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Second wave surges over community

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The second wave of COVID-19 is currently crashing over the South African Jewish community, leaving tragedy, despair, and fear in its wake. In Cape Town, one community member reported her relative’s funeral this week was delayed as there were “too many bodies” that needed to be buried.

“We are entering into the peak of the second wave in Gauteng,” says top Johannesburg pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg. “Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that it could be worse than the first wave, but it is. G-d help us as we travel this road.

“Multiple people in our community are being quarantined or isolated. There are much younger, sicker people, and they are scared, anxious, and fragile. The wards are rapidly over-filling. Healthcare-worker fatigue is the new norm.”

Eric Berger, the director of the Cemetery Maintenance Board in Cape Town, says, “We have seen a spike in the number of deaths over the past two weeks, and expect this to continue for the next five to ten days.”

Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, Chevrah Kadisha (Chev) Chief Executive Saul Tomson says, “The total deaths in December were up 37% compared to the five-year average”.

“The second wave seems to have affected our community with much greater force than the first,” says general practitioner Dr Orit Laskov, whose practice is in the heart of Sea Point. “At our practice, we are seeing huge numbers of people contacting us daily with symptoms and testing positive, and increasing distress. People aren’t able to care for loved ones. Patients are anxious about developing severe complications and needing to go to hospital.

“The virus is affecting almost all age groups and unfortunately, we continue to see irresponsible behaviour and choices resulting in ‘pods’ of infection among people in the community and whole families affected, with multiple deaths in one family now not uncommon,” says Laskov.

“People need to behave like we are in level 4 or 5 lockdown to protect themselves and their families, and any onset of symptoms must be taken seriously. Don’t be in denial. If it could be COVID-19 then it probably is COVID-19 at the moment,” she says.

The director of the Community Security Organisation in Cape Town, Loren Raize, agrees that the second wave has drastically increased cases within the community. “In June, we were taking care of 53 patients on our COVID-19 wellness programme. In December, at one stage we had more than 200 active cases to manage, many of whom had to be hospitalised, and sadly there have been a number of deaths. During the first peak, by day 10 the vast majority of patients were ready to come off the programme. This time around, we are taking care of patients for 14 days plus.

“On average, we service 90 calls per month, whereas in December, we had more than 360 calls. Over and above this, we sent a mobile logistics unit to service Plettenberg Bay and surrounds during this time, as well as assisting Hatzolah with cases of Johannesburg patients on holiday in Cape Town,” says Raize.

In Johannesburg, Hatzolah volunteers and staff say they are too busy working in the community to respond to questions, but that the numbers recorded on their wellness programme “say it all”. Just in the week preceding 8 January, they took on 225 new cases. Twenty-eight people were admitted to hospital, and 19 people were put on home oxygen.

Considering the statistics that Hatzolah puts out on a weekly basis, SA Jewish Report Chairperson Howard Sackstein has worked out that an average of 34.3 people in our community in Johannesburg are contracting the virus daily at the moment.

One community member in Johannesburg, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “The pain, aches, dizziness, nausea, and headaches are so bad that I cried. The isolation of being in a room alone for 14 days and the guilt isn’t for the faint-hearted.” She says her 10-year-old son has symptoms, and while an initial test came back negative, he will be tested again. “I wasn’t able to love, hug, or be a mom to him. He was scared, and I couldn’t comfort my precious child.” She is endlessly grateful to Hatzolah for monitoring them both daily.

Tomson says there was a decrease in community deaths in October and November, which was down year-on-year, but compared to the five-year average, there was a 17% increase in community deaths in 2020.

Within the Chevrah Kadisha’s residential facilities, “We have been blessed for many months to have no COVID-19 infections, which is miraculous. We are still being extremely vigilant with protocols. We’ve stopped in-person visitations, but digital visits remain very popular. Funerals have been very small.

“We have seen tremendous trauma with families not being able to attend funerals, spouses not being able to attend because they’re COVID-19 positive, and families overseas. Our bereavement counselling services have been there to support the community through this time, and it’s been very difficult. In some instances, families have been brought in special vehicles to the funeral if they are COVID-19 positive,” Tomson says.

