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Powerful Jewish women who made history

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Lifestyle

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day (on Monday, 8 March) is #ChooseToChallenge, which conveys the message that people with power need to stand up against gender inequality.

Here are a few women who chose to challenge gender stereotypes. They will be remembered for being some of history’s most daring, influential, and noteworthy Jewish women, who left their mark on the world.

Golda Meir

Who can forget Golda Meir? Born Goldie Mabovitch in 1898, she was Israel’s fourth prime minister, and the first woman to be elected leader of Israel. Hailing from Kiev, she and her family emigrated to the United States (US) in 1906, where they settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She emigrated to British Mandate Palestine in 1921 with her husband, Morris Myerson, and settled in Kibbutz Merhavya.

Later elected to the executive of the Jewish Agency, Meir was active in fundraising to help cover the costs of the Israeli War of Independence, and became one of the state’s most effective spokespeople.

In 1948, David Ben-Gurion appointed Meir a member of the provisional government. A few days before the declaration of independence, he sent her disguised as an Arab on a hazardous mission to persuade King Abdullah of Jordan not to attack Israel. The King, however, had already decided his army would invade the Jewish state following the British departure.

Ben-Gurion would call her “the best man in the government”, and she is portrayed as being strong-willed and straight-talking. Meir was minister of labour and foreign minister for the Labor Party before coming out of retirement in 1969 – at the age of 70 – to lead Israel as prime minister.

Gertrude Elion

Gertrude Elion was a Nobel Prize recipient, biochemist, and pharmacologist who helped to develop medicine that treated leukaemia, malaria, AIDS, and kidney transplant rejection.

Born in 1918 in New York City, Elion was an avid reader from the start, and graduated high school at 15. While furthering her education at Hunter College, she lost her beloved grandfather to stomach cancer, leading her to choose chemistry as “a logical first step in committing myself to fighting the disease”.

Elion received her Bachelors in chemistry from Hunter College in 1937, but found work opportunities scarce for a woman chemist. After several unfulfilling jobs, she entered graduate school at New York University, receiving her Master of Science in chemistry in 1941. She found work as a quality control chemist at Quaker Maid Company, and then later as a research chemist at Johnson & Johnson. Elion finally found a rewarding and challenging career in 1944 as a research chemist at Burroughs Wellcome, a noted pharmaceutical company.

Although she never completed her PhD, Elion’s biochemical work resulted in chemotherapies for leukaemia, immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplants (azathioprine), treatments for gout, lupus, and severe rheumatoid arthritis, and the important antiviral drug acyclovir used to treat herpes. She received a Nobel Prize in 1988, and 20 honorary doctoral degrees.

Rabbi Regina Jonas

Rabbi Regina Jonas broke the religious mould, becoming the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi in 1935. Born in Berlin in 1902, she displayed a passion for Jewish history, Bible, and Hebrew in high school. Many people supported Jonas’s interests, among them the Orthodox rabbis Isidor Bleichrode, Felix Singermann, and Max Weyl.

Jonas pursued her studies, submitting a thesis on whether women could hold rabbinic office in 1930. The paper is the first known attempt to find a halachic basis for the ordination of women.

She didn’t follow the reform movement, which was willing to achieve modernisation by abandoning halacha, but wanted to deduce gender equality from Jewish legal sources.

She continued to pursue ordination, and after receiving it in 1935, she was employed in Berlin as a “pastoral-rabbinic counsellor” in its welfare institutions and even delivered sermons in more liberal shuls.

In 1942, Jonas and her mother were deported to Theresienstadt, and even there, she continued preaching and counselling. Tragically, they were later deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where it’s believed they were killed on the day of arrival.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Affectionately known as RBG, this diminutive and soft-spoken US Supreme Court justice (who died in September 2020) was a voice for gender equality and the rights of workers. She ruled on a landmark case that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states of the US. She was the second female Justice in the US and the first Jewish female to hold this position. She served 27 years on the nation’s highest bench.

