Support, not stigma, key to addressing postnatal depression
“Women feel we have to be superheroes, but it’s being vulnerable that really makes us into supermoms,” says Feige Swimmer.
Together with Devorah Rothman, Swimmer is the co-founder of Achoti (My Sister), recently rebranded as Mom Squad, a community of women helping each other through the unique struggle of postnatal depression (PND).
The name change came during COVID-19 as a way of emphasising the group’s value in bringing moms together – those who have been through PND and those who are facing the diagnosis – especially at this time.
Swimmer’s own experience with PND a few years ago led her to start the group. Less than two weeks after giving birth to her third baby, Swimmer faced devastating news. Her mother-in-law, her main source of support, had a car accident and was subsequently diagnosed with cancer. Left alone with two boys and her newborn girl, Swimmer crashed. “I sought help, but I was put on the wrong medication,” she says. “I couldn’t eat and sleep for months, and I couldn’t mother my kids properly. I was in survival mode, depleted of energy. It was tortuous.”
Swimmer eventually hit rock bottom. “It was only by allowing myself to be vulnerable that I began to recover. I had to open up, accept help from my friends, and find the right doctor. That changed everything.”
Swimmer realised that by asking for help she was actually giving her friends the greatest blessing. When she was later asked to support Rothman who was suffering with severe PND, Swimmer embraced the chance to pay it forward. From visits to phone calls to walks, Swimmer spent hours helping her new friend deal with the struggles she’d previously faced. “I said and did the things I wished someone had done for me.”
As Rothman slowly began to recover, she suggested to Swimmer that they offer similar support to other PND sufferers. “Women in these situations feel very alone,” says Swimmer. “We’d become sisters, we’d been in the same mental space, and there was zero judgement. There was a connection, someone who just got you, who said it’s not your fault, it’s going to take time. Even your best friend, your mother, or your husband can’t fully understand.”
And so what ultimately became Mom Squad was born. Made up of former PND sufferers, the organisation volunteers to chat to, visit, and practically assist moms suffering from PND. It also plans to resume in-person support groups as a way of fostering further connection. Mom Squad refers PND sufferers to appropriate medical professionals and helps those who are questioning whether they have PND. “Moms can sit on the phone with us and just sob if they need to,” they say.
After calling for volunteers on the Joburg Jewish Mommies Facebook group, Rothman and Swimmer were inundated with responses. They’re proud to be breaking the stigma about PND, and to be empowering women to come forward. “After my experience, I realised there’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” says Swimmer. “Just letting someone else know that they’re not alone means my job is done.”
Mom Squad volunteer Ahuva Raff struggled with PND for years. Giving birth to her first child at the age of 21, Raff felt overwhelmed. “I was angry and emotional,” she says. “I saw a therapist because I knew something was wrong, I just wasn’t sure what it was.” The therapist had limited PND experience, and failed to refer Raff to a doctor. “PND is really a chemical imbalance, and you can talk about your feelings, but without the right medication, you’re not going to recover.”
Raff eventually stopped therapy, mistakenly thinking she’d recovered. “They say it often hits those with type-A personalities, those who have to have things in control – that was me. I could never get to that organised point again. I was calm, but I became anxious and irritable.”
Four years later, Raff had her second child and was prescribed Eglonyl to treat anxiety. “It kept me calm, but it wasn’t enough, and I often forgot to take it. I’d say I was fine, but I wasn’t. I was screaming the house down at my oldest child.” By the time Raff fell pregnant with her third baby, her day-to-day functioning was basically non-existent.
Six months pregnant and driving her kids to swimming, Raff accidentally ran over a man’s foot. “That was my turning point. Thank G-d he wasn’t actually hurt, but after that I crumbled because I realised that in my state, I could have actually killed someone.”
Raff went to her gynae, broke down, and was finally prescribed the right antidepressant. “It was a game changer, I felt like a totally different person. Everyone gets PND in different forms, but regardless of the severity of your case, your whole experience can change if you deal with it.”
For some, COVID-19 has added a whole new dimension to their baby journey. Not only did Becky Horwitz face the traumatic loss of her beloved mother-in-law weeks before her second daughter was born in February 2020, the country was also plunged into hard lockdown weeks after her daughter’s arrival.
“To be a parent in these unprecedented times was completely unnerving,” says Horwitz. “I was already taking Eglonyl to help with milk production for breastfeeding, and it was definitely taking the edge off emotionally.” Yet when the prescription ended, she began to feel the walls close in.
“I knew instinctively that I wasn’t okay,” says Horwitz. “I had previously struggled with circumstantial anxiety and depression, so I knew the signs.” Caring family members got the Horwitz’s a night nurse, but this was short-lived due to the COVID-19 threat. “At one point, my mom came to stay for about a week and I managed a few consecutive nights of uninterrupted sleep which felt like winning the lottery.” Yet COVID-19 restrictions made support from extended family and friends less accessible.
Horwitz suffered with feelings of failure, loneliness, and gut-wrenching guilt. “I faced anxiety and crippling self-doubt that left me reeling, nauseous, and with no appetite or strength. I had thoughts of running away and leaving my precious babies and beloved husband. I had never felt such utter helplessness and hopelessness.”
It was through articulating her feelings that Horwitz ultimately found comfort. She saw a counsellor and psychiatrist who prescribed medication, but it was the emotional support from someone who knew what she was going through that made all the difference. Through friends, she connected to the Mom Squad community. “Feige Swimmer was my rock. She congratulated me on seemingly small things like understanding that I needed help and asking for it.”
PND is something you learn to live with, says Horwitz. “Yet, I know that I can send a message to my support group any time of the day or night, and nine times out of ten, another mom will be having a hard time too. That connection, for me, is where the healing lies.”
Connect with Mom Squad on www.facebook.com/momsquadsa
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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