“The Chev’s staff and volunteers remain committed in the face of danger. COVID-19 deaths present risk when collecting, preparing, and burying the deceased,” he says. “Credit needs to be given to those brave people – volunteers and staff – committed to burying with dignity and compassion in spite of the challenges they face.”

In Cape Town’s Highlands House Home for Jewish Aged, two residents have been lost to COVID-19 in the past week, and two have COVID-19.

The disease has had a huge impact on the small but strong Durban Jewish community. “Since the beginning of December, the community’s Crisis Management Team has monitored 106 people, with 15 having to be hospitalised. We are aware of many others in the community that we aren’t actively monitoring,” says South African Jewish Board of Deputies KwaZulu-Natal Council President Jeremy Droyman.

“At one stage, we were actively monitoring 60 people simultaneously. Currently, we have 32 active cases. Sadly, there have been six deaths.” Jewish aged home Beth Shalom has had two positive cases and one death during the second wave.

“One of the things that is probably under-reported is the impact of people not being able to see their loved ones when they’re in hospital, and tragically when they die,” he says. “This is having a big impact on families because normally they would have some time to come to peace with the passing of their family, and COVID-19 has meant the people are dying alone in hospital, which is awful.”

Institutions continue to battle the effects of the surge. “It’s been a really tough period,” says Shelly Korn, the director of the Glendale Home for Jewish Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in Cape Town, which lost two residents to the virus in 2020. “We had many of our staff sick all at once. We have been working with skeleton staff and are really struggling. We are also finding that people who have recovered and are coming back to work are battling with recovery. They can’t work full days, and have issues with energy and breathing. In terms of testing and personal protective equipment, it has been an expensive exercise.

“Now everyone knows someone who has been in hospital. Everyone knows someone who has succumbed to this deadly virus,” says Meyberg. “It’s time to stand up and be counted – wear your mask, keep a social distance, be responsible,” he pleads.

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2 Comments

  1. tanya

    Jan 14, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    and people travelled to cape town from Johannesburg on holiday. On holiday? How can this be allowed during such a pandemic.

  2. Chaim

    Jan 21, 2021 at 12:34 pm

    It’s just another symptom of the selfish entitled attitude of this community, by and large. Those among us who are responsible unfortunately are not protected from the irresponsible actions of others. It’s just a sad and tragic fact.

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What really happened in Israel this week

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It’s just gone 03:00 in the morning on Wednesday, 12 May. I’m hunkering down in a bomb shelter which doubles up as my study in Tel Aviv. I’ve checked a few times that the iron door and window are tightly shut. I can hear the sirens screeching overhead, followed by a pause, and then a massive explosion.

Just a few hours ago, I was outside on the streets, which are eerily quiet for this busy city.

An earlier night-time drive into neighbouring Holon was even more unusual. A main thoroughfare was cordoned off by police and firemen who were shouting into their cell phones and at each other. Half an hour earlier, a rocket had hit an empty bus and debris was lying everywhere. The glass windows of nearby shops had been completely shattered, and residents were coming to assess the damage. Four people are being treated in hospital, one of them a five-year-old girl.

It’s been chaotic since last Friday night, when clashes erupted outside the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. For five consecutive nights, the pattern has been pretty much the same. Muslim worshippers make their way into the Old City through Damascus Gate while outside, Israeli police and the army take up position. There’s even a section where the journalists stand. After the prayers, a group of youngsters inevitably start hurling water bottles, rocks, and glass at the officers who after a while, respond by charging into the crowd, arresting some of the protestors, and firing stun grenades. It’s predictable.

Hamas, the rulers in Gaza, are egging on the protestors. The announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he was postponing Palestinian elections – the first in 15 years – indefinitely, and blaming Israel for it, didn’t help. Neither did the fact that this is happening during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a heightened time of religious sensitivity. It also comes after the Supreme Court was meant, on Monday, to give a ruling on the evictions of about 70 Palestinians from houses in the contested East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah that Jews say they owned before 1967. The court has delayed the announcement of its decision.