When she began her career in law, women were treated worse than men. They were restricted by law, barring them from jobs, rights, even jury service. By the time she became a judge, she had made many changes to women’s rights.

In 1996, she overturned the men’s only attendance at Virginia Military Institute in the US.

Hailing from Brooklyn, she attended Harvard Law School with her husband, Marty, and was one of nine women in a class of more than 500. The dean asked her why she was taking up a place that “should go to a man”.

She was an academic star, but she battled to find work because law firms weren’t interested in taking on a woman even though she was recommended for a Supreme Court clerkship.

Her mentor managed to get her a clerkship in New York by promising a judge that if she didn’t work out, he would find someone else. That was her beginning.

Ginsburg – who died at 87 – was a woman who defied stereotypes.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus left her mark in the literary sphere. Born in 1849, she was one of the first successful Jewish American authors, part of the late 19th century New York literary elite and recognised in her time as an important American poet. She later wrote bold, powerful poetry and essays protesting the rise of antisemitism and arguing for Russian immigrants’ rights, and even called on Jews to unite and create a homeland in Palestine before the term “Zionist” had even been coined.

Famous lines from her poem, The New Colossus, are displayed on the Statue of Liberty and still welcome newcomers to America: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.”

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr, often touted as the most beautiful woman in the world, was not only famous, but Jewish and scientifically gifted to boot. Born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914, she was given her new surname by Louis B Mayer when she signed with MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) in 1937.

Although she achieved international fame as a Hollywood movie star, Lamarr wasn’t satisfied with acting. Between takes in her trailer and staying up all night at home, she practised her favourite hobby: inventing.

It is said that while the 26-year-old Lamarr was thriving in Hollywood in September 1940, Nazi U-boats hunted down and sank a cruise ship trying to evacuate 90 British schoolchildren to Canada. Tragically, 77 of them drowned in the frigid North Atlantic.

Lamarr, at this point a Jewish immigrant from Nazi-occupied Austria who had made America her home since 1938, was outraged. She fought back by applying her engineering skills to the development of a sonar submarine locator to protect Allied torpedoes from German U-boat fire. The system was called “frequency hopping”, in which torpedoes would “hop” between frequencies to avoid detection. Ingenious though her invention was, the US navy chose, for reasons unknown, not to implement her design. Although it did patent it, it never went further in the war effort.

The existence of Lamarr’s invention became known only in recent years, proving there was more to her than her beauty. In addition, the principles of her work are now incorporated into modern Wi-Fi, code-division multiple access, and Bluetooth technology, and this work led to her being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014.

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Habonim’s return to machaneh ‘a dream come true’

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The Habonim Dror slogan “Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders”, rang true this week, when the Jewish Zionist youth movement announced that it would hold a machaneh this December, taking the brave step of building something new and vibrant in a post-pandemic world. Machanot were cancelled last year for the first time in decades – a huge blow to movement morale.

In a video titled simply, “We are going home”, Habonim announced on Sunday, 17 October, that after 23 months of waiting, a machaneh will finally be held at its Onrus campsite. It will be called “Lachlom Mechadash” (To Dream Again) because the movement sees it as a dream come true. It will be shorter (from 9 to 20 December), with fewer people, and everyone will need to be vaccinated.

Rosh Machaneh Aaron Sher explained how this dream became a reality. “From the moment our va’ad poel [steering committee] for machaneh was elected this year, we were thinking about how we could make machaneh a reality. After consultation with medical professionals and those who have had summer camps overseas, many permutations of machaneh were drawn up.

“Some were on the more optimistic side, and some with more conservative thinking,” he says. “Throughout this time, the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] was holding meetings for the youth movements, the Community Security Organisation [CSO], and other community figures to discuss how machaneh could happen, often attended by [local virology expert] Professor Barry Schoub. A common point was the vaccination of adolescents. It left room for optimism for December. Without these meetings and the support of these communal bodies, December machaneh couldn’t happen.”

