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Nine inspiring Jews who died in 2019

(JTA) The end of each year offers the opportunity to remember the Jewish figures who we lost over the past 12 months who left outsized impressions on our world.

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This year, there were victims of violence and old age, survivors who made it through the Holocaust to tell their fateful stories, and others who revolutionised their fields.

Here are some whose stories inspired us the most.

Harold Bloom

Born to Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox Jewish immigrants in New York City, Harold Bloom didn’t learn to speak English until the age of five. He would grow up to become one of the most influential American literary critics of all time, a fierce defender of the Western literary canon, and perhaps the leading authority of his time on what belongs in it. But he never shook his affinity for Yiddish, telling an interviewer shortly before his death that he still dreamed in the language of his youth. Bloom died on 14 October at 89.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye

When a gunman burst into the Chabad of Poway synagogue on 27 April, Lori Gilbert-Kaye reportedly leapt in front of the rabbi to shield him from the bullets. Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was the only fatality in the attack on the San Diego-area congregation. Remembered as a pillar of the community and a regular hostess of Shabbat meals filled with guests, Gilbert-Kaye was survived by her husband, Dr Howard Kaye, and their daughter, Hannah.

Robert Frank

Robert Frank was among the most influential photographers of the 20th century. His groundbreaking book, The Americans, was produced from 28 000 photos he took on road trips across the United States in the 1950s. According to The New York Times, the Nazi threat raging in neighbouring Germany during his youth formed his understanding of oppression. Frank died on 9 September at 94.

Peggy Lipton

Actress Peggy Lipton was descended from Russian-Jewish immigrants and raised in a heavily Jewish enclave on Long Island, New York, but she became the quintessential American flower child as the star of the crime drama The Mod Squad. In 1974, she married legendary music producer Quincy Jones, with whom she had two daughters including Rashida Jones, the actress and writer. She died of cancer in May at 72.

Moshe Arens

Over the course of his three decades in Israeli public life, Moshe Arens served as a legislator, ambassador, and defence minister under three prime ministers. Born in Lithuania, Arens emigrated to the United States in 1939 and served in the US Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Prior to entering politics, he was a professor of aeronautics and an executive in the Israeli aerospace industry. Arens died on 7 January at 93.

Herman Wouk

When Time put Herman Wouk on its cover in 1955, it found the Orthodox novelist’s blend of literary achievement and religious practice to be paradoxical. But over the course of his nearly seven-decade career, Wouk would help usher Judaism into the American mainstream through more than two dozen novels and works of nonfiction, several of which were adapted for the screen. He died on 17 May at 103.

Barbra Siperstein

On 1 February, the Babs Siperstein law went into effect in New Jersey, allowing residents to change their gender identity without proof that they had undergone gender-reassignment surgery. Two days later, the law’s namesake died at 76. Barbra Siperstein was a fierce advocate for gender equality and transgender rights. In 2009, after completing sex-reassignment surgery, she officially changed her Hebrew name from Eliezer Banish to Baila Chaya at a ceremony at her conservative synagogue in Freehold.

Yechiel Eckstein

History will remember Yechiel Eckstein as the man who raised hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly from Christians, for needy Jews in Israel and beyond. But to thousands of Jews in conflict zones who he helped bring to Israel, Eckstein was something of a guardian angel. Eckstein founded the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in 1983, and through a combination of pluck, charisma, and tireless legwork, made unprecedented progress in raising money for Jewish causes from evangelicals. In February, he died of heart failure in Jerusalem at 67.

Eva Mozes Kor

Eva Mozes Kor was born in Romania and, along with her twin sister, sent to Auschwitz in 1944. At the concentration camp, they underwent medical experiments at the hands of infamous Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. But Kor was not the type to hold grudges, even against Nazis. She publicly forgave Mengele, and made headlines in Germany for embracing Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening at his trial in 2015. Kor died in July in Poland while on a trip organised by the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Center, which she founded in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1995.

