Rabbi Liberow brought back from the brink

  • RabbiLiberowrecovering
Much-loved Johannesburg rabbi, Mendel Liberow, 58, said his recovery from the coronavirus was “miraculous” after weeks of uncertainty and a brush with death.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Apr 30, 2020

The humble and private rabbi of Torah Academy Shul shared his moving journey of recovery at a time when the community is desperate for uplifting news.

“It’s a miracle,” he said. He is filled with immense gratitude to Hashem and the Netcare doctors and nurses who “went above and beyond the call of duty” to save his life. He is also thankful to the community who steadfastly prayed for his recovery.

Liberow is described by those who know him as “highly respected”, and someone who always has a kind word or an inspiring story to share. He was the last rabbi of the Springs Jewish community, and has been a kashrut supervisor for the Union of Orthodox Synagogues for almost 30 years.

His scrape with death early in the pandemic brought the dreaded virus right into the community’s bedroom. It’s understood he contracted the virus after attending his nephew’s wedding in Crown Heights, New York, the epicentre of the virus in the United States, in early March.

He arrived back in South Africa on Purim on 10 March feeling fine. There were a reported seven positive cases of COVID-19 in the country (there are currently 4 996 reported cases and 93 deaths from the virus). At that stage, South Africans were beginning to distance themselves socially, airports were screening the temperature of travellers, and hand sanitisers were in high demand. On that day, Italy imposed a nationwide travel lockdown, but it was early days for South Africa.

That night, he partook in the traditional Purim seudah (feast) in shul where there was a large gathering of people who sat together. “The miracle is that no one contracted the virus [on that evening], no one picked it up,” he said.

He said the congregants were notified immediately when he was found to have COVID-19, and all of them went into self-isolation.

On Sunday, 15 March, the number of cases in South Africa had risen to 61, and Liberow had developed a cough. It was suggested that he be tested for the virus.

The last thing he remembers is laying tefillin (worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers) with his son-in-law, Rabbi Levi Avtzon of the Linksfield Senderwood Hebrew Congregation.

Everything after that is a blur.

That night, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster, and Liberow was admitted to hospital, initially with a suspected case of pneumonia, but his test results later revealed he had contracted the coronavirus. X-rays of his lungs revealed him to be in critical condition. His symptoms got much worse, and he required machines to help him breathe and oxygenate.

He recalled what he could of his experience while being heavily sedated. “It all becomes hazy. I was in no state to feel fear. I woke up maybe two weeks later in the intensive-care unit. I had no idea what was going on, there was a lot of confusion, I had lost track of time.

“I was floating and travelling throughout the world visiting relatives in different places. It was a dreamlike state in which I never felt alone.”

He said he felt the constant presence of his oldest son, Yossi, next to him throughout the ordeal, and recalls his wife, Yaffa, visiting him one Sabbath. But none of this happened. He was allowed no visitors during his stay in hospital, much of the time in the intensive-care unit.

“I can only say they must have been a series of visions or dreams. To me they were real, but as it turned out, they weren’t”.

Liberow fought for his life, and eventually his fight took a turn for the better.

Later, when he was able to speak, he was comforted by the fact that people had been praying for his recovery around the clock. It gave him strength.

Family members visited the holy resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson in Queens, New York, and prayed for him there.

He recalls the doctor taking out the tubes when he was recovering saying, “Shalom aleichem” (peace be upon you) which isn’t a typical greeting from a doctor. He responded with, “Aleichem shalom”.

The doctor then said, “It’s going to be good. Mazeltov!” It took a while, but I then recognised the doctor with his mask, visor, and goggles. I asked him to share a d’var Torah (talk) with me. He thought for a while, and then quoted a five-word prayer which pertains to healing. I felt exalted.”

Liberow feels renewed spiritual vigour. “The more you see and hear, the more you know with certainty that G-d is in control of this world,” he said.

“The purpose of any challenge in this world isn’t only to get through it, but to go onto a higher level to something bigger and greater. Our duty is to continue to pray for everyone to be saved, helped, and fully recover.”

He recalls crying on two occasions. “When the doctors advised me not to lay tefillin in hospital, it wasn’t easy for me. Later, I heard that a Johannesburg businessman undertook to lay tefillin for the rest of his life when he heard of my recovery and distress at not being able to do so. This moved me to tears.”

By Pesach, the Manchester-born rabbi who has eight children, five of whom live in South Africa, was able to sit up and eat. His wife dropped off traditional foods for him, and he conducted a seder alone “with matzah and bitter herbs”.

He was discharged after being in hospital for just less than a month.

Avtzon told the SA Jewish Report, “As a family, we are beyond grateful to Hashem and the medical community for literally bringing my father-in-law back from the brink.

“The care and the prayers he received across the community really made a difference, and to have him back to full health is miraculous. It’s something in this time with so many challenges to see the hand of Hashem. To see such miracles isn’t only refreshing, it helps you regain your optimism and strengthen your faith,” Avtzon says.

“Beyond all of that, we are grateful to have him home.”

2 Comments

  1. 2 karen brower 08 May
    how inspiring.  Mazaltov Rabbi! To you and your family who never failed to uphold your beliefs during this time makes you a true Mensch and am honoured to be a fellow Jew.
    Wishing you a speedy revovery; keep safe; and enjoy Shabbos tonight with your beloved family.
  2. 1 Aaron Makoeng 13 Jul
    THAT IS ONE OF GOD'S MIRACLE

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