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The artist, the ConCourt judge, and RBG

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The last time retired Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs saw his dear friend, United States (US) Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg was when he delivered a unique lace collar created by acclaimed South African artist Kim Lieberman at the end of 2018.

Bader Ginsburg died, aged 87, on 18 September after a long illness, and the world is mourning this political and feminist icon. Since she became the second woman ever to serve on the US Supreme Court in 1993, RBG (as she was affectionately called) has been a leading voice for gender equality, women’s interests, civil rights, and liberties.

Lieberman learnt about RBG in July 2018 and was taken with all that she stood for. Once she realised that the US judge collected and wore lace collars, she was determined to make one for her.

Lieberman described RBG as having challenged and transformed gender-based laws and perceptions for decades. “She must have been pivotal at the start of the feminist era,” said Lieberman “She continued to press issues of that nature. People celebrate her integrity and her stance, and what must be the dignified yet fierce way she had to uphold and place her value system.”

Lieberman contacted Sachs as soon as she could because she knew he was a close friend of RBG.

“I emailed him [in August 2018] about my idea, asking him if he had a route to get the lace collar to her. He said he would gladly take it to her himself if I could make it by November, as he was going to Washington DC then,” said Lieberman. She made it and delivered it to Sachs in Cape Town, and he personally took it to the already ailing US judge.

Sachs had been friends with RBG for about 20 years at the time, having met her at the US Supreme Court when gathering ideas for building the Constitutional Court in South Africa. After being introduced to her and invited to her chambers, visiting her became a “must-do” whenever he was in Washington DC.

RBG and her late husband, Marty, then came to visit Sachs in South Africa to see the Constitutional Court about 10 to 15 years ago. “She adored our court, loving the warmth and friendliness of the building,” he said. Her delight in the court Sachs was so involved in developing was his all-time favourite memory of her.

Because of him, RBG went on to write the foreword for Art and Justice, a book on the art collection of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. It turns out that an artwork of Lieberman was featured in the book.

When Sachs took Lieberman’s collar to RBG, he recalls having to wait a while to see her because, in spite of her ailing health, she was working out with her trainer. He smiles at the memory of how RBG “looked like this tiny person who would be blown away by the wind, but she had a vice-like grip and was incredibly strong”.

He recalls her opening the box with the collar in it, and her eyes lighting up. “She gasped, literally gasped. She said she was thrilled, and felt and touched the collar, and put it back on the soft, dark cushion and said, ‘Albie, I can’t wear this, it’s a work of art. I’m going to rather frame it’.”

Sachs told the SA Jewish Report this week, “Ruth was very careful that we shouldn’t take photographs of her wearing the lace collar as she didn’t want her station to be involved in anything commercial as in to promote Kim’s work.”

However, he said he was “so happy” to take the collar to RBG because he knew that Lieberman had created it for her out of deep respect for all she stood for. Also, he said, it was no coincidence that Lieberman was working in lace, and RBG was interested in lace collars. It made sense to him that she would want to give her this gift.

For Lieberman, the mission that connected her to RBG began in a mud bath on the Italian island of Vulcano. “I was chatting to an American woman I’d just met, and I mentioned that I make conceptual art and lace,” recalled Lieberman. “She asked if I’d heard of Judge Ginsburg. She told me that she wears lace collars to make political, feminist statements. You can just imagine the shivers I had. So many of the concepts she spoke of I embed in my lace works. I knew I had to make RBG a lace collar. I immediately also knew how it would look, and the concepts it would convey – the same concepts with which she imbues her own collars.”

Early on as a judge, RBG decided that as her male counterparts wore ties, she would wear feminine collars as a feminist stand. But feminism was only one part of this complex and fascinating woman, who also loved art and opera.

Sachs described his late friend as “very solid, grounded, firm, and decent” about being a judge, a woman, and a dear friend. “She had an extremely sharp mind, quick but not witty and smartassed – that wasn’t her style.

“She had a deep and profound sense of justice, being there to protect the vulnerable. So, although she became famous as a feminist legal advocate and strategist, which was central to her work, it didn’t stop her from engaging in other areas where people were being unfairly treated by the law.”

RBG recognised that people thought she offered a different vision of the world to that of Donald Trump, Sachs said. However, she “lacked bravado, and instead was thoughtful and modest and very determined to do what was right”.

