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Silent heroes touch lives during time of sorrow

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Community

There has been a focus on frontline healthcare workers and emergency medical personnel during the COVID-19 pandemic, but what about the community’s loyal and over stretched “death-care” workers?

These are the unsung heroes of Johannesburg’s Chevrah Kadisha burial services, the last responders on the frontline whose day begins when someone in the community dies. Sadly, they have been very busy.

They are known as mesuskim (attendants), and no matter what time of day – and often in the middle of the night – they are the ones to answer the phone when you have to make that dreaded call. From a smallholding in Krugersdorp, a rundown flat in Hillbrow, to a mansion in the suburbs, these men are often the first to arrive and offer a kind word.

Since the start of the pandemic, these silent heroes of Westpark Cemetery have touched the lives of countless people. They have had to adapt to a whole new world of figuring out how to comfort mourning families from a distance wearing full personal-protective equipment while adhering to the health department’s vastly changed protocols.

This week, the Chev’s six full-time mesuskim were presented with new suits donated by the community in a show of appreciation for their efforts. They reminisced about the “fearful and terrifying” early days of the pandemic.

“It was scary when we attended the first few COVID-19 calls,” said Keith Tabakin who has been at Westpark for nine years. “We had to adapt and face our fears.”

The six full-time mesuskim work around the clock in shifts making sure that there is always someone on duty, said funeral director David Weber, who has been with the Chevrah Kadisha for 13 years.

The Johannesburg Chevrah Kadisha is unique, he said. “In other places, there are separate companies that deal with coffins, burial plots, or funeral arrangements. Overseas, the Chev takes care of the dead, over here we look after the dead and the living.”

All it takes is one phone call for the team of dedicated burial specialists to spring into action. Weber and Funeral Directors Philip Kalmonowitz and Darren Sevitz, together with the six mesuskim and many volunteers take care of everything from collecting the deceased, doing tahara, which spiritually prepares bodies for burial, attending funeral arrangements, navigating the paperwork, and carrying out the burial. The mesuskim attend every funeral, and on many occasions form part of the minyan when there aren’t enough men present.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the work has been seemingly endless. Regretfully there have been too many calls.

According to Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson, the number of funerals rose 82% in January compared to the average number of funerals over the past five years. The number of funerals in December rose 37% compared to the past five Decembers.

“Even though burial is only a small part [less than 5%] of the Chev’s activities, it’s at the core of who we are and where we come from,” he said.

There are on average 40 funerals a month in “normal” times, said Weber. “In July, there were 110 funerals during the first pandemic surge.” There were days when the men attended to nine or 10 funerals.

The head of the ladies tahara, Shirley Resnick, is like a mother figure to the mesuskim. She recalls when it was so busy, she had to ensure that they were adequately fed because many worked long stretches without eating.

“There were many nights when we arranged mattresses and blankets so they could sleep in the newly built tahara room at Sandringham Gardens,” she said, to ensure that if they were worked late, they could be back at work early the next day.

“Some of them were traumatised in the beginning by having to visit COVID-19 wards or homes where they felt at high risk of exposure. There were times some considered pulling out but instead, they pulled together. They are a close-knit group who help each other.”

So how do they cope?

“We focus on the job,” said Tabakin who is grateful to be able to help people, especially those he knows, during a stressful period in their lives.

“There is life after the cemetery,” said Neil Nathan. “At work, we concentrate on what we’re required to do with compassion and care, but when we leave, we try to switch off and concentrate on our family life.”

Although it has been stressful and difficult at times, Eddie Taitz said he found the work rewarding.

“Before I came to work at the Chev, I was petrified to be even in the driveway of Westpark, but now I’m used to it. It has become a way of life,” he said.

Braam Shevel, who contracted COVID-19 last year, has been at the Chev for 15 years. The husband and father of two said the work can sometimes take its toll, but his spirits are lifted because his work enables him to “touch people’s lives”.

“People remember any act of kindness – a simple gesture or a certain look – for years to come. This brings me a sense of fulfilment and reminds me of the importance of the work we do,” he said.

The longest serving member of the mesuskim, Rodney Margot, takes pride in having adapted to the new rules laid down by the health department and the extra work brought by the pandemic. The husband and father of two grown children said the hours were long but no funerals were delayed and everyone was buried speedily and according to Jewish law.

Colin Barnett said he felt honoured to perform the mitzvah of caring for the deceased. “It’s good to know that in our small way we can offer people comfort when they need it most,” he said.

Doing a kindness for the departed is called a “kindness of truth” said Chev Group Rabbi Jonathan Fox because “one cannot expect anything in return”.

“It’s done with pure intentions and that’s what makes it so holy. They are helping those who literally cannot help themselves, and this is the highest form of kindness.”

