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Professor Mervyn Mer: making the impossible possible

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No matter the odds, Professor Mervyn Mer believes that what sometimes seems impossible might not necessarily be so.

“The expression ‘nothing is impossible’ is often bandied about, but I like to turn it around so it reads: impossible is nothing.”

Mer shared this and other insights at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards this past Sunday after being awarded the Absa Professional Excellence in the Time of COVID Award at the virtual ceremony.

This principal specialist and head of intensive care at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital was recognised for his herculean efforts in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, with associates and colleagues paying tribute to him for his work on the frontline.

“He is amongst the top representatives of our continent,” said Gauteng Premier David Makhura. “I had the responsibility of putting together the COVID advisory committee, and I had the honour of appointing Mervyn to the committee.

“I had no doubt that on that committee we had one of the top minds on our continent.”

Indeed, Mer was a key figure in the drive to better equip the hospital to battle the dreaded virus weeks before it hit the country, drawing up numerous health protocols and doubling the size of the hospital’s intensive-care unit (ICU) in record time.

“Mervyn is a leading light in the field today,” said Mer’s brother, Hilton. “He has really made an impressive and lasting contribution during the COVID period. He understood that there would be a significant need for ventilators and that the country was desperately short of the equipment.

“He did a lot of canvassing in corporate South Africa to lend assistance and support the need to buy these ventilators. He sourced and arranged 300 ventilators for South Africa, a number of which were used in his unit, but many also distributed around the country for the benefit of others.”

Other personalities attested to this fact, among them the minister of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (whose brother Mer tended to in hospital), as well as Carol Furlonger, senior nursing sister and unit manager at the hospital.

“He managed to get that ICU ready in six weeks, which is unheard of within state,” Furlonger said. “He saved one of my own staff, and got her into ICU. If it wasn’t for him, she would be dead. Mervyn does this for every patient. Every single patient.”

Head of clinical haematology at the hospital, Professor Barry Jacobson, agreed that Mer had undoubtably been a stalwart in managing COVID-19.

“He put the ICU on the map, got outside funders, and stood at the forefront of managing patients,” Jacobson said. “He’s there in times of crisis and other times as well.”

“I’m a bit sad that the award is only for excellence in terms of COVID. It should be excellence in terms of excellence.”

In accepting the award, Mer said that the honour was really about a collective and cohesive effort on the part of all healthcare workers who had been champions of care during the pandemic. He paid tribute to all doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals, laboratory staff, administrative staff, security personnel, porters, catering staff, and others.

“All the nominees, too, are outstanding contributors and heroes, and this award is accepted on behalf of all of them and all those who have been involved in this pandemic.”

In addition to his family, Mer thanked those who had supported his medical initiatives, pointing out that there had been many valuable lessons learned over the past few months.

“Communication is pivotal in all walks of life,” he said. “Preparation is paramount – it helped us cope with this pandemic.

“I’ve always been an advocate of keeping things simple. If you do the simple things well, you’re likely to have a successful outcome most of the time. If we knew everything, it would be easy, and I guess that’s why it’s called life experience.

“We keep learning all the time, and it’s no different with COVID.”

Mer stressed that all we do should be done in the most human way, in the spirit of ubuntu, “a wonderful South African philosophy which means to be compassionate and humane. This is a philosophy well known in our community,” he said. “You need to be a mensch.”

“Working in critical care, I always like to say: it’s critical to care.”

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Achiever Awards reimagined

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It’s official: not even a pandemic can stop the South African Jewish community from paying tribute to the heroes in its midst.

Against a background of social distancing and sanitisation, thousands came together last Sunday for the most iconic iteration of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards in its 22-year history.

Instead of gathering in person at a decked-out venue, guests participated in an evening of glamour and fine dining from the comfort of their own home for the first ever online version of the annual awards ceremony.

Other than hundreds of paying and invited guests, between 30 000 and 60 000 people from around the world also watched the spectacular event on YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, and Zoom.

No effort was spared to ensure that the evening was as enthralling online as it would in person. In the run-up to Sunday night, couriers shuttled staggering numbers of cocktail packs to each individual guest’s home, making sure that the annual Achievers magic wasn’t lost.

Gin, tonic, and prosecco flowed freely in homes across South Africa as participants prepared to watch a livestream of the awards ceremony, ready to raise a l’chaim as they cheered the winners.

As if this wasn’t enough, many guests who would otherwise have reserved a table at the live event also had a lavish three-course gourmet kosher meal delivered to their doorstep. Arriving in a sleek cylindrical box, the spread included tantalising entrees, a mouth-watering main course, and even an array of sweet treats to accompany the evening’s viewing.

The meals were catered by Maxi Kosher Discount Butchery and styled by Dolores Fouche under the strict supervision of the Johannesburg Beth Din. Added to the food, there were beautiful fabric placemats, napkins, face masks, and even the traditional Achiever kippa for participants. Each featured the artwork of renowned South African artist Kim Lieberman.

