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Out with the old, in with the new

The sweetest time of year is upon us, quite literally: it’s Rosh Hashanah. And while I know most families have standard holiday dishes that they make year after year, sometimes it’s nice to swap in a new appetizer, alternating main dish, or a quick but delicious new dessert.

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SHANNON SARNA

Trade in your beetroot and apple salad for my sweet beetroot latkes. Instead of a brisket, try my slow-cooked pomegranate lamb stew. And if you want the easiest, cutest apple dessert, you’ve got to try my friend Sheri Silver’s easy as apple pie cookies.

Wishing you and your family a sweet and delicious new year.

Appetizer: Beetroot and sweet potato latkes

There’s no reason to save latkes for Chanukkah. And beetroots are actually a traditional food to enjoy for the New Year, which makes these appetizers the perfect symbolic, sweet, and satisfying dish to serve at the holidays.

Ingredients:

2 medium beetroots

1 small sweet potato (can also use two carrots)

1 medium Idaho potato

2 eggs

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

1 teaspoon salt

Additional sea salt for sprinkling

Directions:

1. Peel beetroots, sweet potato, and potato. Cut each in half. In three or four batches, place vegetables through a food processor for a coarse grate (you can also grate coarsely by hand).

2. Place mixture in a large bowl. Add eggs, flour, thyme, and salt.

3. Heat about ¼ cup vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Form bite-size mounds of latkes, taking care not to squeeze too much liquid out of the latkes. Fry until brown and crispy on each side, then place on a wire rack on top of a baking sheet to cool. Immediately sprinkle with an additional pinch of salt while they are still hot.

4. Serve warm with applesauce, if desired.

Main dish: Lamb stew with pomegranate

Brisket is the quintessential American Jewish dish for holidays. But in Israel and for Sephardi Jews, lamb is a far more common main dish to serve on special occasions. This lamb is sweet and savoury, and actually takes less time to cook than a brisket. It’s perfect to serve on top of fluffy couscous or rice, and it’s particularly striking due to the jewel-toned pomegranate seeds and fresh herbs on top.

Ingredients:

3 pounds (1.3kg) lamb stew meat, cut into two inch (5cm) to four-inch (10cm) pieces

1 large onion, sliced

3 garlic cloves, minced

1-2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

3 cinnamon sticks

2½-3 cups water or stock

3 tablespoons pomegranate molasses, plus extra for drizzling

1 cup pomegranate seeds, divided

Fresh parsley, mint and/or cilantro for serving

Directions:

1. Heat a heavy casserole with a little oil over medium-high heat. Sear lamb pieces on each side until lightly golden.

2. Remove lamb.

3. Add onion and sauté until translucent. Add garlic and sauté for another three minutes.

4. Place lamb back into the pot, and add salt, pepper, cinnamon stick, pomegranate molasses, and half the pomegranate seeds.

5. Add 2 to 2½ cups of water or stock, until the meat is covered. Bring to a boil.

6. Reduce heat to low-medium, cover, and continue to cook over low heat for about two hours. Check on stew periodically, and add more water if needed. The lamb should be fork tender when it is done.

7. Serve stew over couscous or rice. Drizzle the top of the stew with additional pomegranate molasses (about 1-2 tablespoons), the remaining pomegranate seeds, and freshly chopped herbs such as parsley, mint, and/or cilantro.

Dessert: Easy apple pie cookies

By Sheri Silver

This recipe comes straight from a dear friend and colleague, who always knows just how to make dessert easy, adorable and delicious. The secret to these cookies is a rich crumble topping and store-bought pie crust.

Ingredients:

For the streusel:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

¾ cup flour

¼ cup light brown sugar

¼ cup white sugar

½ teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of kosher salt

For the filling:

2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and diced

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Juice from one lemon

Pinch of kosher salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1 store-bought refrigerated pie crust, at room temperature

Directions:

1. Make the streusel. Line a small baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine the streusel ingredients in a bowl, breaking up any large clumps, and spread onto your baking sheet. Set aside to dry. (Can be made a day ahead. Store covered at room temperature.)

2. Make the filling. Combine filling ingredients in a saucepan, and cook over medium heat, stirring until the mixture comes to a simmer. Cook for 5-10 minutes, until the apples are slightly softened. Remove from heat, drain the liquid, and cool completely. (May be made a day ahead. Store in the fridge.)

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (176 degrees Centigrade). Grease and flour a 12-cup muffin tin or line with parchment paper cups. Unroll your pie crust, and use a glass or cookie cutter to cut circles that are slightly larger – about ¼ inch (1.3cm) – than the base of your muffin cups.