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Second wave surges over community

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The second wave of COVID-19 is currently crashing over the South African Jewish community, leaving tragedy, despair, and fear in its wake. In Cape Town, one community member reported her relative’s funeral this week was delayed as there were “too many bodies” that needed to be buried.

“We are entering into the peak of the second wave in Gauteng,” says top Johannesburg pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg. “Never in my wildest dreams did I believe that it could be worse than the first wave, but it is. G-d help us as we travel this road.

“Multiple people in our community are being quarantined or isolated. There are much younger, sicker people, and they are scared, anxious, and fragile. The wards are rapidly over-filling. Healthcare-worker fatigue is the new norm.”

Eric Berger, the director of the Cemetery Maintenance Board in Cape Town, says, “We have seen a spike in the number of deaths over the past two weeks, and expect this to continue for the next five to ten days.”

Meanwhile, in Johannesburg, Chevrah Kadisha (Chev) Chief Executive Saul Tomson says, “The total deaths in December were up 37% compared to the five-year average”.

“The second wave seems to have affected our community with much greater force than the first,” says general practitioner Dr Orit Laskov, whose practice is in the heart of Sea Point. “At our practice, we are seeing huge numbers of people contacting us daily with symptoms and testing positive, and increasing distress. People aren’t able to care for loved ones. Patients are anxious about developing severe complications and needing to go to hospital.

“The virus is affecting almost all age groups and unfortunately, we continue to see irresponsible behaviour and choices resulting in ‘pods’ of infection among people in the community and whole families affected, with multiple deaths in one family now not uncommon,” says Laskov.

“People need to behave like we are in level 4 or 5 lockdown to protect themselves and their families, and any onset of symptoms must be taken seriously. Don’t be in denial. If it could be COVID-19 then it probably is COVID-19 at the moment,” she says.

The director of the Community Security Organisation in Cape Town, Loren Raize, agrees that the second wave has drastically increased cases within the community. “In June, we were taking care of 53 patients on our COVID-19 wellness programme. In December, at one stage we had more than 200 active cases to manage, many of whom had to be hospitalised, and sadly there have been a number of deaths. During the first peak, by day 10 the vast majority of patients were ready to come off the programme. This time around, we are taking care of patients for 14 days plus.

“On average, we service 90 calls per month, whereas in December, we had more than 360 calls. Over and above this, we sent a mobile logistics unit to service Plettenberg Bay and surrounds during this time, as well as assisting Hatzolah with cases of Johannesburg patients on holiday in Cape Town,” says Raize.

In Johannesburg, Hatzolah volunteers and staff say they are too busy working in the community to respond to questions, but that the numbers recorded on their wellness programme “say it all”. Just in the week preceding 8 January, they took on 225 new cases. Twenty-eight people were admitted to hospital, and 19 people were put on home oxygen.

Considering the statistics that Hatzolah puts out on a weekly basis, SA Jewish Report Chairperson Howard Sackstein has worked out that an average of 34.3 people in our community in Johannesburg are contracting the virus daily at the moment.

One community member in Johannesburg, speaking on condition of anonymity, says, “The pain, aches, dizziness, nausea, and headaches are so bad that I cried. The isolation of being in a room alone for 14 days and the guilt isn’t for the faint-hearted.” She says her 10-year-old son has symptoms, and while an initial test came back negative, he will be tested again. “I wasn’t able to love, hug, or be a mom to him. He was scared, and I couldn’t comfort my precious child.” She is endlessly grateful to Hatzolah for monitoring them both daily.

Tomson says there was a decrease in community deaths in October and November, which was down year-on-year, but compared to the five-year average, there was a 17% increase in community deaths in 2020.

Within the Chevrah Kadisha’s residential facilities, “We have been blessed for many months to have no COVID-19 infections, which is miraculous. We are still being extremely vigilant with protocols. We’ve stopped in-person visitations, but digital visits remain very popular. Funerals have been very small.

“We have seen tremendous trauma with families not being able to attend funerals, spouses not being able to attend because they’re COVID-19 positive, and families overseas. Our bereavement counselling services have been there to support the community through this time, and it’s been very difficult. In some instances, families have been brought in special vehicles to the funeral if they are COVID-19 positive,” Tomson says.