The evening began with an exclusive red-carpet event presented by Dina Diamond, with various nominees joining her virtually to chat before the ceremony got underway. Excitement mounted as the red carpet concluded at 18:00 when the Awards ceremony began.

“For the past 21 years, we have gathered in hotel boardrooms and convention centres to celebrate the remarkable and disproportionate contribution made by the Jewish community to the development of post-apartheid South Africa,” said Howard Sackstein, chairperson of the SA Jewish Report and the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

“When we started planning tonight’s event more than a year ago, we didn’t expect to be playing hide and seek with a virus. We didn’t predict that the world would be gripped in the vice of a worldwide pandemic that has so sadly claimed the lives of so many in our community.

“This year, we cannot just recognise nine winners. We as the board of the SA Jewish Report feel the need to pay tribute to literally hundreds of South Africans who have been an ohr lagoyim [a light unto the nations].

“Tonight, we announce our roll of honour to recognise and pay tribute to the many South Africans who have sacrificed so much for a better South Africa during the pandemic of 2020.”

That list was both extensive and illustrious. This year’s winning personalities included seasoned entrepreneur Liran Assness, the chief executive of holding company Sekta and recipient of The Kirsh Family Entrepreneur Award; Ferrari icon turned cheese aficionado Jody Scheckter, who received the Art, Science, Sports and Culture Award; as well as Wendy Fisher, acclaimed sculptor and philanthropic powerhouse, who took the Humanitarian Award in honour of the late Chief Rabbi, Cyril Harris.

Title sponsor Absa’s award categories recognised the accomplishments of renowned lawyer Professor Michael Katz with the Absa Business Icon Award. Professor Mervyn Mer, the principal specialist and head of intensive-care at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital received the timely Absa Professional Excellence in the Time of Covid Award, and Discovery’s Dr Jonathan Broomberg walked away with the Absa Business Leadership in the Time of Covid Award.

The Europcar Women in Leadership Award went to Pick n Pay group’s Suzanne Ackerman-Berman, and Professor Barry Schoub, retired expert in vaccinology and virology, was recognised for his contribution to humanity with the Kia Community Service Award.

Ninety-eight-year-old Sir Sydney Kentridge, whose lifetime in service of the law is nothing short of legendary, received the Lifetime Achievement Award in honour of Helen Suzman for his decades of service. Even Sackstein received a surprise award – the Lawrence and Karen Abrahamson Family Award for his efforts to connect the Jewish community with an array of webinars during the lockdown period.

Not even the annual event’s signature entertainment was dispensed with this year. Jewish comedian Gilli Apter kept guests giggling as compere, and the musical performances screened between each presentation were spectacular.

These included the melodies of singer Danielle Bitton and opera aficionado Yudi Cohen, whose performance of The Prayer shook the speakers in every home. They were joined by the toe-tapping yiddishe music of Caely-Jo, and even international Jewish-music sensation the Maccabeats.

Completing the line-up of musical magic was Choni G and six-year-old Bibi Shapiro (whose Avinu Malkeinu previously took YouTube by storm), and Jonathan Roxmouth of Phantom of the Opera fame.

In true Achiever Awards style, this once-in-a-lifetime event delivered an evening that not only paid tribute to the heroic personalities among us, but also provided a much-needed dose of positivity and joy.

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Wendy Fisher: looking for the light

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“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

The words of the late Leonard Cohen never fail to invigorate Wendy Fisher. An avid artisan and philanthropic powerhouse, she seeks out the light in the bleakest of times, striving to uplift not just herself, but those who are struggling most.

For this reason, Fisher received the Humanitarian Award in honour of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards this past Sunday.

Those who have witnessed her passion for philanthropy lauded her via video, including her father, the renowned Natie Kirsh.

“As a father, I’m expected to talk well of my daughter,” he said. “But I have something to say beyond what can be expected of a father.”

Kirsh said that Fisher wasn’t just a respected president of the Guggenheim Art Museum in New York, but also someone who had made a difference in the lives of thousands through an online university lecture programme she piloted earlier this year. Called Lockdown Academy, the project has given 3 000 people from around the globe a range of free and fascinating lectures every day.

“Wendy, I congratulate you on this award,” Kirsh said. “As your father, I’m proud of your achievements, and I believe that all your university listeners around the world join me in celebrating you receiving this honour. Well done Wendy.”

Fisher’s family and friends praised her commitment to others, listing her exhaustive array of philanthropic ventures aimed at uplifting and supporting the less fortunate.

“Wendy is South African, and her heart lives in South Africa,” said clinical psychologist, Dr Dorianne Weil. “She and her family found themselves in South Africa over the lockdown, and she offered herself and her resources in helping to uplift the many who were being affected by COVID-19.”

Fisher said she was humbled to receive an honour in the country where she feels most at home.