4. Place the circles in the bottom of each muffin cup, pressing gently along the sides and bottoms. Spoon some apple filling into each crust, and top with the streusel.

5. Bake cookies for 20 minutes, or until streusel is golden brown. Cool completely in tins on a wire rack. Serve immediately or store, covered, for up to three days.

(JTA)

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An aliyah flight of biblical proportions

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It was an aliyah flight that came together as if guided by the hand of G-d. The South Africans, presently the pariahs of the world thanks to the COVID-19 variant discovered here, were told about it just less than 24 hours before. And it wasn’t just any flight they were joining, but an historic aliyah of Ethiopian Jews who had been waiting decades to come to the Jewish state.

“We were like the Jews leaving Mitzrayim,” says oleh Rabbi Craig Kacev, who read the Megillah in the middle of Addis Ababa Airport on Ta’anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). He spoke to the SA Jewish Report from Haifa, where he and his wife are in quarantine at the same hostel where 286 Ethiopian olim are isolating.

“It was fascinating and exciting to see first-hand the effort Israel makes to continue the ingathering of the exiles,” he said. “There was such joy in witnessing history.”

Liat Amar Arran, the director of the Israel Centre South Africa, says the flight was a “miracle”.

“We had a group of about 20 people who wanted to make aliyah, but there were no flights. Everyone told me to wait, but I said people have jobs lined up, or no place to live here, and I’m not giving up. Then this Ethiopian flight was approved – one of only five aliyah flights from around the world.

“Shai Felder, the head of the aliyah department, said he could try and organise a bigger plane from Ethiopia to add our olim, but he wasn’t convinced it could happen, and he said I might need to give up. I said I’m not giving up, I’m counting on this option,” says Amar Arran.

“I told the South African olim to go for COVID-19 tests as they might be able to get on a flight tomorrow. At this point, we were just praying. Everyone said I was crazy, that you couldn’t do this so last minute. I said I would rather wait till the last minute and try. Well, 12 people had COVID-19 tests, and there were 12 seats available on the plane. It was due to many good people working together that they got on that flight.”

“Getting to Israel was never certain,” says Kacev. “We were asked if we were willing to take a chance and have our COVID-19 tests last Wednesday [24 February 2021] in the hope that we would get on this flight. We did the tests, and late on Wednesday, we were told there was space on the flight going the next day. We had been living out of suitcases for weeks already in the hope that we could go, but from that point, it was still a complete whirlwind – but was also beautifully organised.

“We arrived in Addis after 20:00, and had to wait until 03:00 for the next flight. It was Purim night, so I leined the Megillah in the airport, which was packed, but we found a quiet spot.” Kacev says that while the Ethiopians had cell phones and were living a modern life, they also brought a lot of traditional food with them on the plane, as well as musical instruments.

“When we arrived in Israel, there was such rejoicing, with music playing, flags waving, sweets for the children – it was such a simcha.” The welcoming committee included Israeli ministers, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, and even former shaliach to South Africa Danny Adeno Abebe, who himself made the long walk to Israel from Ethiopia as a boy. As the new spokesperson for the ministry of absorption, Abebe told the SA Jewish Report that he was thrilled to see both Ethiopian olim and South Africans finally touch down on Israeli soil.

“It was so nice to see well-known and familiar faces,” says Kacev. “We walked down to the tarmac and were put straight onto buses with our luggage, and driven to Haifa. Because we are quarantining with the Ethiopians, we are being served their traditional food. We asked staff to ‘tone it down’ for us!”

While in quarantine, the Kacevs have been able to speak to their children (who have already made aliyah) through a nearby fence. Many of the Ethiopian olim have done the same, speaking to relatives who settled in Israel before them. “While we had the inconvenience of not being sure when our flight would be, I thought about how these olim from Ethiopia have literally been waiting years. It was so humbling,” says Kacev.

Sean Korb, who was also on the flight with his wife and two young children, says, “If there is one thing the past year has taught us, it’s that we aren’t in control of everything. As 2021 rolled in, we were ready with every document necessary, and were looking forward to being part of the second or third aliyah plane of the New Year, but then Ben Gurion Airport was shut.

“Being thrown between excitement and disappointment was anxiety-provoking to a degree that we have never experienced. Every flight was an option but not an option. Frankfurt, Turkey, Ethiopia were all options, but not for us South Africans. Permission was needed by the Israeli government to allow us to enter on those flights.

