South Africa’s “Jewish Mandela” on life and rebirth
The oldest South African Holocaust survivor, Ella Blumenthal, turns 100 this Shabbat, the day after I Am Here, the award-winning documentary made about her life, has its first showing at the Durban Film Festival.
Nonetheless, Blumenthal who lives in Cape Town, will begin her Friday with her usual routine of catching up on emails, Facebook, and Instagram before calling her family overseas on FaceTime. Due to COVID-19, she will be spending Shabbat with her immediate family.
“A few shuls have arranged a pre and post-Shabbat Zoom session for my birthday,” she said. “On Sunday, I will have a Zoom call with my entire family from around the world.”
Speaking to the SA Jewish Report on Mandela Day on 18 July, Blumenthal said about former President Nelson Mandela, who died aged 95, “I didn’t have the privilege of meeting the great man. I’m in awe of his values, love of all people, and his ability to forgive.”
However, the similarities between these two memorable humans isn’t lost on those who know her. Said Jordy Sank, the director of I Am Here, “I can see so many similarities between him and Ella. They are both incredible examples of people who chose love and understanding over hate, and their life’s purpose is to spread positivity to everyone around them.”
They are both born around Shabbat Nachamu (Comforting), the sabbath after Tisha B’Av.
Both were destined to live long lives. Former Western Cape Premier Helen Zille praised both of them in her autobiography. In addition, Blumenthal travelled to Paris shortly after her liberation. After Paris she travelled to Palestine, where she met her husband Isaac Blumenthal in 1948 (pre the state of Israel). Less than four months after his release from prison, Mandela paid a two-day visit to Paris. There, he was joined by his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Further, the name “Evelyn” is shared by Mandela’s first wife, and one of Blumenthal’s children.
Blumenthal and Mandela are also linked by the number three. The former spent time at the Majdanek, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, and Mandela’s 27 years in prison were split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison, and Victor Verster Prison.
Like Mandela, who was a keen swimmer in his youth, Blumenthal enjoyed swimming as a girl growing up in Warsaw.
Today, Blumenthal said, “I used to swim at the Virgin Active every morning, except Shabbat, doing 18 lengths. I also used to walk along the promenade outside my flat every afternoon. But since COVID-19, I’ve been staying with my daughter in Camps Bay, and have to be content with short walks every day.” Mandela, too, was an avid walker.
In I Am Here, the witty, bubbly, and a larger-than-life Blumenthal is represented as having an aura similar to the “Madiba magic”.
Her zest for life comes through in the life-affirming documentary, which won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and is backed by the Claims Conference, which has supported many award-winning films, such as Hungarian Holocaust film Son of Saul.
At her 98th birthday celebration, Blumenthal opened up to close friends and family about her story of survival during the Holocaust in a way she had never done before. Her recollections, including tales of narrowly escaping death in a gas chamber and other harrowing incidents, put South Africa’s current challenges of COVID-19 and looting into perspective.
Along with uplifting stories, like dissuading her niece from ending her life and being saved by a nurse – her childhood friend – the immensely rewatchable film includes animation juxtaposed with present-day footage of Blumenthal performing her weekly spiritual rituals.
With antisemitism and Holocaust denial rife around the world, I Am Here and the new animated Where is Anne Frank couldn’t have come at a better time.
Asked about the symbolism of the blue butterfly, an animated visual that appears throughout I Am Here, Sank said, “The blue butterfly symbolises the Jewish people, hope, faith, and so much more. I often like to let people gather their own interpretation of what it means, but as a filmmaker, it was a visual way of us communicating Ella’s spirit and faith.”
Said Gabriella Blumberg, the producer of I Am Here, “Ella, leading by example, shows us how to truly take time to appreciate each day, and notice the good that exists in the present. Her remarkable resilience in spite of all she has been through makes her a role model to us all.”
Said Sank, “I’m sure that for Ella, seeing the sheer devastation and upheaval that took place during the lootings was reminiscent of her time during the war. But I just know that she would pray for peace and for a speedy resolution.
“Ella is always able to see the silver lining in any situation, even COVID-19. I heard once that someone was complaining to Ella about how they were feeling during lockdown, and Ella was concentrating on the sunset and told them that we have so much to be grateful for.”
Blumenthal’s advice to those who are struggling is to “never give up and be positive. Know that the dark days will be over soon, and that the sun will shine again for all of us. We are here!”
- Book to watch the virtual screening of ‘I Am Here’ at the Durban International Film Festival from 23 July to 1 August. Tickets are free. https://www.durbanfilmfest.com/film/i-am-here/
Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.
The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.
The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”
The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.
“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.
The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.
“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.
Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.
“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.
Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”
The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.
“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”
JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.
This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.
“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”
The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.
“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”
The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.
Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”
Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”
Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”
Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs
ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.
The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.
Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.
“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”
Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”
On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”
Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”
ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.
Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity
Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.
Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.
He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.
Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”
Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”
They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”
Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.
Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.
“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”
Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”
Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.
When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.
Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”
Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.
“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”
Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”
Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”• The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco
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