Stellenbosch students forced to choose between exams and yom tov
Jewish students at Stellenbosch University were deeply distressed by having to choose between observing high holy days or writing tests, including on erev Yom Kippur. They say that their desperate pleas to have assessments moved, even by a few hours, fell on deaf ears.
“Stellenbosch University scheduled tests for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year,” says Zianda Goldstuck, a first-year student. “Although the tests were for modules where each student’s two best marks out of three possible tests are used to calculate the final mark, it was concerning that Jewish students would have to forfeit the opportunity to improve their mark or, in some cases, pass the module.
“The university argued that the option of two best marks out of three was intended for this kind of eventuality, but in reality, it limited Jewish students to having to ensure the two tests were successfully written, with no recourse to improve marks or pass failed tests,” she adds. “It seems very unfair to have tests on two of the most important Jewish holidays of the year.”
She said that the South African Union of Jewish Students’ representative, as well as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) made contact with the university. “However, the university refused to make any accommodations as it claimed that the system of using only two out of the three tests was already an accommodation. It also claimed that it didn’t accommodate any religious holidays for minority religions.”
But after looking into it, Goldstuck found that the university had made accommodations in the past by moving tests or avoiding having tests on certain days. “This underscores the fact that Jewish students don’t get the same opportunities as other students,” she says. “We have to choose between observing religious holidays or our academics. It also seems contradictory that the university is trying to position itself as being diverse, yet refuses to accommodate minority religions. The situation caused a great deal of stress, and I was deeply disappointed in the university’s rigid stance.”
Another Stellenbosch University Jewish student, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “I was supposed to write on 15 September at 17:30, erev Yom Kippur. This meant that I would have had to start my fast just before my test, and then drive home to Cape Town on Yom Kippur. I tried to write my test early, but the university claimed it was “unable” to make a plan for me.
“I was disgusted,” he says. “What made it worse is that the lecturer completely ignored my email asking him if he would write an exam over Christmas Eve. He just didn’t respond. I lost out on an opportunity to write a supplementary exam – I was basically punished.”
In the end, he chose not to write the exam. “They moved an exam to another day last semester as it was on a Muslim holiday. But they wouldn’t do the same for a Jew. They really could have made a plan. They chose not to because it was a hassle for them,” he says.
Another Jewish student at the university, speaking on condition of anonymity, says she chose to write the exam and not observe Yom Kippur. “I’ve kept Yom Kippur every year since Batmitzvah age. So it was weird not doing it. It’s the most important day of the Jewish year, and I feel like I should have kept it. But I had no choice. I understand that there are many Jewish holidays and it’s difficult to change dates. But Yom Kippur shouldn’t have an exam on it.”
Tzvi Brivik, the chairperson of the Cape SAJBD, told the SA Jewish Report that “students who were affected reached out to their lecturers, the deputy-registrar and registrar requesting alternate arrangements be made for them to make use of this assessment opportunity. The university stated that due to the impact of COVID-19 on the calendar year, and the fact that students were afforded two prior assessment opportunities, it wouldn’t approve the request for alternate arrangements.
“It was at this point that the Cape SAJBD was informed about the matter. We engaged with the affected students, their parents, the university, and the university’s ombudsman. The university maintained that it hadn’t acted unfairly in this matter, as according to its policy, it had offered students two out of three assessment opportunities. We consulted external legal counsel, and were advised not to pursue further action.
“We feel strongly that no student should have to choose between utilising all three assessment opportunities or observing their faith,” he says. “Such policy couldn’t be reasonable and fair. We are encouraged that the university has a new draft proposal for dealing with assessments and religious days (of various religions) and will meet the registrar and deputy-registrar to review this draft proposal and the timetable for 2022 to ensure that no future assessments are scheduled over our yom tov.
“We were informed that the University of Cape Town scheduled tests on yom tov, and that alternative arrangements were made for affected students,” Brivik says.
SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn says, “The SAJBD assisted students with exams and assessments on chaggim and Shabbat at Wits [University of the Witwatersrand] and Varsity College, and these have been resolved. We have been working closely with Unisa [University of South Africa] in resolving the same situation. At this time, alternate assessments have been arranged for 44 of 72 exams, with 28 to be resolved in coming weeks.”