“The Chev’s staff and volunteers remain committed in the face of danger. COVID-19 deaths present risk when collecting, preparing, and burying the deceased,” he says. “Credit needs to be given to those brave people – volunteers and staff – committed to burying with dignity and compassion in spite of the challenges they face.”

In Cape Town’s Highlands House Home for Jewish Aged, two residents have been lost to COVID-19 in the past week, and two have COVID-19.

The disease has had a huge impact on the small but strong Durban Jewish community. “Since the beginning of December, the community’s Crisis Management Team has monitored 106 people, with 15 having to be hospitalised. We are aware of many others in the community that we aren’t actively monitoring,” says South African Jewish Board of Deputies KwaZulu-Natal Council President Jeremy Droyman.

“At one stage, we were actively monitoring 60 people simultaneously. Currently, we have 32 active cases. Sadly, there have been six deaths.” Jewish aged home Beth Shalom has had two positive cases and one death during the second wave.

“One of the things that is probably under-reported is the impact of people not being able to see their loved ones when they’re in hospital, and tragically when they die,” he says. “This is having a big impact on families because normally they would have some time to come to peace with the passing of their family, and COVID-19 has meant the people are dying alone in hospital, which is awful.”

Institutions continue to battle the effects of the surge. “It’s been a really tough period,” says Shelly Korn, the director of the Glendale Home for Jewish Persons with Intellectual Disabilities in Cape Town, which lost two residents to the virus in 2020. “We had many of our staff sick all at once. We have been working with skeleton staff and are really struggling. We are also finding that people who have recovered and are coming back to work are battling with recovery. They can’t work full days, and have issues with energy and breathing. In terms of testing and personal protective equipment, it has been an expensive exercise.

“Now everyone knows someone who has been in hospital. Everyone knows someone who has succumbed to this deadly virus,” says Meyberg. “It’s time to stand up and be counted – wear your mask, keep a social distance, be responsible,” he pleads.

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Dlamini puts “Hitler loving” past behind him

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Six years ago, infamous campus rabble rouser and Fees Must Fall student activist Mcebo Dlamini was a fiery, Israel-bashing antisemite prone to hurtful and divisive words, including his love and admiration for Hitler.

Today, he appears to be a different man. The erstwhile University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) student representative council president says he has had time to reflect on what he now admits was a shameful and misguided period in the impressionable springtime of his political career.

“I was naïve and overwhelmed by the space I occupied as a young leader. I lacked a role model and mentor to guide me,” a repentant Dlamini told the SA Jewish Report this week.

Just two days before the Day of Reconciliation on 16 December, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) accepted a written apology from Dlamini and engaged in mediation with him, facilitated by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). It was a poignant moment – many years overdue – that has been praised as an example of true reconciliation.

The mediation took place at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre (JHGC), where Dlamini was introduced to the horrors of the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocides following a facilitated educational engagement with the permanent exhibition at the JHGC.

“It made a huge impact,” he said this week.

“I felt a big sense of relief when my apology was accepted. I never thought this would end amicably,” said Dlamini who was “very nervous” the first time he visited the offices of Zev Krengel, the vice-chairperson of the SAJBD.

“He thought he was going to be arrested,” said Krengel this week, as the two men sipped coffee together in his office and recalled the day last year when Dlamini arrived at his office hoping finally to make amends.

What motivated the passionate Swaziland-born firebrand, who was found guilty of public violence for his part on the 2016 Fees Must Fall protests, to apologise now?

“I found I was no longer in a position to be taken seriously,” he lamented this week.

“What I said weighed heavily on my shoulders and persistently blocked my growth in social-justice activism. I found I couldn’t touch lives because I had destroyed lives. I want to be a human-rights lawyer, but how could I talk about love, reconciliation, and peace when I had made these comments?”

The SAJBD lodged a formal complaint against Dlamini with the SAHRC in 2015. In April that year, Dlamini took to Facebook and wrote, “I love Adolf Hitler. In every white person there is an element of Adolf Hitler”.

Then, during a live interview on PowerFM in June 2015, he said of Jewish people, “They are devils. They are good for nothing. They are hypocritical … they are uncircumcised in heart.”

There were other comments. Each time, he seemed to get more followers on Facebook.

“You get carried away in that process, and no one tells you that what you are doing is hurtful and dangerous and can damage your future career,” he said.