With the announcement on Friday, 15 October, that vaccination would open to 12 to 17 year olds in South Africa, “the va’ad poel and our staff were in a panic, but excited. A golden opportunity had fallen into our laps that would allow us to bring machaneh to fruition. It’s almost impossible to describe the happiness we felt.”

Asked about the impact of not having machaneh or in-person events, Sher says, “In a word, devastating. Habonim Dror thrives on in-person interaction. For generations, we have been a space for Jewish youth to come together to have fun, discuss world issues, create change, and become strong leaders. Online activities don’t bring the ‘Habo magic’ that we need to feel.”

Habonim Manhig Wayne Sussman says, “The impact of not having a machaneh last year or any major in-person events has been absolutely devastating. Not just to Habonim, but to all South African youth movements. Camps and in-person events are a core part of the South African Jewish youth experience. They’re one of the things which make our community so great, and it’s absolutely critical that our kids return to camp sooner rather than later.”

Since the announcement, he says, “I have seen a youth movement come alive. I’m seeing renewed vigour, renewed energy, which has been lacking amongst our very brave and committed youth movement leadership for the past 20 months.”

Sher says “a full COVID-19 protocol policy document has been prepared for our machaneh with the help of medical professionals and those who have successfully run summer camps overseas. This will be available as soon as our sign-ups are open so that all parents and madrichim know exactly how we are keeping safe before they sign up.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, we’ll also limit numbers, and we are going to launch this properly and open sign-ups only once we’ve properly engaged with community leadership and the CSO.”

“Vaccination will be required by anyone on the campsite, a negative COVID-19 PCR test will have to be presented on arrival, and general COVID-19 protocols will have to be adhered to,” Sher says. “Anyone who tests positive will have to isolate immediately and will unfortunately be sent home. Those who have been in close contact with them will have to isolate and await a PCR test.”

What will stay the same and what will be different? “Fortunately, with a vaccine blanket over our campsite, a lot of what we love about machaneh can continue,” says Sher. “There will still be ruach [spirit], Havdalah, the beach, and everything we love about machaneh, just with some slight adjustments.” The youngest age groups, Garinim and Shtilim, won’t be able to attend.

“Should there be a fourth wave during December, Habonim Dror is committed to ensuring that we are able to adapt or at worst cancel,” he says. “The safety and health of our campers will always come first. We will make sure that we make the correct decisions in the interest of our community.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, there’s a chance that we might have to pull the plug on this. But as long as that door is open, as long as kids know that if they get vaccinated, if they’re responsible, and if they really want to attend machaneh, we’re going to do what we can to give them best summer.”

Since making the announcement, “We have had an overwhelming response from parents, kids, bogrim, and ex-chaverim all over the world,” says Sher. “People have been reaching out offering support and services. I couldn’t be more thankful to our Habonim and Jewish communities. We’re going home.”

SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin says, “December machanot have, for decades, played a vital role in strengthening Jewish identity and building young leaders. Recognising the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to host these pivotal annual events, the SAZF created a platform that brought together youth movements, medical and security advisors, and stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of December machanot.

“Given the fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic, this assessment is continually being updated and we recognise that each youth movement must come to its own determination as to whether or not to move forward with camp preparations for 2021. We are committed to providing support and advice on how best to approach this complex decision in a safe and responsible manner.”

The mazkir of Netzer South Africa, Jason Bourne, says “Netzer has decided that it won’t be running a full, in-person summer machaneh this year. Instead, we will be running day camps in Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg. Though vaccinations are being administered and cases are declining, we feel that there are still too many unanswered questions to have a sleep-away camp. As things unfold and more people are vaccinated, we may open a small weekend sleepover element to our day camp experience for older, vaccinated participants only.”

A community leader, speaking anonymously, says “Bnei Akiva would love to have a camp at the end of the year but it’s looking at all the medical and logistical issues. No decision has been made and over the next few days, it will explore it all carefully and come to a conclusion.”