Stellenbosch University Media Manager Martin Viljoen told the SA Jewish Report that “Stellenbosch University deems the concerns and rights of our various faith communities, including our Jewish student community, in the highest regard. We value and respect our Jewish student community and its holy and spiritual celebrations. The matter concerning the scheduling of tests on major Jewish holidays has thus received the required attention, while further engagements with the SAJBD are scheduled for later this month.”
He says the university didn’t purposefully schedule tests on Yom Kippur. “Due to the shift in the academic calendar, it was a bona fide mistake that this holiday wasn’t on the radar of the scheduling team which normally takes great care not to schedule on religious holidays.
“The assessment periods this year are all condensed because of COVID-19. There are implications for moving any assessment, and scheduling takes approximately four weeks to finalise. Consequently, any change will potentially affect our entire undergraduate and intermediary post-graduate student population,” he says.
“Concerned students were linked to the faculties of law, engineering, and economic and management sciences. After consultation with these faculties and other stakeholders, as well as meetings to consider suitable solutions, our conclusion is that our arrangements for flexible assessments make provision for students to write two out of three assessments,” he says. “This is to allow flexibility for students who fall ill on the day of an assessment, have an emergency or unforeseen delay getting to an exam venue, or have social, cultural, or religious obligations.”
But he says the university has arranged that modules of the faculty of engineering with assessments scheduled for 16 September [Yom Kippur], as well as on a Saturday, be moved to allow for two assessment opportunities. This is because that schedule leaves only one assessment opportunity free for Jewish students.
“The matter of scheduling assessments on religious holidays will be added to the agenda of the relevant academic governance structures to come to an institutional decision,” he says. “This year has brought about many challenges. We ask for your understanding of the limited options given our condensed academic calendar, while we commit to taking this matter forward for an optimal scheduling solution in years to come.”
Israel is open – but should we go?
Israel has finally dropped South Africa from its red list as COVID-19 numbers surge in the Jewish state while the Omicron wave in South Africa begins to subside. But just because the gates are open, should we be going to Israel, especially with infection rates going through the roof?
“There was obviously tremendous excitement that people who are vaccinated can now travel to Israel without going through any bureaucratic hoops,” says former Knesset minister and current olim advocate Dov Lipman. His organisation assists olim to adapt to life in Israel and cope with its bureaucracy. It has been at the forefront of helping olim and their families navigate Israel’s changing travel restrictions during the pandemic.
“However, among the reasons why this change was made is because of the degree to which the variant is spreading in Israel,” Lipman says. “It reached a point where keeping the doors closed just didn’t make sense. So people have to understand that they’re coming into a country where people are getting corona[virus] regularly. Our statistics last week showed that 10% of those arriving in Israel from overseas were testing positive.
“Yad L’Olim is getting regular messages from people saying, ‘Help, I tested positive at the airport’, or ‘I’m visiting, didn’t feel well, and tested positive’, or ‘I tested positive on my test before my flight home’,” he says. “As much as we want to help everyone, once someone tests positive in Israel, there is an automatic quarantine of 10 days [the government may reduce it to seven days]. The authorities are very strict about this. There is also the possibility that the authorities will mandate that you do this quarantine in a hotel at your own expense if you don’t have your own apartment. You need to know this risk before you come to Israel.
“Anyone coming in has to be aware of the very real possibility that they could test positive on their arrival or while they are here,” he says. “And if that happens, they have to do full quarantine before they can leave. As an organisation, we’re recommending that people consider travelling to Israel only if there’s a need. If there’s a family simcha, or a tragic situation, something that cannot be put off. That’s what I recommend.”
For those concerned that this is just a small window of opportunity and that the borders may be closed again, Lipman says he doesn’t think this the case. “I do believe that we will be able to maintain the open skies moving forward. At Yad L’Olim we are working hard with members of Knesset to create a plan now and for the future so that the gates remain open, especially for olim and their families and those that have a special reason to come to Israel.”
He also wants to remind people that “any Israeli can leave the country if they choose to, and that might also be an option for those looking to unite with their families”.