“Receiving this award made me reflect on my work over the past four decades, and how I’m directing my energy going forward,” she said. “This opportunity comes as we endure a global pandemic and the broader existential concerns it brings.”

In looking for inspiration to lead us forward, Fisher said she reflected on her youth, how she was raised, and how that influenced the path ahead.

“Coming of age in Swaziland was pivotal to who I am today. I remember our solitary house on the hill, the uneven dusty roads, and the bright starry nights. We didn’t have electricity in the early days, and had a fresh water tap in the garden.

“Our family values have always been to help others, so it was only natural that villagers came to retrieve fresh water from our tap. There are countless examples like this that left a lasting impression on my siblings and me, compelling us to continue to invest in community and philanthropy.”

Her parents’ values are imbedded in the family DNA, said Fisher.

“From my energetic, generous dad, Natie, I learned what it means to be a passionate visionary and entrepreneur,” she said. “His mantra is, ‘teach a man to fish’. People can build on the support you provide and become self-sustainable.”

From her mother, Frances, Fisher said she learned to prioritise family and look for opportunities to come together and really see each other.

“My mum’s wisdom is simply that when people sit and break bread together, their shared humanity is what’s felt, not their differences. Together with my siblings, we have carried the legacy of our parents forward, and I share this honour with them.”

Fisher encouraged others to seek their own inspiration as we look to the future.

“Teach a man to fish, to bring light where there is dark, to come together and build strong, vibrant cultures, and step up to help people in need,” she said.

“I hope you are inspired in your own journey to embrace our shared humanity for the benefit of all.”

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Michael Katz: trusted advisor who hardly sleeps

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When legal stalwart Professor Michael Katz begins a sentence with the words “with respect”, those who know him understand that respect is the last thing on his mind.

“He has an expression which those who know him means the very opposite of what he’s saying,” says Miranda Feinstein, senior executive of ENSafrica. “It starts when he says, ‘with respect’. And if he thinks you are behaving like a real nincompoop, he will say, ‘with great respect!’ and everybody around knows that there is no respect intended at all.”

Feinstein was one of many South Africans who paid tribute to Katz when he received the Absa Business Icon Award at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards last Sunday.

Katz, a highly regarded and sought-after corporate lawyer, was this year asked by the president of South Africa to be a board member of the national Solidarity Fund, set up to support the medical response, contribute to relief efforts, and mobilise the country in the fight against COVID-19.

Two years ago, he was called to work on the Nugent Commission, set up to sort out the South African Revenue Service. Katz is also the person behind reforming the country’s tax policy.

“His success doesn’t lie in any one particular case, but in that he has become the trusted advisor of business and public bodies who believe in him,” said Wim Trengove, the founding vice-chairperson of Thulamela Chambers. “He puts in a lot of attention at all hours, day and night.”

David Unterhalter, acting judge on the Supreme Court of Appeal, agreed. “It’s hard to know when precisely, if ever, Michael goes to sleep,” he said. “He’s not only a practitioner of extraordinary repute, he has also been a critical person for the purposes of reforming and developing the commercial law of this country, especially company and tax law.”

Katz has been integrally involved in Jewish community affairs in Johannesburg, offering guidance and advice to communal leaders in times of need. He has even played an integral part in the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre as board chairperson, said the centre’s founder and executive director, Tali Nates.

“He was so pivotal in everything we know about the Bill of Rights in South Africa and the way we look at human rights,” she said. “Michael always was our icon.

“As the idea of creating a Holocaust Centre in Johannesburg came about, there was no doubt that Michael was the right person,” Nates said. “His knowledge, love of books, and love of history of the Holocaust and genocide always enriches the conversation.”

Katz expressed his thanks, saying that receiving an honour from one’s own community was very meaningful.

“No one who has any achievement does it on his or her own. You need an ecosystem of supporters,” he said. “Mine includes my wife, a dedicated counsellor over 44 years of marriage. I have been truly privileged to have such a wonderful partnership.”

Katz paid tribute to his two daughters, and expressed his gratitude for the support he had received from his colleagues at ENSafrica.

He also offered some words of advice.

“The Jewish community is, unfortunately, a shrinking community, in a country that faces many challenges.

“What’s required? Unity. We need unity of the community. We have remarkable institutions in our community with dedicated officers and staff who care for the every need of the community, but they need our support.”

Communal unity is also fundamentally important to address poverty and inequality, Katz said.

“We need to support the country and the wider community in which inequality abound and where social justice is compromised,” he said. “We need to play a meaningful role, and hopefully, we can be agents of stability against a background of volatility.

“The SA Jewish Report has played a meaningful role in the era of COVID-19 in which people’s sense of well-being has been reduced. Howard Sackstein and his colleagues have spared no effort in endeavours to uplift the morale of the community when it really needed it,” Katz said.

“When one has the privilege of serving one’s people, one must grasp it with both hands.”

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