Much of Dlamini’s childhood was in Kamhlushwa in Mpumalanga, where his mother introduced him to politics from a young age. “She taught me about Pan-Africanism, and politics was part of our lives,” he said.

Dlamini became swept up in the heady induction phase of student politics. He rose quickly through the ranks of the Progressive Youth Alliance (consisting of progressive students of the South African Students’ Congress, the African National Congress Youth League, and the Young Communist League).

“Apart from many issues, the Middle East conflict always comes up for discussion. There is a dominant pro-Palestine narrative which I realise is biased and one-sided,” he said, admitting that he became “damaged” by it.

Following months of introspection and discussions on the Middle East, he now understands that it’s a multi-faceted, highly complex affair requiring empathy and understanding on both sides.

This journey, he said, made him realise that in order to pursue the noble fight for human rights, he had to acknowledge and make amends for his own ill-informed personal biases and prejudices.

Towards the end of last year, Dlamini asked his comrade, Wits law graduate and Africans for Peace co-ordinator Klaas Masilo Mokgomole, to help him address this longstanding issue.

Mokgomole sided with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa movement at Wits until he was encouraged to learn about both sides following an educative trip to Israel and an ongoing commitment to understand the struggle.

Together with student leader Cebolenkosi Khumalo, they arrived at Krengel’s offices in November in the hope of reaching an amicable outcome. Krengel told the SA Jewish Report he was intrigued by Dlamini’s visit after so many years of unresolved animosity between Dlamini and the community.

“I was interested to hear what he had to say,” said Krengel, who was pleased when Dlamini showed genuine remorse.

Following a process of mediation, Krengel said, “The sincerity with which Dlamini acknowledged the hurt that he caused our community was palpable. This understanding prompted him to make an unequivocal apology which was truly remorseful.”

He told the SA Jewish Report that Dlamini recognised that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive.

“This recognition together with his genuine apology enables us to heal from the hurt he caused. It’s important for us as a community and as South Africans to identify when genuine remorse is expressed. It’s equally important for us to accept a sincere apology of this nature as it enables us to move forward.”

In his written apology, Dlamini said, amongst other points, “It’s only in retrospect that I began to appreciate how much my statements were ill-advised and to a certain extent dangerous because they ignored the kind of trauma that they caused. My journey has made me appreciate that I was wrong, and there is no possible excuse for what I said and there can be no way to reverse how it affected others. What I can do is supplement my apology with actions as testimony that I’m truly remorseful.

“I’m committed to engaging with literature that will assist me in learning about the history of Jewish and Israeli people to understand why my sentiments were offensive. Once I have this in-depth knowledge, I commit to teaching others about the knowledge I acquired.”

He said he wanted to travel to Israel to gain an understanding of how the Jewish people’s present is shaped by their past.

“I have thought deeply about the kind of leader I want to be, and it’s definitely not a leader that spreads hate and rejoices at the misfortunes of others.

“This marks a new chapter for me, and I’m hoping I can move forward.”

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Criticism for second shul shutdown in 10 months

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For the second time in 10 months, shuls have had to close their doors as COVID-19 rampages across the country.

While most within the community have accepted the restriction in the face of an overwhelming second wave, the closures have drawn some criticism from those not willing to give up their regular minyanim.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced two weeks ago that the country would move to lockdown level three as infections rose sharply during the holiday season. This included the reintroduction of the ban on religious gatherings, closing shuls that had reopened in October last year.

Although the ban was initially set to end later this week, Ramaphosa extended it in his address on Monday evening.

The closure of shuls is a necessity in the fight against the virus, says Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

“With the introduction of regulations and the extension, the president is looking not just at shuls but all places of worships across the country,” he told the SA Jewish Report this week. “His decision is driven by factors going way beyond our own community.

“We cannot judge the decision in terms of our own shuls, which have done amazingly well and remained as safe as possible,” the chief rabbi says. “We need to recognise that we are citizens of this country and are committed to upholding the law so as to ensure that every person around us is safe.

“It’s sad for us. We love our shuls. They are part of our lives, but we have a responsibility to promote health, safety, and support the fight against this disease.”

Goldstein commended the shuls and their rabbis for their commitment to caring for their members and adhering to protocols.

“They were incredible in their dedication to the protocols,” he says. “People appreciated it, and many felt that, outside their homes, the shuls were the safest places to be.”

