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So close yet so far – variant prevents machaneh

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The announcement by youth movements at the beginning of November that they would be holding COVID-19-safe summer machanot was greeted with joy and hope for brighter times ahead. It was the light at the end of the tunnel for many young people and their families. After a tough two years, at least they could go to Habonim Dror or Bnei Akiva camp in December.

The movements’ leadership worked furiously to make camp come to fruition at such late notice, and many chaverim had signed up and paid. But when South African scientists announced the discovery of a new variant, the dominoes quickly came crashing down. On Monday, 29 November, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) notified the community that camp was officially cancelled.

SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin told the SA Jewish Report things changed incredibly fast. “The viability of hosting machaneh changed dramatically with the discovery of the Omicron variant. This necessitated urgent consultation between the youth movements, the SAZF, CSO [Community Security Organisation], and most importantly, the medical professionals who have been advising us throughout this challenging process.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the variant, and the available data suggests significantly greater risk in hosting mass gatherings such as camps,” he says. “While time may shed more light on this, a decision needed to be made urgently as to how to proceed.”

Rosenthal continues the story: ” We held multiple discussions with our medical board and team. Ultimately, we felt that it was the responsible decision to cancel machaneh. We have a responsibility to develop Jewish youth in South Africa, but at the same time, we have a responsibility to act in the best interests of our community and at this time, that responsibility is to keep our community safe.”

“The high probability of mass infection, the impact this would have on the movement’s leadership and CSO’s ability to host a safe and meaningful machaneh, and the risk of re-infection on returning to parents, grandparents, family, and friends, were the primary factors considered in the discussion,” he says.

“I’m devastated. We’re all devastated,” says Bnei Akiva Rosh Machaneh Yoni Rosenthal. “I’m heartbroken for our 550 channichim and 100 madrichim who were going to be inspired and uplifted on our campsite this December. At the same time, I’m so proud of our camp team for putting in such effort over the past few months. We truly turned a dream into a reality. We did everything that we could have possibly done to get ready for machaneh.”

The decision is a devastating blow to all of the Zionist Jewish youth movements. “Youth movements have an important place in our Jewish community, and I was encouraged that both Habonim and Bnei Akiva were planning end of year machanot,” says Habonim Dror manhig (leader) Wayne Sussman.

“Machaneh is crucial not only for the youth but also for future community leadership. It’s a transformative space, whether it’s at Mossel Bay for Bnei Akiva, Onrus for Habonim, or Glencairn for Netzer. I compare missing machaneh to a soccer player missing a season. In the lifespan of a madrich, they learn so many life skills. So, missing two machanot two years in a row will have a deep impact on every youth movement and our entire community.”

Sussman says that since the announcement was made, Habonim’s leadership has been “working every hour to see what of machaneh we can we salvage at this late stage. We will hopefully be having a bogrim [leadership] seminar so that at least our leaders can get the input they need from the best educators we have to offer.” This seminar will hopefully take place on the Habonim campsite, giving bogrim the opportunity to connect with the “home” of the movement.

Looking back, Rosenthal says, “The past few weeks have been a bit of a roller coaster, physically and emotionally. Our team has literally worked day and night over the past two months to turn the impossible into the possible. It became the norm to be calling each other into the early hours of the morning.”

Sussman has consoled many devastated chaverim and their families. “One child has been coming to camp since Shtilim [the youngest age group]. She knows that her father built something on the Habonim campsite, and has waited seven years to enter [the same] age group so that she could join the dots and connect to her father’s pioneering contribution to the youth movement. Now that opportunity has been taken away from her. This decision has an impact on family ties,” he says.

“Last year was a very dark hour for youth movements, but this may be an even darker hour,” Sussman says. “That’s why I’m so impressed by the leadership who have hardly slept over the past six weeks, trying to create a safe, transformative machaneh, and are now trying to salvage what they can. To get so close and then to have the opportunity snuffed out is truly devastating.” He notes that this decision could also financially cripple youth movements.

Says Rosenthal, “We need to hold our heads up high and be proud of our achievements. I believe that we have inspired our community over the past few months. I think it’s also important to emphasise the incredible work that our team and madrichim have done throughout the year. We engaged with more than 1 000 channichim and madrichim in Joburg and Cape Town over the past few months.

“We have learned that Bnei Akiva is so much more than just a December camp,” he says. “We are about people, not just a place. The incoming leadership has already started planning the best way forward, but I have no doubt that we will bounce back stronger in 2022.” They have been thinking of a few ways to continue engaging with channichim and madrichim, and will be in contact about plans for December.

“I have been humbled by the support of the community throughout the process,” says Rosenthal. “I also would like to thank Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and Uriel Rosen for their guidance over the past few months. I would like to thank the CSO, the SAZF, and our Bnei Akiva Foundation for all of their support as well.”

Says Rosmarin, “Though everyone involved appreciated the short and long-term impact, as well as the cost of cancelling machaneh, the risk of disaster coupled with the uncertainty was deemed by our medical team to be too high. Based on this, the very difficult recommendation was made to cancel machanot, a recommendation that was adopted jointly by all the movements and role players. We are extremely disappointed and saddened by this sudden turn of events, and will continue to support our movements through this difficult time.”

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