordable, and it’s affecting caterers and restaurants.

“Young couples are battling to keep kosher. Many are deciding it’s easier not to. My biggest concern is that kashrut is going to be diluted as more and more people resort to ‘kosher style’ food which is not under the Beth Din, like you see happening more and more in places like Australia.”

Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of kashrut at the Beth Din, said the closure of Gary Friedman Caterers had come as a “huge blow to all of us”.

“We are in discussion with Gary as to various possibilities of how to assist him,” he said.

Kosher SA remained dedicated to ensuring the highest kosher standard, Goldstein said. “At the same time, we will continue to look at ways to assist all our establishments. We have, to date, provided payment holidays across the board during hard lockdowns, and extended help on a case-by-case basis.

“We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that all our certified food services are going through.”

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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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MP calls for recognition of Pretoria shul’s heritage

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When Madeleine Hicklin recently viewed the dilapidated state of the Old Synagogue on Paul Kruger Street in the Tshwane city centre, she was moved to tears as she realised that a “heritage icon for Jews and South Africans” now lies in ruins.

Along with being a shul and a place of simchas and memories, the building was converted into a court and was the site of the start of the treason trials of 1960 and 1964 as well as the inquest into the death of Steve Biko.

Now, in her role as Democratic Alliance shadow deputy minister of the department of public works and infrastructure, Hicklin is fighting for the shul to be restored, and for it to house a memorial, museum, education centre, archival collection, or aspects of all of these.

But it will be an uphill battle, as there are plans to accommodate the department of sport, arts and culture’s (DSAC’s) head office on the property. This means that the building should be restored, but Hicklin is worried that it won’t honour the history of the site. She says she will continue to push for at least a corner of the space to be dedicated to the past.

Hicklin says that in May, she wrote to Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille asking what the Heritage Advisory Services was doing about the shocking state of the building.

She also asked whether the department would “restore the building to its former state either as a synagogue or a monument to be used as a heritage education centre for both the Jewish and the South African community at large in Tshwane”.

Finally, she queried “whether the department will enter into a public-private partnership with interested individuals with a view to opening an education centre, where educational tours could be offered to tourists and scholars interested in the history of the Rivonia Trial and South African Jewry”.

In her response on 6 July, De Lille said that plans for restoring the building were underway. “In this regard, a redevelopment proposal as well as a pre-feasibility study have been conducted and recommended the best use for the facility. Notwithstanding the fact that the synagogue building envelope isn’t in a good condition, the building’s roof has been refurbished to ensure that the interior is kept stable and dry until it is restored. There is furthermore a 24-hour security presence on the site,” she wrote.

De Lille said that “the restoration will be guided by established conservation principles” and “will recognise the different historic layers embedded in the Old Jewish Synagogue. The feasibility study supported the option to redevelop the property and maximise state land. In this regard, the recommendation is to accommodate the DSAC’s head office on the property. The Old Jewish Synagogue is proposed to be used as both a monument and as a multi-use centre for conferences and exhibitions, open to the public and tourists. The proposal has been submitted to DSAC, and is awaiting its concurrence.”

She added that “the execution of this project via a public-private partnership is subject to the completion of the feasibility study and associated procurement plan for National Treasury’s approval. The required feasibility study will be commissioned on receipt of concurrence from DSAC for the proposal presented.”

“Even if the government doesn’t look at the building from a Jewish perspective, it has significance from a South African perspective,” Hicklin says. “Accommodating a head office is fantastic, but what are they going to do to preserve the history that the building signifies?

“It was the first synagogue to be consecrated in Tshwane, which means it has tremendous significance to the Jewish population,” she says. “Then, by memorialising the South African history, we will ensure that future generations understand that our democracy ‘started’ in that building. So there needs to be a space that celebrates that, as well as the Jewish contribution to the evolution of South Africa. This contribution is immense, and should be honoured. “My promise is that as long as I’m in this department, I will ‘hold their feet to the fire’ to make sure this happens,” she says. “We won’t let go of this as Jews or South Africans. Sometimes in South Africa there is selective memory, but history cannot be re-written, and it needs to be recorded. The treason trial and the Steve Biko inquest hold a ‘dark place’ in South African history, but we can’t just let them ‘disappear’. We need to preserve all parts of history so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the

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