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The guardian angel at Victoria Falls

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TALI FEINBERG

She took charge of ensuring that adventurous Israeli Ofer Cohen’s body made it back to his family in Israel, and that Jewish law and tradition were followed while doing so.

“It all started when a different Israeli passed away suddenly at Victoria Falls Airport in December 2018. Gail lives in the area, and happened to be there. She made a promise to his distraught widow that she would do everything in her power to get her husband’s body back to Israel as soon as possible with all Halacha observed,” says Rabbi Eitan Ash of Zaka (a voluntary community emergency response team in Israel). “This she did, dedicating every waking moment to making it happen.

“When we heard there was the possibility that another Israeli had died at Victoria Falls, the first person we contacted was Gail,” says Ash. “From the second we contacted her, she went into action. We and the Israeli Embassy were very much in the background supporting her while she made things happen. It wasn’t about fitting it into her day, it became her day. She worked on it non-stop until Ofer’s body was repatriated, purely out of the goodness of her heart.”

“I was interested as to why Gail, a total stranger who incidentally was not Jewish, spent 24 hours each day from time of death until repatriation, ensuring that the deceased was afforded the correct treatment of kibud hameis (honouring the deceased),” wrote David Weber of the Chevrah Kadisha.

As it turns out, “Many years ago, a young Israeli was killed at Victoria Falls. Gail recalls how her Israeli son-in-law spent the days after death ensuring that the deceased was treated with care and respect, and that all efforts were made to ensure that repatriation was not delayed. Gail had such clear memories of the previous death, she even accessed the Chabad website to ensure that her actions and behaviour were acceptable.”

Although she does not do this as a profession, (she owns retail outlets and a jewellery studio), van Jaarsveldt dedicated three full days in both instances to get the Israelis’ bodies back to Israel as soon as possible.

“She ensured every form was signed, every stamp was issued, and every loop was closed. She went back and forth from the police station to the mortuary, even to court, ensuring that autopsies or cremations were prevented. She also paid what was needed out of her own pocket,” says Ash.

Meanwhile, when the young Israeli’s family heard about his death, his mother was due to fly to Zimbabwe. “But when Gail contacted us and assured us she had everything under control, we realised that my mother-in-law did not need to go to Zimbabwe,” says Inbar Cohen, Ofer’s brother-in-law. “She saved us that trip, and if it wasn’t for her, it would have taken a lot longer to bring Ofer’s body back to Israel.”

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Zimbabwe, Van Jaarsveldt says that she had never met Ofer, but feels inextricably tied to him. “The last communication I had with his mother was that ‘from this moment on, I am family’, an incredible privilege and honour,” she says. “I know most of Ofer’s young friends here in Victoria Falls, and he seems to have made more friends in the short two months he was here than I have.

“My involvement came about when I received a call from [Deputy Ambassador] Ayellet Black at the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria. I then spent the next few days at the police station, assisting with the body recovery [which in itself was a major exercise] going through all the documentation for the repatriation of the body, the waiver for the autopsy, ensuring that Jewish tradition and beliefs were followed as much as possible under the circumstances, confirming facts surrounding this incident, and Ofer’s time in Zimbabwe, speaking to various people, meeting his friends, and generally liaising with all concerned.”

Van Jaarsveldt says it is difficult to convey “the raw emotions and shock that shook this small community with Ofer’s death. The local community, whilst not knowing Ofer, were very sympathetic. Everyone involved was aware of Jewish traditions and beliefs, and did whatever was possible to assist and observe them.”

For example, “When Ofer’s body was loaded on Ethiopian Airlines, and the doors were shut, there was a technical problem with the plane. It was touch and go as to whether the plane was able to leave and eventually, the engineers sorted the problem out. The whole airport [airlines and ground crews] were abuzz about this. Everyone was saying that Ofer’s spirit wanted to stay in Vic Falls! It was very emotional when the aircraft took off, knowing that Ofer was taking his last flight in the skies he loved so much.”

Van Jaarsvelt worked closely with others even after the body was repatriated. “Ofer’s close friends Ralph and Mutsa were on hand to take stock of all Ofer’s belongings to get them back to his family. We put out a request through the Chevrah Kadisha in Harare for assistance in this regard, and within an hour there were volunteers to carry Ofer’s belongings back to Israel.

“I don’t think there is a single person in the town or townships of Victoria Falls who did not know about Ofer’s untimely death. In the days following his repatriation, I have had phone calls and messages from the head of our regional police, the registrar who completed part of the repatriation paperwork, the rescue team, the funeral home, many of his friends, and Jewish families living in the region. Everyone wanted to know if Ofer’s body had arrived back in Israel, and if his family were able to lay him to rest in his homeland. He may be gone, but he certainly will never be forgotten!

“I don’t know many people, Jewish or not, who would put their lives on hold for someone they didn’t even know,” says Ash. “She really was our soldier on the ground. It renews my belief in humankind.”

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