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Hatzolah’s invasion tour brings freedom back

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I’ve never thought of us as the invading type, we’re more “people of the book”, but for five amazing days, even if in our own minds, we invaded the roads of the Overberg region on the 2021 Hatzolah Cape Invasion Tour.

As a first-time invader, and yes, I have to say it, in a COVID-19 year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and how I would feel being in a hotel for five days with a group of guys, many of whom I didn’t know, and riding in a mask-less peloton. This was in addition to the real fear of whether my “pins” (legs) would hold up for the 500km of riding and more than 5 000m of climbing that was necessary to claim a full invasion.

What I hadn’t taken into account was the “Hatzolah factor”. Here is an organisation whose mission it is to care, keep our community safe, save our lives when called upon to do so, and in doing so, to help create “a future that looks brighter together”.

In some respects, the riding was secondary. The operation to keep the invaders safe in all aspects was the real show, and the stakes were high for Hatzolah, which has been our knight in shining PPE (protective) suits throughout the pandemic. And what a show it put on! Led by rosh riding, Mark Kruger; rosh logistics and anything else you could think of, Sharon Newfield; and rosh medical, Yudi Singer, the Hatzolah team of Bernard Segal, Justin Gillman, Albert Ndlovu, and Sisqo Buthelezi were simply exceptional. I can tell you from personal experience that to have Segal following you in a red ambulance and then pull up next to you and offer you a “red ambulance” (an ice-cold Coke) when you’ve been dropped by the group is really quite remarkable.

As were the unbelievable marshals who worked the traffic and kept us moving safely in every direction, and our bike mechanic, Sylvester, who kept our Dogmas, Canyons, and Treks rolling smoothly on the open road. An essential function for a group full of Jewish bike mechanics.

The riding was exceptional. From the spectacular descent into Gordon’s Bay to the golden fields of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from Pringle Bay to Villiersdorp and Hermanus, we were treated to the best of our beautiful country.

One of the biggest challenges for the invaders, on top of riding and climbing, was to return from the invasion weighing less and not more than when we started. Avron of Avron’s in Cape Town made sure that was almost impossible. The food was top class. How do I know? No one complained.

Not everything was smooth sailing. On day three, one of the more accomplished riders in the group, who was beginning to glow like a lava lamp, discovered that he had been shmeering himself with sanitiser and not sun block, but even that was quickly fixed.

And just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Each evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance of Pavarotti, Bocelli, and beautiful chazonis from one of – actually probably the only – multitalented rider on the tour, Ezra Sher.

I almost forgot. How do you know you’ve got Chabadniks on the ride? You have a shul set up complete with a Torah and guys lining up to put tefillin on in the morning. Love it!

From the COVID-19 tests that were required from all riders prior to arriving at Arabella, to the dedicated dining area, to the support teams and riders who made up the invading party of 2021 in a COVID-19 year, it almost felt normal. Like we were back.

This year’s tour was as much about the riding as it was about re-claiming just a little bit of our freedom that has been taken away from all of us over the past 18 or so months. It was about being careful, which allowed us to be carefree. It was about being part of a remarkable community of riders supporting the remarkable organisation that Hatzolah is. There aren’t many quotable quotes when one thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to the Hatzolah Cape Invasion for 2022, one springs to mind. “I’ll be back!” May the wind be at our backs.

  • Herschel Jawitz is on the board of the SA Jewish Report.

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From despair to reunion – COVID-19 travel lock opens

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“Please – next time he’s going to kill her! Help me get my daughter away from him and to the UK so we can keep her safe!”

“It’s just not fair! I can’t get anyone at the embassy to answer my emails! He’ll die before we get to see him!”

“My ex-wife isn’t mentally stable and I have been granted full custody by the court, but I can’t get a visa appointment to get my child to me in the US!”

“The South African High Commission said I should have applied for retention of citizenship but my Irish citizenship isn’t through yet and now I’m stateless. Dirco and Home Affairs won’t help, and my baby and I need to get home to her dad. Now what?”