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Mental illness – ‘a pandemic of its own’

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“My brother was like a boxer, he took many knocks and would always get up. In the end, there were just too many, and he gave up the fight.”

These are the words of a grieving sister whose brother, an observant young man in the community, took his life two weeks ago.

Her name is being withheld to protect his identity.

“He took one punch too many, and the ongoing challenges got the better of him. Now, our family is left behind to grieve and mourn this tragic loss,” she said.

The untimely passing of this father of two has shone the spotlight on suicide and mental health in the community at a time when the suicide rate has risen dramatically in the country in the shadow of the pandemic.

“I know of four people within the community who have taken their lives in the past four weeks,” said Rabbi Eitan Ash. “This is a pandemic of its own, and I’m petrified that this is just the start.”

“I’m not a doctor or a virologist, but I spend a lot of time speaking to people in the community, and people of all ages are struggling emotionally and psychologically,” he said.

He said the community needed to address mental health as a matter of urgency “from the leadership all the way down” and make sure people knew that there was plenty of help at hand and nothing to be ashamed of.

“People aren’t seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, which is making them feel more desperate, leading them down a dark spiral of hopelessness and causing them to make terrible decisions,” he said.

Ash said people needed to see this side of COVID-19 – that depression is a disease, an illness that needs to be treated just like any other and above all, destigmatised.

“People are caught up in the medical side of COVID-19, but we need to pay attention to the psychological and emotional side as well. The psychological damage caused by quarantine, lockdown, and isolation is huge.

“Single people in the 25 to 40 age group believe there is something wrong with them when actually they just haven’t had a chance to jol and meet people,” he said.

It’s vital that the community embrace those suffering from depression, and give them a sense of belonging.

“We need to create a community brand that says no matter who you are, you are totally accepted, and we will help you no matter what your challenges are,” Ash said.

“My beloved son was driven to the point where he felt he had no way out. Something in him snapped. He had so much to give, and this is what makes it so tragic,” said the bereaved mother.

Reports this week indicate that Gauteng recorded 1 325 cases of death by suicide since April 2020, an increase of about 90% from the 695 cases reported during the 2019/20 financial year. A large portion of these include young people between the ages of 30 and 39.

According to Faith Mazibuko, the MEC for community safety, contributing factors include depression, anxiety, loss of income during the pandemic, financial difficulty, death of family members, and domestic violence.

Though the suicide numbers aren’t clear in the Jewish community, there has been a definite rise in those affected by anxiety and depression, say community-based social workers and experts in the field.

“The Chevrah Kadisha has 26 dedicated social workers dealing with hundreds of mental-health cases every month,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the Chev this week.

“We are keenly aware of this mental-health crisis in the community. It’s staggering. Though suicide numbers haven’t risen dramatically during the pandemic, depression and anxiety has.”

Dr Sheri Hanson, mental-health co-ordinator at Hatzolah, said this time of year is always difficult for those going through hard times.

“It’s always tricky and coupled with COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the fourth wave, it can seem relentless,” she said.

“We’re dealing with people across the board. Every age is deeply affected by anxiety and depression which is a phenomenon that has come off COVID-19. The elderly are facing challenges of isolation and loneliness, middle-aged people have lost jobs and income, and the youth has lost out socially.

“There’s a fine line between acknowledging your feelings and not being consumed and overwhelmed by them,” she said, pointing out that it’s important to engender a sense of hope, not judging, and to make sure that people know there’s lots of help within the community.

“We need people to know that all they have to do is reach out and help is available,” she said.

In September, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group reported that there were 23 known cases of suicide in South Africa every day, and for every person that committed suicide, 10 had attempted it. Before COVID-19, the organisation fielded 600 calls a day. As of September 2021, that number had risen to 2 200 calls a day – an increase of nearly 40%. Ongoing isolation, uncertainty, economic strain, bereavement, and loss have resulted in heightened anxiety across most ages including school-going children.