Said Tomson, “We are blessed to have such a committed and caring group doing this vital work, especially at a time like this. I salute every one of them.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ella Shishler

    Feb 4, 2021 at 10:02 am

    These men are truly unsung heroes.
    Their dedication, humility and commitment is unsurpassable.
    They work long, gruelling hours in anonymity.
    Thank you “Jewish Report” for recognising these sterling gems in our community.

  2. derek shapiro

    Feb 4, 2021 at 12:31 pm

    pity no comments were also made about the cape town staff attending to burials. They likewise are also the ‘unsung” hero’s of the pandemic.

  3. Moira Markowitz

    Feb 8, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    I thank them from the deepest part of my heart and soul for their heroic work at such a time of the dreadful pandemic. I pray for their safety. I do believe however that they are overworked and I worry about the toll it can take on their health and mental health. They need to be supported more by the society for the hardest work on the planet… financially.. hero pay … salary increases .. donations and honor them… also they need to be the first in line for the vaccination. Can we start a Go fund me to help raise money to honor them? I am very proud and honored to know my beautiful brother Colin Barnett., a true mensch.. man of honor, integrity and respect. Thank you for all the work you all do.
    Best regards
    Moira Barnett Markowitz

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Community

Zaka honoured for bravery in Bank of Lisbon inferno

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Jewish rescue and recovery organisation Zaka SA has been awarded a medal of bravery by the Gauteng province for its assistance with the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD more than two years ago.

Zaka SA was honoured on International Firefighters Day on 4 May, a day in which the City of Joburg remembered all firefighters who had “courageously put others’ lives before their own, saluting them for their selfless dedication and bravery”.

Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze, one plunging to his death on the pavement below, after trying to put out the fire near the top of the high-rise building. The building was subsequently found to be only minimally compliant with health and safety regulations, and firefighters faced a lack of water and oxygen. It has since been demolished.

Zaka SA “rescued the rescuers” by offering psychological support to devastated and exhausted city firefighters, and food for 100 firefighters, with the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

However, when they reached the scene, Zaka and the SAJBD discovered that 700 students housed in a building next door needed to be evacuated for fear of smoke inhalation, and more food was urgently required to feed them. Zaka was honoured for assisting with the evacuation of these students, and for providing necessary relief.

“Bank of Lisbon was a complicated story,” said Daniel Forman, the head of Zaka SA. “There was a vacuum of resources including water availability, and we encountered a challenging scene as the three firefighters lost their lives soon into the crisis but firefighters had to continue to fight the fire. The biggest challenge was that the fire was so high up in the building, so firefighters had to preserve their oxygen supplies going up.”

Zaka SA was set up in 2015 to assist the community with emergency search and rescue, body identification and recovery, and fire-containment services. Like Zaka around the world, it’s entirely staffed by volunteers, and relies on communal support to keep going.

It has two trailers which each hold 600 litres of water, and is often the first responder in suburban fires, where early detection and response can eliminate the need to call city firefighters. However, Forman cautions that 600 litres is used up in just seven minutes, and a house can burn down in minutes, making additional resources mandatory.

Zaka is sometimes called on to fight more than six fires a month, he said, particularly in the winter months when people rely on heating devices in their homes, and fires are lit by the homeless and security guards to keep warm.

“Zaka’s fire-containment unit came about through challenges which exist in the system,” Forman said, “including the long wait for firefighters.” Another of these challenges is theft of brass parts from neighbourhood fire hydrants, rendering them ineffective.

However, he stressed that the City of Joburg had been involved in a major upgrade of these hydrants, and was amazingly supportive of Zaka generally. He praised the Gauteng government for exposing the organisation’s communal efforts.

“Not once have they not responded to our call or thanked us for our help,” he said of Joburg’s firefighters. “They do an amazing job.”

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Yummy Shavuot from Yaddies

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Seven hundred families in financial difficulty in the community can now enjoy Shavuot treats including cheesecake, mac n cheese, and pizza thanks to generous monetary and food donations from the community, Jewish schools, and the Rabbi Kraines Chessed Challenge (RKCC).

Their generosity made it possible for Yad Aharon to distribute these special treats, as well as healthy, nutritious food, to community members to make sure that they also have a joyful chag.

RKCC is an initiative which has challenged the community to maximise acts of good deeds and loving kindness during the 49 days of the Omer.

The initiative was formed in honour of Rabbi Kraines (zt”l), whose untimely passing left a void in the Johannesburg community. It celebrates the legacy of a man who was known to be a champion of the mitzvah of chessed.

In addition to the RKCC, Yad Aharon’s Shavuot drive has involved more than 20 Jewish schools as well as local and international donors who realise the importance it plays in alleviating nutritional insecurity in the community.

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A portrait of PE through a life of service

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As Port Elizabeth community stalwart Isaac Rubin reflects on his 90th year, his life story emerges as a portrait of this once thriving, now diminishing, but always impactful, Jewish centre of life.

Having offered decades of service as head of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Benevolent Society, as well as a vice-chairperson and member of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation Council and serving as its choirmaster, Rubin has lived a life firmly entrenched in service. His has been a contribution that has helped ensure that Jewish tradition continues to be fulfilled in this small seaside town.

