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Support, not stigma, key to addressing postnatal depression

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“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

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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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Rabbonim called on to recognise GBV in Torah

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The scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) is as pervasive in the Jewish community as it is elsewhere. Because of this, the Union of Jewish Women (UJW) Cape Town and the Commonwealth Jewish Women’s Network (CJWN) have asked rabbis to help fight it by addressing the matter with their congregations. It’s rare that the GBV that occurs in the Torah is ever discussed.

The women’s organisations recently called on Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein and all rabbonim to share the story of Dinah at this time. The United Nations has designated 25 November to 10 December 2021 as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, and the women hope that addressing the rape of Dinah, which took place in a recent parsha would highlight the need for activism.

Dinah was the daughter of Jacob and Leah. In Parashat Vayishlach, Dinah is abducted and raped. “Shechem saw her; and he abducted her, lay with her and afflicted her” (Genesis 34:1-2).

“The rape of Dinah is a very difficult and complicated story,” explains local Jewish educator Adina Roth. “She is raped by the prince of Shechem and then her brothers mount a vengeance campaign against the people of Shechem, massacring everyone.

“What’s really disturbing is that Dinah’s voice is excised from the story. Her only moment of agency in the story is at its opening, when she ‘goes out to visit the daughters of the land’. It’s during this ‘going out’ that the rape happens. ‘Going out to visit’ is an unusual sentence in the Torah. It’s suggesting that she was sociable and curious about life, meeting other people and stepping beyond the tent, which was often the circumscribed space for women in the Bible.

“The story subtly suggests that her going out is what puts her in danger, leading to the implication that she’s partially to blame for what ensues. This narrative is enforced by some commentaries that suggest that Dinah exposed herself by showing her arms, or that she was like her mother Leah who also ‘went out’ of the tent to claim her husband Yaakov. So sadly the commentaries end up assigning blame to Dinah and perpetuating myths that women somehow ask for it,” says Roth.

Karen Kallman of the UJW Cape Town echoes this sentiment. “‘What was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Did she provoke him?’ are what is implied. The ‘16 Days’ is a fantastic opportunity to have conversations about respect, equality, and the role we can play in helping to end violence,” she said.

Ilona Lee of the CJWN says, “Dinah has no voice in this parsha. In what ways are women silenced in our world today?” She elaborates on questions that could follow from reading the parsha. “What does respect look like in a relationship? What are some of the expectations we have of men and women in society? What are the impacts of blaming victims of violence?”

Roth also points out that the rape of Dinah was not the only instance of GBV in the Torah. “One of David’s sons, Amnon, rapes his sister Tamar in a very disturbing story. It’s clear that she resists and begs him to leave her alone,” says Roth. “After the rape she cries and tears her clothes. Her utter distress is recorded in the Tanach. Thereafter we don’t see her again. What happened to her?” While that question cannot be answered, the community of today can ensure that women do not disappear from our narrative.

“What’s [also] important is that in this story it’s an Israelite assaulting her. It’s important to realise [that] we need to take responsibility for what happens in our Jewish communities, and for the patriarchy, abuse, and misogyny that comes from within,” said Roth.

Goldstein responded positively to the initiative, writing to rabbonim on 18 November. “I believe we have a responsibility to support this important message and lend our voice to the issues raised by the campaign. The UJW in Johannesburg has written to me to suggest we harness the collective influence of all our rabbis, and that we speak about the issue of abuse during our shul droshas and shiurim this Shabbos. As difficult as this subject is, I believe we need to address it head on. As leaders we can use our influence to bring these issues out into the open, and galvanise our communities to deal with them.”

Rabbi Osher Feldman of the Gardens Shul in Cape Town was one rabbi who joined the campaign. His Shabbos drosha on 19 November was entitled ‘What type of man are you? A protest against gender-based violence’. In the sermon, he stressed that GBV was not just something ‘out there’ but sadly very much alive in our communities. “The true definition of strength and power is not in our control over others, but in our control over ourselves. As Pirkei Avot puts it, ‘Who is strong? He who controls his own inclinations,’” he said.

Also in Cape Town on 25 November, the Western Cape government invited faith leaders to light candles in honour of those who had lost their lives to GBV. The Jewish community was represented by Rabbi Nissen Goldman.

Writing about this on Facebook, Goldman said, “Today I had the privilege and responsibility of addressing the Western Cape government as they launched the 16 Days of Activism campaign. They lit candles, and I doubt anyone realised it at the time, but the way each speaker placed their candle ended up forming a menorah.

“I thought it was a message for the occasion. GBV doesn’t just happen. Like most things, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.” While not excusing the behaviour, he noted, “We need to be asking ourselves why this man felt the need to do this. Men are hurting others because they have been deeply hurt. And this is what needs to be addressed: trauma, from as early on as possible. This is where the menorah comes in. Its message is clear. ‘I reflect you. Look inside! The world needs you and your light, now go shine.’ If only men were taught that.”

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Reconnecting with rescuers on that dark, stormy night

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Many stories begin with the setting of a “dark and stormy night”. The difference, in this case, is that this story is true.