Ash said COVID-19 created a total disconnect. “People live their lives in a bubble. There has been little socialising and hardly any functions. The lonely feel lonelier, and people who would ordinarily reach out don’t even know when there’s a problem.”

For this reason, he and several rabbis in the community are encouraging people to reach out.

“Call a friend, reach out to your wider circle, make that call. That WhatsApp can literally save someone’s life.”

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Heartbreak and loss as the world slams doors on SA

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Sarah Cohen* was woken by banging on the door at 04:30 on the morning of Friday 26 November. She was visiting from the United Kingdom (UK) with her one-year-old son and looking forward to enjoying all that her former home city of Cape Town had to offer. But there was a taxi driver at the front door sent by her father in London. He was to take her to the airport so that she could get on a plane that her husband, also back in London, has just booked. In light of the new COVID-19 variant, South Africa was going to be put back on the UK’s red list, and she had to go – immediately.

“It was intensely stressful and terrifying. It happened so fast. When I went to sleep on Thursday things were normal. Then I was suddenly woken up by a cab driver pounding on the door. I checked my phone to find about a thousand missed calls and WhatsApps. My husband had booked us a flight home via Munich. We just chucked everything in bags and legged it to the airport, worried we’d miss [the flight]. It was the last international flight out of Cape Town!”

She is one of thousands who have been directly or indirectly affected by the new Omicron variant discovered by South African scientists. The heartache and loss resulting from the international knee-jerk reaction is unquantifiable. Family reunions forfeited, simchas cancelled, stranded travellers forced into quarantine, and businesses bearing the brunt of the travel bans are parts of its ripple effects around the globe. Many South African Jews and their families have been affected.

Cohen counts herself among the lucky ones. “My flight was literally the only one and it left two hours before they [the UK] officially put South Africa on the red list. That’s why I can isolate at home rather than being stuck in a hotel room with my toddler.”

Carole Levin and her family were looking forward to celebrating her son David’s wedding on 16 December. But that dream was shattered in the space of 24 hours.

“David and his fiancée Daniella (Dani) Hayman have been living in the Caribbean for the last 18 months, as he got a job there. They left Cape Town in July 2020. We all thought by December 2021 we would be able to safely have a wedding.

“In the meantime, Dani’s grandmother had a fall, and she came to see her at the beginning of October. Her plan was to stay until the wedding. David was booked to arrive on 6 December. On Monday last week the COVID-19 numbers started to rise. By Thursday we realised a fourth wave was imminent. We woke up on Friday to news of the UK travel ban.”

Amid frantic phone calls from family cancelling, they tried to bring the wedding forward so that they could celebrate with those who could still make it. The only date available was 6 December. It wasn’t possible, and so their summer wedding dream was over.

They then heard that the United States (US) was banning travel from South Africa from Monday 29 November. From enjoying the lead-up to her long-awaited wedding, “Dani had to get on a flight and leave. She was distraught, devastated,” said Levin. Amid tears, they helped her pack late into the night. The next morning she was gone, on a flight to Washington via Addis Ababa and Dublin.

It was touch and go, and she sent a heartbreaking message from the airport in Ethiopia saying she had made it onto the flight to the US. “It was a very emotional moment,” said Levin. She recalls so many times in Jewish history where crossing oceans meant getting to safety, and how holding off simchas in times of trauma is a part of our story. She remains hopeful that the wedding will take place in 2022.

Tessa Snitcher, who made aliyah in 2007, said, “My mom was coming to Israel to see her grandchildren, whom she hasn’t seen for two years. She booked on Turkish Airlines. She flew on 25 November at 17:00. By 20:30 there was a cabinet meeting in Israel. By midnight they had decided to close the border to South Africans. When I woke up 05:00, my mom called me hysterically, saying she wasn’t allowed to get on the plane to Israel from Turkey.