“I don’t have it in me to carry on! It’s been nearly two years and will never end. I can’t bear the pain and the hospitals are just too expensive. No one here in Malaysia cares about me! Kim, please help me!”

Daily calls like these are the reason I do what I do around the clock. I find ways to get as many as I can to their loved ones. While most are elated that holiday destinations are at long last opening up, I empathise with those relieved that they are finally in sight of an end to the desperation they’ve been subjected to. For them, it has felt like an eternity since COVID-19 sabotaged their lives.

The calls and messages come in so frequently, I’ve seldom had time to reminisce over the successes of those I’ve been fortunate to help. It’s a blur of calming one individual after another. Each one has a story, and each story deserves to be patiently supported.

I take them on, but dare not take them in. Occasionally, I catch myself empathising too deeply, and have to remind myself that my shoulders need to remain strong to carry that person. Because later, another will need reinforcement to get through the night, and they will get past this moment.

Tourism isn’t simply about Mr and Mrs Newlywed being able to go on that dream honeymoon, or the kids getting to run on the white beaches of Mauritius. For me, it’s about travel agents eventually being able to feed their children; airline staff who have been sitting at home penniless getting that long-awaited call that they are needed back at work; hospitality staff at long last being able to feel the exhaustion they’ve missed from full hotels.

The list goes on of those who not only have taken far too many months of strain on their overdrafts, but who can wake up with a sense of pride and meaning they have long forgotten.

Embassy staff are slowly being granted permission to help as their hands are untied from the bans and regulations they had no say over. I feel for those always having to be the bearer of bad news. I know the relief of finally being able to deliver good news to the members of Community Circle Home SA for a change.

For many, it’s the injustice of it all that hurts them – being forced to pay the exorbitant cost of hotel quarantine in order to get home for someone who has lost their job, or having to stay two weeks in another country simply to get to their final destination, away from work, and risking infection at each step – these are among the issues coming to an end for South Africans.

Governments are slowly peeling away layers of regulations. The opening of these countries means fuller, cheaper flights. We’re seeing more cost-effective options for COVID-19 testing-to-fly allowed and in many cases, no testing at all. Right now, we’re mostly able to go where we want to, when we want to, at more affordable prices, and above all, with less stress.

For those who are fully vaccinated, the world has started to open up at a rapid pace. But for the vaccine hesitant, their choice is all but made for them as their need to get to loved ones in many cases depends on those two shots they weren’t sure they wanted to have. No one should be forced into a choice like that based on travel, but the alternative is a weight they cannot bear.

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our insatiable need for instant gratification, a need we’ve grown accustomed to having met. Most find the simple act of waiting their hardest battle. I wonder if we’ll remember the lesson thrown our way, or slip back into old habits, forgetting to appreciate each moment afforded to us.

The United Kingdom has finally removed us from the red list. The United States just announced that it is lifting our ban. Israel and Australia are following close behind. The vaccinated are being welcomed into more and more countries, with options for the unvaccinated fewer, but in some cases still possible with additional testing or self-quarantine. The pressure is slowly releasing. The stress of navigating the minefield of regulations is becoming easier to manage. We hold space for those who wish the country they need to open would “just get on with it”. Till then, Community Circle is here to help you to take that strategic pause, work through the regulations you need to navigate, and travel with you.

For those traveling, stay safe! Airports and destinations are filling up at a time when the virus is still active. As tourism opens, countries are experiencing spikes in their numbers and at any given moment, variants or bans can suddenly re-appear. South Africa still insists on a negative PCR test, which can prove difficult for those who recover from COVID-19 abroad and continue to test positive due to intermittent shedding. COVID-19 insurance cover is an essential, and I urge you to remain plausibly cautious when budgeting for trips abroad that may take an unexpected turn.

But above all, relish every new memory made with the loved ones you’ve missed so dearly, and spare a thought for those who will hopefully be allowed to enjoy the same thing soon.

  • Kim Kur is the founder and lead volunteer for Community Circle Home SA on Facebook.

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