Johannesburg-based travel agent Shana Chrysler says that travelling to and from Israel right now can be complicated. “I cannot tell you how many people are testing positive and having to change at the last minute,” she says. “A family of seven had to cancel this morning [11 January] who were coming for a wedding here [in South Africa]. We had more clients tonight [11 January] cancel due to COVID-19 results – passengers cannot come home if they test positive. South Africa requires a negative PCR test to return. I now have clients stuck in Turkey.”
According to Israeli media, Israel has now begun authorising at-home antigen test kits, seeking to relieve the strain at overcrowded testing centres, and restricting PCR testing only to at-risk individuals. But the switch to home tests has also led to stores running out. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is reportedly looking to bring in 50 million tests within 10 days. The government is also planning to add 40 new testing centres, bringing the total nationwide to 300.
Since Omicron and the travel bans hit the world late last year, “Yad L’Olim has been busy literally 24 hours a day”, says Lipman. “This includes answering people’s questions about the new rules, guiding people especially when they test positive here in Israel, and advocating for expanding the rules. We have especially advocated for allowing those who have recovered [from COVID-19] to enter Israel, especially if they have a special reason to come.
“On the ground in Israel, people know that that the virus is spreading very quickly,” he says. “They are choosing to stay out of public environments as much as possible. I wouldn’t say that people are functioning in fear because the number of serious cases and deaths isn’t at a place where it’s causing that fear, but people are certainly being cautious.”
But other olim told the SA Jewish Report that Israelis are tired of the rules and many don’t wear masks or use sanitiser in public. And while Lipman cautions against going to the country, many said they thought it was fine to visit Israel. Says Josh Buchalter (24) in Tel Aviv, “The Omicron wave really seems like annual winter flu, for 20-35 year olds at least. I haven’t really spoken to anyone outside of that bracket.
“My girlfriend tested positive and I tested negative. We live together, so it made no sense that I was negative. But either way, our symptoms were really like flu and nothing else. For one to two days we were clearly sick, sneezing a lot. But we rested, and by the third day, we were much better. By the fourth or fifth day we were 100% fine.
“Although it’s a personal decision, my opinion is that if someone is double vaccinated and not a high-risk individual, there’s nothing to fear,” he says. “Besides the 15-degree weather, everything in Israel is sababa (cool)!”
At this point in time, foreigners can enter Israel with no permit provided they are vaccinated with a second or third dose within 180 days of their visit. They must be 14 days from the vaccination date. If more than 180 days have passed since the traveller’s booster (the third dose), Israel will honour it until the end of February 2022.
There’s no automatic allowance for unvaccinated children of any age. If you need to travel with children, you can try to get a permit, but these will be granted only in extreme emergencies.
To enter Israel, you must complete the pre-flight form within 48 hours of your flight. You must get a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure to Israel or a negative lab-based antigen test within 24 hours of departure. You are exempted from this requirement if you fit the criteria for entry and you have a positive PCR test to show from between 11 days and three months before your flight.
The quarantine period exists until you receive your negative PCR test back from Ben Gurion, or after 24 hours, whichever comes first.
“Recently recovered COVID-19 patients may continue to test positive upon arrival at Ben Gurion,” notes Lipman. “If this happens, please be aware that you must apply for release from quarantine, and it can take time and effort to secure that release.”
To get updates on Israel’s changing travel restrictions, visit yadlolim.org/corona-update
Al Jama-ah hardliners put Jozi DA in tough corner
The multi-party Democratic Alliance (DA)-led coalition in the City of Johannesburg hangs in the balance as the small Al Jama-ah party this week dramatically dropped out of coalition talks over ideological differences involving Israel.
This political snubbing by the anti-Israel party has left the DA three votes short of a majority going into the first sitting of the council on Thursday, 13 January.
The implications could be disastrous for residents of the city desperate for change and increased service delivery, say insiders.
At the time of going to press, the stakes were high for the DA-led coalition with the DA potentially finding itself in a tight corner, clinging to power.
“This is hardly surprising,” said election analyst Wayne Sussman.
“The Al Jama-ah party traditionally and currently prefers to work with the African National Congress [ANC], being ideologically closer to the ANC, so while this may be a setback for the DA, it should have been expected. The bigger news is that the DA thought it could count on the Al Jama-ah votes.”