“I truly thought that they can’t stop somebody in mid-flight,” continued Snitcher. “I was in shock. They didn’t even give a few hours’ notice to allow people to get to a destination. I had no one to talk to. I called the airport, no one could help me. I called the health ministry, they couldn’t help me. The only person who has been truly helping olim is Dov Lipman and his organisation Yad L’Olim. He did everything he could to get my mom to Israel. But after many hours we understood that it wasn’t going to happen.”

Amid the chaos, they had to get her back to Cape Town. “It was extremely difficult, but she managed to get a ticket home. I think she was in the airport for 24 hours. We were so defeated and heartbroken. When she stepped onto the plane they said, ‘This is the last flight out of Turkey.’”

Snitcher says that Israel’s response to the new variant has hurt the very people who care about the country the most. “I made aliyah, I’m a Zionist, and I feel extremely embarrassed at how Israel treated South Africans. I don’t know when I’m going to see my mom again. I could cry from that feeling of desperation.”

Carla Stein and her husband Jared have had a tough year, losing two family members in a short space of time. They were counting down the days to a trip to Mauritius. But their dream turned into a nightmare of hours waiting in airports and on planes with small children, until finally they were allowed to fly. They landed on the island and were excited to be on holiday. That is, until they were told they weren’t allowed to leave the airport. This was even after they and their children had had multiple PCR tests, and the fact that they are fully vaccinated.

They watched in horror as passengers from other countries were allowed to head to their resorts, but as South Africans, they were forced to stay put. “There were about 15 or 20 police officers in uniform blocking the [exit]. It was traumatic. They had announced only 10 minutes before that all people flying in from South Africa were required to do 14 days’ quarantine,” said Stein. Negative PCR tests and vaccines didn’t matter.

After more hours in a hot airport, they were told they would have to quarantine. “We didn’t want to get shipped off to an unknown destination. The flight before us didn’t have to quarantine, but that’s what we were told to do.”

They were eventually taken to a hotel about 45 minutes away. Although their booked accommodation could ensure their isolation, they were transported to another hotel inland. “The next day my husband was told by someone, also in quarantine, that we were moving hotels. We weren’t even informed.”

They were moved again, but still not to their booked accommodation. The hotel room they are now in has a tiny veranda – a small saving grace. “We were eventually told that we will be here for seven days, and can be released after negative PCR tests,” said Stein. “But if someone is positive from the flight we will have to quarantine for 14 days.” They plan to continue with the holiday when they are let out. “It’s very hard being stuck in a room with a 19-month-old and an almost seven-year-old. But we have made it this far, and will try make the most of this experience.”

*Not her real name.

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Tackling tough topics with teens needs ‘courageous conversations’

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At some point in their lives, most parents will probably type “How do I talk to my kids about sex?” into an internet search engine. However, experts at a recent webinar warned that depending on the internet is not enough when it comes to talking to teens about sex, sexuality, pornography, drugs, alcohol, prejudice, violence, puberty, and other difficult topics.

More than 600 people registered for the webinar, hosted by the Chevrah Kadisha social services department, with many more watching on Facebook. This shows how many parents are looking for answers when dealing with these difficult questions. The Chevrah Kadisha also launched its new e-book, Courageous Conversations: Helping Teens to Talk and Listen, which includes advice from 22 local and international experts.

All of the experts on the panel said that avoiding ‘taboo’ topics with children and teens was a recipe for disaster, since the youngsters would then turn to other sources for information, which could lead them onto dangerous paths. Furthermore, “addressing the tough stuff makes our kids feel safer, it strengthens our bond, and teaches them about the world,” said educational psychologist Ashley Jay. “If these conversations begin at home, it lays a foundation for children to recognise situations that may be inappropriate. This makes them able to speak up.”

She emphasised that feelings don’t scare children – it’s being left alone with those feelings that scares them, no matter how old they are. These conversations must not be lectures, but rather a space where ideas are exchanged and the parent becomes an ‘active listener’. “This means lot of eye contact, follow-up questions, limited interruptions and communicating as clearly as possible.”