But still, the result is the worst violence in four years, and it has quickly spread to other Israeli Arab localities. The city of Lod just outside Tel Aviv is in lockdown. The Israeli army imposed a state of emergency after troops had to evacuate some Jewish residents amid clashes between Arabs and police and after buildings, including a synagogue, were set alight.

At the time of writing, five Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed. The latter happened after Hamas fired an antitank missile at an Israeli jeep on Wednesday morning. One of the Israeli civilians killed was a pensioner who was too old to get to a shelter and who died alongside her Indian helper in their home.

Hamas has criticised Israel for trying to change the status quo in Jerusalem, but Israeli soldiers insist they are reacting only after coming under fire. They accuse Palestinian youngsters of shoring up stones, rocks, and homemade ammunition inside the Al Aqsa compound and attacking them with it.

But the international community is clearly more on the side of the Palestinians. Amnesty International has accused Israel of excessive force that I, as a journalist covering the protests, dispute. There are certainly some instances of the Israeli security forces manhandling and violently attacking protestors but on the whole, certainly outside Damascus Gate where I’ve been most of the week, it’s dangerous for the troops as they are provoked and hit with things that could seriously injure them if they weren’t wearing helmets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he wouldn’t give in to rogue elements trying to disrupt Jerusalem, and in his latest speech has threatened that Hamas will pay a “dear price”.

I’m on the phone constantly with my colleagues in Gaza. One lives in the Hanadi Tower, a 13-storey residential building in Gaza city, that collapsed on Tuesday after Israeli air strikes targeted an office used by the political leadership of Hamas. An hour before the strike, residents were warned to leave their homes by the Israeli Defense Forces and hence there were no reports of injuries. But my colleague is now homeless.

I also have an Israeli friend who phoned me in tears. Her son is among the thousands of soldiers who have been called up to the Gaza border. It’s not yet clear if Israel plans a ground offensive but all options are on the table. Five thousand additional reserve troops have also been making their way to beef up the army in the southern Israeli communities and help those maintaining calm in Israeli cities across the country – Haifa, Ramle, Akko, Beer Sheva, and others.

While between 80% to 90% of rockets fired from Gaza – and to date there have been more than 1 200 in total – have been shot down by Israel’s anti-missile defence system, the Iron Dome, many Israeli civilians are choosing to move to the north out of harm’s way – hopefully.

Several of those I interviewed blame American President Joe Biden for the flare-up. After he took office in January, Biden expressed little interest in pursuing an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He’s also been reluctant to get involved in the current conflict, but is being urged to do so. The clashes have caught his administration on the back foot. By comparison, the Trump administration showed unstinting support for Netanyahu and hostility towards the Palestinians.

“If Trump was in office now,” many Israelis tell me, “the Palestinians would be too scared to act like they are now. But they know Biden won’t do anything!”

Come tonight – and probably for the rest of the week – I’ll be sleeping in my bomb shelter, as will hundreds of thousands of Israelis. Gazans, too, will be hunkering down where they can find shelter. No-one wants another war; but then again no-one’s being asked.

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family

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Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en

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Chief rabbi calls JSC questioning ‘racist and antisemitic’

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Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein this week was appalled at the “conduct of the commissioners of the Judicial Service Commission [JSC] in their questioning of two Jewish judges [over the past weeks]”. He described it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

Judge David Unterhalter was grilled about his short association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his interview with the JSC. He was being interviewed for a position on the Constitutional Court. Similar queries were directed at judicial candidate Advocate Lawrence Lever who is standing for a position in the Northern Cape, including if he observed Shabbat.

“The Jewish candidates were the only ones subjected to questions relating to religious identity and practice,” said the chief rabbi. “The direct implication of their questions was that a Jewish judge who is a Zionist or observes Shabbat would be disqualified from holding high judicial office.

“This violates the letter and spirit of our Constitution. It’s morally and legally repugnant for officers of the JSC to discriminate against any candidate on the basis of their religious identity. They should all be ashamed of themselves,” the chief rabbi said.