Al Jama-ah turned down the DA due to its perceived support of Israel, taking its three seats with it.
Sussman said there were still a number of other smaller parties which the DA would be looking at, and would hope to get enough votes to get over the 50% mark.
However the situation remained unpredictable at the time of going to press, with the DA potentially finding itself short of vital votes in upcoming motions in the city.
The DA was forced to form coalition governments in Gauteng’s hung metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Ekurhuleni after the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) handed it the mayoral chains rather than support the ANC.
This week’s turn of events has potentially left the door wide open for the ANC to try to form a coalition to take power from the DA. This, however, won’t be possible without the support of the EFF, which this week said it would keep the ANC out of power. EFF leader Julius Malema said at the Siyabonga rally in KwaZulu-Natal on 8 January that the EFF would work with all opposition parties to keep the ANC out of power.
Insiders say that the EFF knows it’s better for the party’s growth trajectory and prospects to have a weaker ANC than a weaker DA, even if it’s not on the same page as the DA.
The question is whether the DA will have to, as it did in 2016, count on the EFF’s vote to govern the City of Johannesburg in order to pass the budget and elect chairpersons of oversight committees.
This all remains to be seen.
Sussman said the DA was “chancing it”.
“Three seats is important. Historically, Al Jama-ah has been much closer to the ANC. When coalitions are flimsy, parties will do anything to stay in power, even negotiate with parties that are unlikely to support it. It’s easier to speak to one party with three seats than three different parties with one seat.”
The DA has put itself in a tough corner, experts say.
Meanwhile, news that the anti-Israel party pulled its three votes has been met with disgust and disappointment.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) said it was “outraged” that Al Jama-ah had put a distant conflict above the interests of its own citizens.
“The political party Al Jama-ah is seemingly attempting to stonewall and obstruct the functioning of the City of Johannesburg by putting a foreign conflict above the interests of its own citizens. Our landscape is such that representatives from across the political spectrum are expected to work together to provide leadership and good governance. Joburg is struggling to provide its own residents with electricity, water, functioning transport infrastructure, healthcare, and other social services. If there ever was a time to for our politicians to roll up their sleeves and get work done, it’s now.”
“It is unclear what ‘supporting’ Israel means,” said Harold Jacobs, the Gauteng chairperson of the SAJBD. “The majority of countries, including South Africa, support a two-state solution, as do the majority of our political parties. The two-state solution is clearly not supported by Al Jama-ah, which is attempting to introduce extremist views into Johannesburg. In essence, it seems that Al Jama-ah wants no Israel. We want no potholes, functioning hospitals, and a world-class city that Joburg promises to be.
“We call on all our political parties to work together in the interests of their own citizens, and not allow an extremist, anti-peace, and single-focused issue to be the deciding factor in our local politics.”
Said DA councillor Daniel Schay, “I’m disappointed that a party has chosen to put a complex, 9 000km away conflict ahead of the residents of Johannesburg, where it has been elected to serve. I have full faith in the mayor and the chief whip and everyone else in power to assess potential coalition partners, and that they will engage with partners who are able to share our values and the values of the coalition, and put the residents of the city first. Also that they won’t simply allow people on board just for the sake of retaining power, but it will revolve around residents coming first and there will be no compromise on that, otherwise we are just repeating what the previous regime did.”
Insiders say clashes in ideology existed even before the coalition talks took place, and ask whether the coalition was stable to begin with or if there were instabilities at the time of announcing the multi-party government.
It’s understood that local Al Jama-ah councillors initially showed willingness to join the coalition, but when it reached the ears of its national leaders, it was considered unacceptable.
The first council sitting will, without doubt, be tough for the multiparty coalition at a time when stable coalition is vital to ensure service delivery.
Kiff vibes for a well-known psalm
The South African Jewish community received a special Shabbat “gift” on the first Friday of 2022, when David Scott (better known as The Kiffness) released his latest remix on 7 January. Taking a joyful rendition of the psalm Im Hashem Lo Yivneh Bayis by the Shira Choir, the South African musician added his own beats and even a cameo of a cat, to take it to new heights.
For many, it was a delight to see such a celebrated South African performer embrace Jewish music and bring it to his diverse and global audience.