In addition, it’s important that you “be clued up”, as children and teens often have more knowledge than the adults do. At the same time, “it’s okay to not always have the answers in the moment. Be honest that you’re learning too, and challenge your own generational biases and prejudices.”

Clinical psychologist Yael O’Reilly said that “studies show that having honest, open, appropriate conversations with our kids about difficult topics actually leads to safer behaviour. Silence gives our kids the message that we’re not a ‘safe landing’ for them.”

When approaching these issues, “we first need to understand the needs of the generation that we are parenting,” she explained. “Teach through connection – that’s the golden principle for this generation. The approach of ‘you will do as I say’ no longer has the weight it used to. We have to be actively curious, engaging, and always working on meeting our kids where they are in order to form a trusting relationship.”

Have a “stacked approach”, she advised. “Information is buildable – so start small, start young, and build it up from there. When it comes to pornography and drugs, we need to be starting these conversations when they are seven, eight, or nine years old, and building on them slowly and organically. This means we use everyday events as connection points with our kids. For example, when you see someone smoking a cigarette, ask them what they think. At a simcha, ask what it means to them when they see people drinking,” and so on.

When they are young, it’s about introducing the distinction between safe versus unsafe behaviour. As they get older, parents can start to introduce ideas in more detail. “With pornography, older tweens (10 to 12) need to have a basic understanding of what it is. This means that they have to have a basic understanding of what sex is,” she explains.

“The conversation can look something like, ‘We need to make sure that we know what isn’t safe online. Have you heard of porn or pornography? These are online sites for adults where there are pictures or videos of adults doing sexual things. These sites are for adults who want to look at them. They are never for children, but there’s no control over who clicks on them. So if this happens, what do we do? We close the page straight away and show it to mom or dad. Or if it’s being shown to us by someone else, we walk away and tell a trusted adult.’ So explain briefly what it is and what to do if they are exposed.”

Later on, this discussion can open up others about the negative messages embedded in pornography – “that it’s often violent or disturbing, sets unrealistic expectations of what sex is really like, and disregards the intimacy that comes with sex,” she explains. “When it comes to drugs, follow a similar format.”

Importantly, parents must create a ‘way out’ pact, where they tell their child that “you can call me at any time of the day or night and I will come and get you, no questions asked. This doesn’t mean you’re letting them off the hook, it just means that in that moment of vulnerability and potential danger you’re able to be a safe space for them.”

In addition, ‘no’ is only effective when balanced with ‘yes’. “Take stock of the ratio between yes and no in your home. Have some non-negotiables that are clearly communicated, but be open to negotiating everything else,” said O’Reilly. We need to remember that teens are going to make bad decisions. So expect it, “then set your relationship so that you can be the person that they can rely on in times of distress”.

Psychologist Dr Hanan Bushkin said that it was never too late to have these conversations, and that they should be part of general conversations about life. “Have conversations about values. When you say you should respect your body or others’ bodies, explain why. What are the values underpinning these instructions? The moment you explain the ‘why’, it makes the instruction much more palatable. Parents need to feel comfortable [about the topic]. If you’re uncomfortable, can you imagine what the message looks like?”

However, even if you’re not comfortable with the discussion yet, a factual conversation is better than nothing.

It’s important to portray sexuality as a natural part of being human – as natural as eating. “Explain that we all get hungry, and that’s not a problem. But we can direct that hunger at healthy or unhealthy foods or decisions. There should be no shame.”

“Teenagers are the most misunderstood people on the planet,” said Bushkin. “We treat them like children, but expect them to act like adults. Being a parent to a teenager is very hard, but being a teenager is hard too. This is an incredible opportunity to mould a child into an image you feel proud of. Having a front-row seat to your children growing up is an incredible gift and opportunity. Make your time count.”

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