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SA Jewry providing care after the fire



On 31 August we woke up to the news that another deadly tragedy had occurred in Gauteng, when a building in the Johannesburg CBD, 80 Albert Street, caught fire, killing 77 people at the time of writing, and injuring 50.

This is the third traumatic event that the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has been involved in over the past eight months, following the devastating explosion in Boksburg over Christmas, and the explosion in Bree Street, also in the Johannesburg CBD, in July.

On Wednesday 6 September, we joined City of Johannesburg (CoJ) Speaker Colleen Makhubele and representatives of other faith groups, including several bishops, in visiting the site of the tragedy, offering prayers, and meeting victims. We sat in the road speaking with some of the survivors. There were people with severe injuries and a number had very young children. One saved her life and that of her week-old baby by throwing the child out of a window and jumping herself. We then visited the shelters and delivered further supplies. Each of the stories we heard were heart wrenching and devastating.

It reminded me of the 2008 xenophobic attacks in our country, when thousands of foreign nationals were housed in police stations and other public buildings serving as temporary shelters – people who had nothing more than the clothes on their backs, their faces etched with fear. Nothing can prepare you for the bewildered and frightened faces of the victims of these tragedies. On our visits to the shelters, we saw people whose worlds have fallen apart. They have seen death around them, many are dealing with severe injuries and burns, all their possessions are lost, and some fear that at any moment, they will be deported to countries that for a variety of reasons, they fled from.

The SAJBD is committed to assisting whenever and wherever a disaster occurs. We don’t get involved in the politics, the mudslinging, the blame games. We want only to find ways to ease the burden of these traumatised people, to bring some relief, and try to alleviate their suffering.

The SAJBD has a policy in these situations not just to arrive with aid, but ensure that we provide exactly what’s required and that our relief is targeted and effective.

For example, on Friday, we ascertained through our network at the CoJ that there was more than sufficient food and what was needed were blankets and nappies. The SAJBD’s Clive Mashishi found out the exact quantities and sizes of nappies required, which were delivered, along with 200 blankets supplied by Fingertips of Africa. When we reached the shelter, we engaged with the authorities and constructed a list of further items required which we immediately filled.

Seeing little children running around the shelter touched us deeply. What these little ones had been exposed to in the previous 24 hours is shattering. We immediately arranged for balls and toys to keep them occupied.

We were able to engage with authorities from CoJ and the province, who are extremely grateful for help from South African Jewry, that we are committed to providing assistance.

As with the Boksburg disaster, the SAJBD will remain involved well after the cameras have lost interest. In Boksburg, we were there to support families with food and emotional support long after the explosion. We held the families through the funerals, providing catering, and working with the incredible Pastor Tshepo Mosala to give spiritual support.

There’s a long and traumatic road ahead. The SAJBD, working with the amazing outreach organisations in our community, will continue to provide assistance as the victims start to piece their lives together.

  • Wendy Kahn is the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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