What’s more, Scott released the song online just hours before his wife gave birth to their first child. “It’s been a crazy day,” he told the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation (Gardens Shul) pre-Shabbat Zoom session, where he was a special guest. The shul’s chazan, Choni Goldman (Choni G), had provided invaluable advice to Scott as he worked with the song and then invited him to join the community online.
When Scott shared that his wife had just gone into labour, Gardens Shul Rabbi Osher Feldman blessed the musician and his family. He also thanked him for showing that music can bring people together.
Making time to speak to the SA Jewish Report from the hospital after his son was born, Scott explained how the remix came about. “Most of my remixes start with fans messaging me on Instagram, Facebook, or email. This particular video of the Shira Choir (who are based in Brooklyn, New York) popped up in my inboxes a couple of times, so I checked it out and was instantly hooked and amazed by the wonderful music.”
He says that the choir was aware that he was working with its music. “Whenever I embark on a collaboration of this nature, I always reach out to the original artist[s], introduce myself, tell them what I do, and ask if they would be okay with me doing a remix. I sent them an early draft of the remix I was busy working on. I was very glad to hear that they liked it! The rest was history.”
“The original is already a masterpiece on its own. My remix just injects a bit more chutzpah into the song,” he says.
The response to the remix has been hugely positive. Asked why he thinks this is the case, Scott says, “Music is a universal language, and people recognise and resonate with good music regardless of where it comes from. But I do think there’s something special about this song. I feel as if the composer tapped into something much bigger than ourselves when he wrote the melody, as did David when he wrote The Song of Solomon (Psalm 127).”
The lyrics translate as, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Guardian of Israel.”
“The song resonates because it’s a gentle reminder that everything we build is in vain unless it is built upon solid principles,” he says. “I have always believed that anything that’s difficult now will make life easier in the long run, and anything that’s easy now will make life harder in the long run. We live in a society where instant gratification is rife, so it was refreshing to hear David’s psalm in the context of music. Music has a way of making truth more digestible.”
Though the response has been overwhelmingly positive, “unfortunately there have been a few negative comments”, he says. “My response is always either to ignore them, block them, or if I’m up to it, respond in kindness. The few nasty comments I have seen, I‘ve decided to block.”
On working with Goldman, Scott says, “I know Choni G through performing at Barmitzvahs, Batmitzvahs, and weddings together. When I began remixing the song, I wanted to make sure I had all the right translations and transliterations in place. I knew Choni could help me, but what I didn’t know was how gracious he would be with his time and willingness to help. What a guy!”
For his part, Goldman told the SA Jewish Report that “Dave messaged me asking if I know the song, saying people had sent it to him asking to remix it, and he digs it. I told him, ‘Go for it!’ I knew the choir, and pointed out that the verses are from Psalms. Dave is a super talented guy. He didn’t need my help! But wherever I thought I could help out from a Jewish perspective, or just by being a soundboard for him, I did.
“Over the next two weeks while he remixed it we were in touch with various things,” says Goldman. “This ranged from giving my take on subtleties, how people might receive it, to helping with translations, transliteration, and Hebrew text, and putting him in touch with the right people in New York to license the song. The remix is great, and I’m a big fan of his work. I’d love to work on something together at some point. I’m sure we will.”
Scott says that joining the Gardens Shul pre-Shabbat Zoom session was “really great. It was very special to receive such a wonderful blessing from the rabbi before heading to the hospital as we prepared for the delivery of our first-born son.”
Asked if he would work with more Jewish music in future, he says, “I’m open to all kinds of music as long as it resonates with my spirit. This particular song resonated with me deeply, and maybe it will open more doors to working with more Jewish music in the future.”
He says the community can support him by simply subscribing to his YouTube channel. “You will be notified of my upcoming videos. Every view helps me to keep an income and to continue what I enjoy doing.”
To the South African Jewish community, he says, “I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the warm reception to the song. It was a leap of faith on my part [as a Christian] to work with music outside of my own faith, but I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and went for it. I did find comfort in knowing that the Psalms are celebrated in both faiths and essentially point toward the same thing, which is G-d. So with that in mind, I had a gut feeling that it would work out, and I’m glad I was right. I have nothing but love and respect for my Jewish brothers and sisters.”
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