“On the morning of 25 February, we had said we will go when we need to go – we cannot push the river anymore. Just a few moments later, we received a call that there was one more option: to fly together with a group of Ethiopians the following day. We were warned not to get our hopes up, but asked to get our COVID-19 tests just in case. Hours later, we received the news that we had made it onto the flight and would need to be at OR Tambo International Airport for our flight leaving in less than 24 hours.

“The rest of our experience was filled with more extremes: the kindness and hospitality of regular Ethiopians helping us with our pram and luggage as we got off in Ethiopia, but also the ruthless security who checked our bags and wanted our son – who was a day away from his first birthday – to walk through security alone. Our pram was taken away twice to be inspected.

“But we made it. Our baby boy turned one in an Ethiopian airport, on Purim, during a pandemic, on our way to Israel. Now we sit in quarantine in a hotel in Haifa, with staff working tirelessly to ensure that more than 400 people are taken care of. We will never forget the way we made our way to the place we want to be.”

Korb says they didn’t realise how historic it would be to fly with this group of Ethiopians. “We didn’t know how many people it was going to be, but it was literally an entire plane filled with young and old. The kids wanted to interact with our two children, and it was incredible to see them play together. There was also a lot of chaos. Everyone wanted to get onto the plane, and was excited and nervous.”

He emphasises how “incredible” Amar Arran and aliyah consultant Ziva Taitz were throughout the experience. “They literally didn’t stop, working 24 hours a day trying to get us to Israel,” Korb says. “They helped us to deal with our expectations, not get our hopes too high, but also to keep up hope. They were professional, organised, and are still helping us. So a huge kol hakavod to them, and their team. We count ourselves extremely blessed to have arrived in Israel on this historic flight.”

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Sacks lifts the lid on massive Prasa-related corruption

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Forensic accountant Ryan Sacks last week blew the cover on alleged corruption and financial irregularities within and without the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), exposing for the first time how billions in tax payers’ money was stolen.

Sacks opened a Pandora’s box into corruption during his explosive testimony at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into State Capture before Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo.

What was only meant to be a two-hour appearance at the commission turned into almost two days of riveting testimony. Evidence leader Vas Soni questioned Sacks about his findings into Swifambo, the now liquidated local company behind the notorious, ill-fated, multibillion rand tender to procure locomotives.

Four years ago, the Hawks commissioned Sacks, 43, the director of Crowe Forensics SA to present a cashflow analysis of the corrupt Swifambo tender. He presented his report, which revealed outrageous movements of funds linked to Prasa’s contract with Swifambo Rail Leasing (SRL).

His preliminary report alleged financial irregularities masterminded by a widescale web of corrupt activity within and outside the stricken government-owned entity. However, at the time, his report seemingly fell on deaf ears, he told the commission.

He asked police to furnish him with further information to complete his analysis. He was again ignored, and has not heard from the Hawks regarding Swifambo since.

Last week, however, Sacks was heard loud and clear when he presented his report after being summoned to do so. His report – until recently kept highly confidential – was presented to the public for the first time.

The report revealed the astonishing movement of funds linked to Prasa’s corrupt contract with SRL, a local company set up only a year before Prasa first advertised the tender. This was under the watch of then Prasa Chief Executive Lucky Montana, who oversaw the shady acquisition.

SRL was the front company in 2012 that clinched a R3.5 billion contract to supply 70 locomotives to Prasa. It had no track record in the rail industry. Swifambo, merely acting as a middleman in the corrupt deal, ordered the locomotives from Spanish supplier Vossloh España.

Prasa ended up paying Swifambo R2.6 billion and in return, received only 13 Afro4000 diesel-electric locomotives. These trains were too tall and totally unsuitable for South African rail specifications, as revealed by Rapport newspaper.

Sacks’ testimony exposed the hundreds of millions in tax payers’ money that should have been used to supply Prasa with new trains but was instead diverted. The money went to Auswell Mashaba, Swifambo’s former managing director, and businessman Makhensa Mabunda, as well as to several entities, high ranking public officials, and individuals linked to them.

Mashaba failed to appear before the commission last week in spite of being served with a summons.

“Last week was the first time that the public and a judge has had the opportunity to hear and see evidence of actual cashflows. It was the first time this real evidence has been produced,” said Bernard Hotz, commercial litigator and head of business crimes and investigations at Werksmans Attorneys.