“My best saying is, ‘Zeh hayom asah adonai, nagila v’nismicha bo.’ (This is the day that G-d created; let us be happy and rejoice in it.) To rejoice and be happy, you have to have your health, financial resources, a partner, a family.”

He hopes that he has been able to assist in making this a little more of a reality for those around him.

“It’s a blessing that Hashem has given me, to have the strength to do mitzvot,” he says.

The history of Port Elizabeth can be traced back to a group of at least 16 Jewish families that came with the 1820 British settlers. Later, a wave of German immigrants also arrived. Rubin’s family, from the town of Ludza in Latvia, were part of a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in the latter part of the century into the 1900s. His uncle came first, followed by his father. Later, his mother and oldest brother, Solly, arrived – both speaking only Yiddish.

Rubin, born in 1931, was one of four siblings born in Port Elizabeth itself. Building a life in this foreign country was difficult for the family especially as they hit the Depression years; yet his parents, both tailors, persisted throughout.

When it came to Rubin’s first day of school, he remembers how his father couldn’t come because of work and his mother because she didn’t speak English. A friend came with to help settle him in.

During the war years, he recalls having bomb drills at school where “we had to duck under our desk and put a cork between our teeth in order to prevent our jaw breaking in the event of an explosion”.

Rubin also attended cheder from the age of eight until matric. He was inspired by his studies there to complete Hebrew as a matric subject at school.

His family, in spite of financial struggles, persisted in maintaining cultural traditions. “Hard as it was, every Rosh Hashanah, we would get a new suit of short pants and a jacket. My father would close the shop on all major Jewish holidays, and we would go to shul. We kept a kosher home.”

Community life flourished in these years, with a Jewish population of about 5 000 people. “I was a troop leader in the Jewish Boy Scouts in the 1940s,” Rubin says. Always a keen sportsman, he established a Maccabi Jewish cricket club in the city which eventually had so many members, it played across three leagues. He also played in Port Elizabeth’s Jewish rugby team.

Rubin remembers some antisemitism at one school he attended – where the Jewish children were called “porkers”. Yet, he recalls proudly how when his own grandson attended the same school decades later, the outcome of such provocation was very different.

“My grandson’s teacher made a remark about how ‘you must look after your money, and be like the Jews’, and my grandson went straight to the teacher and said, ‘You aren’t allowed to say that.’” A meeting was held with the principal and family, and the teacher had to make a formal apology.

Meanwhile, after his own schooling, Rubin went on to become a pharmacist and travelled around the world, working at one time at a catering facility for the American army in the Arctic Circle. “I had a contract as a dish washer, and graduated to become a waiter,” he laughs.

Later, he married and settled back in Port Elizabeth with his wife, Shirley. They had a daughter who sadly died at age 37, as well as two sons and four grandchildren. Rubin opened his own pharmacy and his one son has followed in his career. Although Rubin retired at 67, he went back to work part-time 12 years ago.

Once a keen runner who completed 11 Comrades and 11 Two Oceans marathons, Rubin swims in the sea, does yoga, and walks. Both he and his wife are keen bridge players. Over the years, he also volunteered for Lifeline and Hospice. Yet, even this wasn’t enough for Rubin – at the age of 72, he decided to improve his musicality, and learnt to play the piano.

Always a committed member of the synagogue, over the years, he became increasingly active in communal leadership. Twenty years ago he became a member of the council of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation and then adopted his roles in the Chevrah Kadisha, Benevolent Society, and shul choir.

His love of liturgical singing stems from his father who also loved Jewish and Yiddish songs, and would “sing softly”.

Rubin decided to join the Chevrah Kadisha “when I saw what it had done for my mother, father, and daughter” on their passing. In his role, Rubin would respond to calls night and day, going to the homes of the deceased, comforting the mourners, and organising all the logistics of burials. It was only at the age of 80 that he stopped even helping to dig the graves.

Earlier this year, Rubin stepped down as chairperson, although the organisation then elected to appoint him honorary chair for life.

Gidon La Grange, his successor to the position, recounts once being with Rubin when a call came through from a family who had tragically lost a loved one. “He couldn’t speak. For at least three minutes, he just sat. Silent. He took out his hanky, and wiped tears.” They then began discussing the practical arrangements.

“I remember thinking, this is the quality you should have in responding to people’s loss. This compassion is the way he deals with everybody. The whole community loves him because he carries everything close to his heart.”

Rubin stills heads up the shul choir and the Port Elizabeth Jewish Benevolent Society, whose role is to ensure that the basic needs of all members of the community are met. Although the community has shrunk drastically, its needs have increased.

While Rubin laments the diminishing numbers in the community – the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation now has 182 members – he says the community can hold its head up high. “We have a community that we can be proud of – we’ve upheld our yiddishkeit throughout.”

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