It was a cold and rainy evening in Johannesburg almost two decades ago when Kim O’ Hagan’s husband and son ran into trouble en route to a Shabbat dinner. Seventeen years later – in November 2021 – the family reached out to those who rescued them, bringing the story full circle.

Recounting the story to the SA Jewish Report, Johannesburg research director O’Hagan recalls how “the evening after my husband Simon’s 39th birthday [30 April 2004], Simon and my son, Liam, were en route to Liam’s grandmother’s house in Cyrildene for Shabbat dinner.

“Simon was doing a favour for my brother, Jonathan Selvan, by delivering his work vehicle [a fully equipped Peugeot Boxer with shelving in which one could stand up] to Cyrildene. I can just imagine Liam, who was 2½ years old at the time, excitedly sitting next to his dad in front of this huge vehicle. My daughter, Erin, and I had driven ahead in a separate car.”

There was a light drizzle, and the streetlights weren’t working. “On turning the corner into Houghton Drive, some of the shelving slipped, and Simon stopped the vehicle and stepped out to check what had fallen.” It was at that moment that he fell into a manhole.

“He recalled the event by saying, ‘I stepped on to the pavement, but the pavement wasn’t there’. The manhole was rectangular and luckily, not very deep. He smashed his shoulder and fractured several ribs, but fortunately didn’t hit his head. He was in excruciating pain and unable to get out to rescue Liam who at this point, was still strapped into his car seat.”

Simon tried unsuccessfully to flag down passing motorists who were unlikely to have seen him in the dimly lit area and even less likely to take a chance and stop on the side of the road.

“In the meantime, a couple was returning home and had driven into their driveway on Houghton Drive,” continues O’Hagan. “On seeing the commotion, the woman, who I was to learn was journalist Tanya Farber, rushed to rescue Liam from the car seat. Her boyfriend (now husband), Jeremy, made contact with me and my family in Cyrildene.

“By this stage, Simon had forced himself out of the manhole, clearly fighting the pain in a desperate attempt to get to his little boy. Netcare responded, and Simon was given morphine so that they could mobilise his shoulder and place him on a stretcher. He was then taken to Milpark Hospital, operated on, and discharged several days later.”

The family were grateful to be safe, and moved on with their lives. But tragedy struck when Simon died suddenly in 2006 of unrelated causes. Liam was four and his sister Erin was six.

“I have tried to instil memories of their father by relating stories to them and reminding them of the people their dad knew, and who played an important role in their dad’s life,” says O’Hagan. “Liam has even less of a concept of his father than Erin due to being younger at the time. So those memories become that much more important as one goes through life and begins to comprehend the part of your life that’s missing.”

In that context, the dark and stormy night when Liam and his father were rescued has become even more pivotal. “Liam says that he has few memories of his father, and the few memories that he does have become all the more significant,” says his mother. “Considering that he was 2½ years old, he clearly didn’t understand the gravity of the situation that night. Liam remembers seeing lights out of the front windscreen and being held by a really friendly lady. He says he has no doubt he enjoyed the attention! Liam questions what his dad would think of him now, and he suddenly thought to himself that this was a really big moment in his life that he has never really looked back on. He was curious as to how far back he could remember, and this was in fact one of his earliest memories.”

So, out of the blue a few nights ago, “Liam suddenly asked me if I knew the name of the people who had rescued him that night. We had never really discussed it before. It took me a few minutes to think, and I told Liam, but he didn’t tell me he was going to try to contact Tanya.

“Having told him that Tanya was a journalist, he started by looking on LinkedIn and Facebook. He found her email address and decided to email her. Part of Liam’s thought process at the time was that because of the many losses he had suffered recently [we recently lost Simon’s brother, Liam’s uncle, to COVID-19], he decided it was important to reach out to Tanya.”

The first O’Hagan knew of Liam’s email was when he read her Farber’s response. “We were both so deeply touched and the emotions took us right back to that night.” The two parties decided to meet, and “Liam, Erin, and I are all excited to meet Tanya and Jeremy as we feel that they are part of our connection with Simon. We were so touched by Tanya’s warmth and her memories of the night, as well as those of her husband, and her sister, Yael.

“Yael spoke to Simon while he was in the manhole. That’s something so special that I needed to hear, because by the time I got to the scene of the accident, my only vision was of Simon’s desperate struggle to get out.”

She has no doubt that they will maintain their new connection. “When someone dies, although their intentions are good, few people maintain contact. I have always tried to keep Simon’s memory alive by keeping up relationships with people who have touched our lives,” says O’Hagan. “The wonderful thing about our community is the connections we all have. It doesn’t matter who the hero was on the day, but the fact that Liam reached out, that there are such special humans out there, is what makes me proud to be part of this wonderful Jewish community.”

Farber says the reconnection has also been extremely meaningful. “I remember at the time understanding Simon’s panic of being stuck in the manhole while little Liam was stranded in the car. But it was only when I became a parent myself not long afterwards that I truly understood the depth of it,” she says.

“Receiving the email from Liam all these years later was a life-affirming experience for me. He and his family are incredibly special people. It has reminded me how strangers’ lives can intertwine in ways we don’t expect, and yet invisible connections persist.”

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