“Instead of false allegations about Werksmans being a white monopoly capital law firm that was unlawfully appointed to investigate Prasa, the public and the judge focused on the large-scale theft of billions from Prasa, and got to see where those billions went,” Hotz told the SA Jewish Report this week.

According to Sacks, Werksmans Attorneys was appointed by Prasa in 2015 to conduct a forensic investigation into various instances of irregular, fruitless, and wasteful expenditure incurred by Prasa, which had been outlined by the auditor general. Crowe Forensics was appointed by Werksmans as expert forensic accountants to assist it. Sacks was appointed by the Hawks to perform a cashflow analysis relating to the Swifambo tender debacle.

Sacks’ testimony last week revealed how Swifambo funnelled about R80 million of its Prasa earnings to Maria Gomes, an Angolan businesswoman with strong ties to former President Jacob Zuma, and to George Sabelo, a lawyer also with close ties to Zuma. Mashaba has stated in an affidavit that Gomes and Sabelo were introduced to him as fundraisers for the African National Congress. Mashaba allegedly took a handling fee of R8 million for this.

“My report shows payments linked to Mashaba amount to millions,” said Sacks.

The Jacob Zuma Foundation was also shown to have received thousands of rands from Swifambo.

Swifambo was going to earn only about R118 million from the entire deal, according to the contract. Of the R2.6 billion Prasa paid Swifambo, Vossloh had received R1.8 billion.

About R600 million was pocketed by Swifambo, and disbursed inter alia to a number of beneficiaries.

Mabunda received more than R50 million from Swifambo, and was paid a further “consultancy fee” of R88 million by Vossloh when the contract was concluded, records show.

Out of the first payments that were made by Prasa to Swifambo, Vossloh received its first payment only about 116 days after Prasa had paid out the money, the report revealed.

Before that time, there were a lot of payments to various beneficiaries, namely to Mabunda’s group of companies.

The company Sebenza Forwarding, to which former Prasa chairperson Sfiso Buthelezi (former deputy finance minister) is linked, was paid just less than R100 million, according to the report.

As background to the saga, in July 2017, Johannesburg High Court Judge EJ Francis ruled that Prasa had awarded the contract to Swifambo through a “corrupt tender process”, and that Swifambo acted as a front for Spanish manufacturer Vossloh. The court ruled that the contract needed to be set aside.

Swifambo took the matter to the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), where the SCA agreed that “the tender was procured through corruption”. It also affirmed the high court’s decision that Swifambo had been part of a “fronting practice”. The SCA confirmed that the Afro4000 locomotives Swifambo delivered to Prasa weren’t suited for South African railway lines.

“There’s a sense of vindication,” said Hotz, “At long last the public and Judge Zondo can truly understand admissible evidence and cashflows that show how much was stolen from Prasa and who benefited. It’s high time that people go to jail for this.”

Sacks told the SA Jewish Report, “The financial information shows that this whole Swifambo tender was one massive corrupt exercise. Officials running the state-owned enterprise wanted money and the best way to get it was through procurement and the vehicle within procurement was the tender. They set up fronting companies, gave false motivations for why they needed to spend money, and there was collusion on multiple levels to sign the multibillion rand contract. People allegedly stole money before making the first payments to the supplier, it was brazen.”

Sacks is busy doing a forensic analysis of the VBS banking scandal. We should be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

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Never bored at the board: Kacev reflects on 17 years of education

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For 17 years, Rabbi Craig Kacev deftly steered the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE) to financial sustainability, talent development, and academic excellence. And then last week, he fulfilled a lifelong dream.

He and his wife, Yael, joined 286 overjoyed Ethiopian Jews making aliyah. Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from his quarantine hotel in Haifa, Kacev reflected on his time at the SABJE.

A son of Pretoria, Kacev matriculated at Carmel College. He spent various periods studying in Israel and graduated with a B Compt from the University of South Africa. He was rabbi of the West Street Shul in Johannesburg for 12 years.

In 1996, he was approached by Rabbi Isadore Rubinstein to fill in for a teacher at King David Linksfield. Admitting that he was highly intimidated and uncertain of his ability to succeed, he took on the role, which he enjoyed, and became hooked on education. He taught Jewish Studies and some Business Studies and Accounting for two years, and was then made head of Jewish Studies at King David Victory Park.

The SABJE saw his potential. He was appointed acting director in September 2003 at the age of 32. The late Mendel Kaplan – a celebrated Jewish communal leader – asked Kacev to lunch at Shula’s Restaurant in Rosebank. “Mendel told me I was too young for the job, and not ready. I replied that Rabbi Moshe Isserles was appointed Chief Rabbi of Krakow at the age of 18. He too was young, but commented that he would get better at it every day.”