He called on JSC commissioners including the minister of justice to retract and apologise for their comments. “And I also call on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on their entire process. Racist conduct can never be condoned,” Goldstein said.

The SAJBD also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

“Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny,” said SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn. “Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices, except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid,” said Kahn. “It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board. Nearly all Jews in South Africa have some association with [it]. One wonders why a body mandated with protecting constitutionally sound principles of religious freedom and fighting hate would be so objectionable to members of the JSC panel,” she asked rhetorically.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.

“From the questions Jewish candidates were asked at the JSC interviews this month, one would question whether those bent on pursuing an antisemitic agenda are beginning to influence key decision-making bodies unduly. We call on all South Africans to stand up and protect these constitutional values, and reject all forms of discrimination.”

Rabbi Greg Alexander, the co-chairperson at the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), didn’t hold back on his opinion of the interviews. “There is little doubt that there was flagrant discrimination at the recent JSC hearings. This is specifically concerning the two Jewish candidates being interviewed.”

“Had such religious or cultural questions been asked of others of another faith, it would undoubtedly have sounded an alarm and disgusted those observing,” said SACRED co-chairperson Rabbi Julia Margolis. “However, we now face a doubly-disgusting situation in that such questions arose in the first place, and secondly, that only one religion, faith, or culture appears to have been deliberately targeted.

“This suggests that the very foundation of South Africa’s democracy is under threat, and one cannot help recalling the late Nelson Mandela’s voice: ‘I have fought against white domination, and I will fight against black domination.’ The determination of the late, great statesman to fight for absolute equality and against discrimination of any kind should be brought front and centre at this time. Those who raise such blatantly discriminating questions should be publicly shamed for doing so.”

“There does appear to be some prejudice in the questioning from the JSC,” said Mark Oppenheimer, an advocate at the Johannesburg Bar. To question a Jewish advocate about their observation of the Sabbath “is a weird thing to ask, given that there have been many Jews on the courts over the years, and you wouldn’t ask a Christian whether they could do their job given that they might go to church on Sunday, or a Muslim who needs to go to prayers on a Friday. So there is either antisemitism or anti-Zionism, or a great deal of ignorance. With Judge Unterhalter, it’s unclear if this was an excuse to try and block him, or whether it was the reason he wasn’t nominated further.”

Writing in Business Live, Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition, said, “In the dismissal of Unterhalter’s claims for judicial advancement, his membership of the ‘suspect class’ of his race was fused with his religious affiliation. Thus, the JSC interviewers gave little airtime to Unterhalter’s credentials, which include being the first South African ever appointed to the appellate body of the World Trade Organisation, where he served as chairperson for two years.

“Courtesy of a bile-ridden tissue of vitriol against him authored by the Qatar-funded Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction outfit, Unterhalter landed up spending much of his time offering his views on Zionism (not in the remit of the court) and his one-time membership of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies,” continued Leon. “According to BDS, the century-old Board, whose leadership is democratically and transparently elected, is akin to the Broederbond. Mere membership of this community body rendered Unterhalter unfit for higher judicial office in the view of BDS, a matter the JSC seemed to endorse.”

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant judge’s position in the Northern Cape. It also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court bench. Both are to be referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for candidates for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Manoim said, “It’s a great honour to be able to serve. I’ve been in public service for a long time – on the Competition Tribunal for 20 years as a public regulator – and I wanted to be able to continue serving.”

As a human rights lawyer before 1994, Manoim said he hoped to bring “the perspective of a lawyer who has worked with and without a Constitution”. He also wants to emphasise the importance of institutions in society. “We as a country must ensure our institutions work properly and independently, and we must work to protect them,” he said.

He said it was important for people who had the opportunity to serve in public office, to do so. “It’s easy to criticise society – and we do have many problems. But we must get our hands dirty and contribute towards solutions. As an optimist, I think we can solve our problems – we always have. So we must put ourselves in whatever role we can be useful in. This community has people with a wide range of skills and talents. We must get involved in whatever sphere we can to make a real difference.”

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