The chief rabbi also paid tribute to Ramaphosa, saying that the president had given great consideration to the input from religious leaders from across the spectrum at an interfaith meeting held this past Sunday before Monday’s announcement.

From a health perspective, the closure of shuls is imperative, says emergency medicine expert Professor Efraim Kramer.

“We should actually be in a level-five lockdown at this point,” he says. “We can’t do that economically because the country would collapse. This second wave is far worse than the first, and almost every other country has gone into lockdown with lower numbers.”

Businesses, restaurants, and other hubs of economic activity are open only out of economic necessity, Kramer stressed.

“They aren’t safe just because they’re open,” he says. “If you’re not out working, you should be staying at home. People don’t seem to understand that. The closure of shuls isn’t about them being more or less safe. Unfortunately, they aren’t economic spaces, and need to stay closed.

“You cannot complain about a measure that’s in place to keep us alive. If we carry on the way we’re going with the highest death rate we’ve ever seen, how can we go back to normal? We have no right to make such a demand, no matter how safe we feel our shuls are.”

While most shuls have closed their doors, some disagree with the president’s decision. This includes Sydenham Shul’s Rabbi Yossy Goldman, who recently penned an open letter expressing support for the president but also maintaining that shuls should remain open as they are among the safest places because of their strict protocols.

“I felt strongly that there needed to be protest against the fact that shuls were closed down yet again,” Goldman told the SA Jewish Report. I was bothered that our community, including our leadership, could be blasé about shuls closing. We’ve become nonchalant about it.

“It’s become a new norm. Of course, you can daven at home, but the shul is the heartbeat of Jewish life. As special as Zoom minyanim have been, I had to make the point that we cannot become accepting of change.”

Goldman maintained that shuls are far safer than casinos, restaurants, and cinemas, which have been allowed to remain open, and said the ban on religious services shouldn’t be a blanket ban.

“It’s almost an inconsistency of the regulations,” he says. “Also, psychological, spiritual, and emotional well-being are as important as economic well-being. We need our shuls more than ever before.”

Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the rabbi of the Oxford Synagogue Centre and chairperson of the Rabbinic Association, also worries that it will be challenging to encourage people back to shul when they reopen.

“We’ve done a good job of telling people to stay home and daven, but that’s backfiring on us now,” he says. “People have taken to staying home, and it’s become a habit. It’s getting progressively harder to get people back to shul. I hope we don’t struggle in the long run.

“We’re being challenged as rabbonim. We need to reinvent what shul means and change our approach to the relationship with congregants. The role of rabbi has shifted.”

Not all minyanim have opted to shut down, however.

A minyan operating within the Glenhazel area has been operating since March 2020, and although it has moved a few times, it has operated consistently over the past 10 months.

At times held outdoors, the minyan usually has a maximum of 15 men. Those who attend maintain that the complete shutdown of a minyan is too drastic, relying on precedents found in rabbinic responses during previous pandemics in history to guide their decision.

“It never occurred to Rabbi Akiva Eiger that minyanim should be shut down,” said a representative of the minyan who asked to remain anonymous. “It was always a matter of taking reasonable precautions and getting on with life.

“I’m not aware of any response that they wrote urging that life be shut down. There has never been a situation in which Torah authorities called for such drastic measures.

“Our members are resolutely determined to daven in a minyan. The response to COVID-19 around the world and in our community has been a fiasco. We have attacked a cockroach with a bazooka and seem unperturbed about the fact that the bazooka killed two people, injured 20 others, demolished the house, and started a fire next door, all while missing the cockroach.”

He argues that the response of the Johannesburg rabbinate has been “spectacularly out of proportion to the threat posed by COVID-19”.

“Last year, when South Africa moved to level three, and religious gatherings were permitted, there was no justification whatsoever for keeping shuls officially closed. One need not be an epidemiologist to know that simple mechanisms can be put in place to ensure people’s safety.

“There is no medical reason – and certainly no religious reason – to suspend minyanim. That decision was motivated by fear and ignorance rather than prudence.”

He was equally critical of the government’s latest announcement, saying that it made no sense to ban religious gatherings while keeping other facilities open.

“It doesn’t take a genius to realise that there is no rhyme or reason to this,” he concluded. “Whether the government’s move is a deliberate attack on religion or simply another instance of ANC [African National Congress] stupidity and incompetence is immaterial. We will continue to daven in a minyan.”

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