Kaplan committed to mentoring Kacev. “I got good community support from the word go.” Kacev became SABJE director in July 2004, among a young crop of communal leaders including schoolmate Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Michael Seeff, and Wendy Kahn.

Kacev giggled as he recalled indelible memories, many of which he “can’t repeat”. Once, the hydraulics failed on a school bus transporting learners from Yom Ha’atzmaut at Gold Reef City. The driver minimised damage by rolling backwards onto a bowling green and crashing into a pole. “When I got that call, I rushed to the scene, heart thumping,” Kacev said. “Thank G-d everyone was fine. It was a wake-up call about managing risk. We ordered new buses, and I learned that you can’t compromise on safety.”

He recalls convincing President Thabo Mbeki and Education Minister Naledi Pandor at the Union Buildings to retain Hebrew on the curriculum. But then, a rumour spread that Kacev was trying to ditch the subject. About 200 high school students marched on his office, demanding that Hebrew be retained. “That misunderstanding strengthened my faith in the system. Students were so passionate about their Jewish identity.”

The Josh Broomberg Affair in 2014 (when the pupil wore a keffiyeh at an international debating event during the Gaza War to support the Palestinians and the photo went viral) was a mammoth challenge.

“King David became a political football, and the community was angry. I received two petitions with 10 000 signatures each, for and against Broomberg’s actions. I was grateful for my board in those tough times. We headlined The Star twice that year!

“It’s much easier to resolve student conflicts than parent conflicts,” he said. Kacev had to mediate after a parent slapped a school secretary, who laid assault charges. He had to separate fighting parents at the tuckshop, and often dealt with grandstanding divorced spouses. One parent drove over another’s foot. He once had to lock a parent out of the school. He also found a huge beehive, where a teacher hoped to produce honey, tucked away on the edge of one of the schools.

“For every mad story, there were 100 good stories – kind parents, heroic teachers, and amazing kids who looked after their friends.”

So what kept him at the SABJE for 17 years? “King David schools offered a dynamic and ever-changing environment. I could never get bored. I had to keep checking myself, make sure I was making a difference. I got the opportunity to contribute and serve, and do big things while learning from some superb board members about leadership.

“I stayed because I learned so many new things,” Kacev said. “I became a transport manager, a school-uniform designer. I learned about legal issues in schools, and could use my financial background.” The secret to success is having policies and systems that are clear, he said.

The SABJE had precarious finances, with aging, neglected infrastructure when he took over. “I’m proud that in the past 17 years, we have always broken even and have invested substantially in facilities.”

Kacev visited the United States to see where King David schools could be improved. “Our mantra became ‘the best teachers, with the best curriculum in the most appropriate facilities’.” Building collegiality between the sometimes-competitive schools was also a priority.

“When the community was steadily shrinking and shul attendance was declining, schools became a centre for perpetuating Jewish identity,” Kacev says.

The schools sought to nurture Jewish leadership, and he’s proud of the learnership programme that has supported almost 40 ex-Davidians to become young, dynamic teachers.

“Building King David Ariel fulfilled another dream. We wanted a high-quality Jewish remedial school, and it has exceeded our most optimistic models. It’s so gratifying.”

He is most proud of receiving the 2014 Max M Fisher Prize for outstanding Jewish educators in the diaspora. “It was a big moment to receive the award from Natan Sharansky in Israel.”

“The year 2020 was another good example of amazing leadership and a supportive board. Looking back, I think we closed the schools too early, and closed the country too early. You must balance social, academic, health, and financial considerations. There’s no perfect decision. The department of basic education further confused things, being slow, gazetting unclear regulations, constantly making changes.”

Once online learning got going, it had to be in partnership with parents. “COVID-19 was like an MRI – it exposed our underlying societal problems. It did allow us to push technology. We leapt two or three years in six months. We will increasingly see technology used in teaching.”

Kacev is confident in handing the reins to his replacement, Rabbi Ricky Seeff. “He’s a King David graduate himself, creative, and the man for the moment. Having him in place made it much easier to leave South Africa.”

Kacev plans to stay in education. He is helping the SABJE develops its Chumash curriculum, mentoring and coaching South African educators and others, and managing a project on Jewish thinking skills. By May, he should be involved in a Jewish education programme with worldwide impact.

His final message is not to take our Jewish schools and communal institutions for granted. We need to support these bodies to sustain the vibrancy and viability of the South African Jewish community.

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