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The Jewish women lighting the Olympic flame

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Lifestyle

The Olympics isn’t just the site of the greatest sporting prowess in the world, it’s also a source of national nachas. This Women’s Day, 9 August, we celebrate some of the great Jewish female athletes taking part at the Tokyo Games.

Medallists:

Avishag Semberg –Taekwondo, Israel

Avishag Semberg has proven her mettle in Taekwondo, winning a bronze for the Israeli team at the very first day of this year’s Tokyo Games. Competing in the women’s under-49kg category, she’s the youngest Israeli to get a medal. And, she’s certainly not done yet, recently telling The Times of Israel that her next goal is gold at the Paris 2024 games.

Of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic roots, Semberg grew up Gadera in Israel. According to The Jerusalem Post, she first became interested in Taekwondo in Grade 1. At the martial arts club where she began training, she met fellow Taekwondo talent Nimrod Krivishkiy. Having trained together since childhood, their bond has since turned to love, and she is now in a long-term relationship with the 22-year-old.

Last year, Semberg enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and serves in the home front command. The Friends of the IDF (FIDF) tweeted after her victory, “FIDF is so proud of Avishag Semberg. Athlete, IDF soldier, and now Olympic medallist – is there anything she can’t do?”

Jessica Fox – Canoe Slalom and Kayak Slalom, Australia

The wonderful “water-whizz of Oz”, Jessica Fox is frequently cited as the most successful paddler in history. These games have been no exception, with her having already achieved a gold in women’s canoe slalom and a bronze in kayak slalom.

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), although Fox was born in France, her family moved to Australia when she was four after her father was appointed as a coach for the country’s Olympic team.

Fox’s story is one of intergenerational talent. Her mother, Myriam Jerusalmi, who is now her coach, was an Olympic champion herself, having won bronze for kayak slalom at the 1996 games. Her father, too, was an Olympic canoeist, and her sister, Noemie, is also part of the canoeing clan, taking part in slalom canoeing.

The 27-year-old has previously spoken about the family pride that motivates her. “Both my parents competing in the Olympic Games is something pretty special. Winning a medal is something that you dream [of], and I’m proud to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” she told JTA.

Lilia Akhaimova – Gold in Team Artistic Gymnastics, Russia

Akhaimova is one of Russia’s golden girls after nabbing top spot as part of the country’s artistic gymnastics team. Competing under the banner of Russian Olympic Committee, Akhaimova attained the top score for vault in the team finals.

The 24-year-old hails from Vladivostok, a city with a rich Jewish history dating back to the 19th century. Akhaimova’s family lived in the area until 2012, when they moved to St Petersburg to give her and her sister, Luba, more sporting opportunities.

When not training, Akhaimova is a big fan of social media, posting extensively on Instagram and TikTok. At university, she studied sport and health. It clearly has been a big year for her as in addition to participating in her first Olympics, she received the title of Honoured Master of Sport in the Russian Federation.

According to a message posted on Facebook by the Russian embassy in the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Akhaimova and her team, saying, “For the first time ever, Russia has won the Olympic gold in the artistic gymnastics team event. This success has become a worthy prize for your talent and perseverance in reaching your goals, for your team spirit, solidarity, and beautiful, graceful performance.”

Upcoming Events:

Linoy Ashram – Rhythmic Gymnastics, Israel

The 22-year-old Adidas-sponsored Ashram is Israel’s darling. Having set a number of records and won the European all-around title ahead of the Olympics, she’s now considered one of Israel’s biggest hopes for glory at these games.

Born in Rishon LeZion, her family is of Yemini and Greek origin. She said that she began gymnastics as a small child because she simply couldn’t keep still.

She’s studying education, and describes herself as a perfectionist. One of her routines is set to Hava Nagila, although she incorporates lots of different musical genres into her routines. According to the Hey Alma website, she even has a back-bend turn named “the Ashram” after her.

The women’s rhythmic individual all-around gymnastics qualifications take place on Friday, 6 August.

Sue Bird – Basketball, United States

An icon of the Olympics, Sue Bird, was one of the United States (US) flagbearers at the opening ceremony this year. The 40-year-old is competing in her fifth Olympic Games, hoping to nap a fifth gold medal for basketball.

Born in New York, according to JTA, Bird was granted Israeli citizenship in 2006. Though she did so in order to be able to play in European teams, she said she learnt a lot about her cultural heritage in doing so.

According to Sports Illustrated, Bird used to keep her gold medals in her sock drawer, although she now puts them in a safety-deposit box. Her fiancé is acclaimed US soccer star Megan Rapinoe.

Bird has been instrumental in the fight for better pay and benefits for the female players in the US’s Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). Former WNBA player Dawn Staley is quoted by Time magazineas saying that Bird “gives a voice to women who are underpaid and underappreciated”.

The women’s basketball finals take place this weekend.

Jemima Montag – Racewalking, Australia

A first timer at the game, Montag’s parents’ “meet-cute” story began at the 1989 Maccabiah Games where her father was playing cricket and her mom competing in heptathlon.

According to the Hey Alma website, though Montag tried a variety of sports and dance, she found her niche in racewalking, saying that her “combination of endurance, hypermobile joints, and fiery competitiveness are a great trio for racewalking”.

Montag sites her Holocaust survivor grandparents as her inspiration, holding close their lessons about resilience.

The women’s race walking final take place on Friday.

Alix Klineman – Beach Volleyball, United States

When Alix Klineman wasn’t selected for the US Olympic team for indoor volleyball for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the now 31-year-old decided to switch to beach volleyball to continue her Olympic dream. This gamble paid off, and she is now ranked second in the world with her partner in the game, April Ross.

Born in California, Klineman is a graduate of Stanford University, having gained a degree in Art Studio. In 2015, she was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

The Women’s Beach Volleyball semi-finals and finals take place this week.

Maor Tiyouri – Marathon, Israel

When the Women’s Marathon event takes place over the weekend, Maor Tiyouri will represent Israel with pride.

The 30-year-old from Kfar Saba comes from an Iraqi and Iranian Jewish background. Though she studied and now trains in the US, her heart is made of pure milk and honey.

She told Hey Alma that being a Jewish athlete and representing Israel, a “small country that has known so many hardships” was an honour and a privilege.

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Israel

Tenacious Miss SA returns to hero’s welcome

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In spite of being crowned Second Princess in the Miss Universe pageant held in Eilat, Israel, last month, Miss South Africa admits to having felt nervous about returning home to South Africa afterwards.

Lalela Mswane flew to Dubai and then Israel without the support – or knowledge – of the South African government, which had been pressurising her not to go for weeks beforehand.

“I didn’t know what was awaiting me [in South Africa]. I was anxious but optimistic at the same time. I had a warrior-princess attitude. I had been to hell and back. I felt like, ‘Bring it on!’,” she says.

But the 24-year-old need not have worried. A hero’s welcome awaited her as ordinary South Africans showered her with pride.

During a press conference at OR Tambo International Airport, she expressed disappointment and anger at the government’s decision, and the mass criticism she had received in the lead-up to the contest.

“I felt abandoned,” she said. “I’ll never comprehend what I did to make people feel justified in their actions. You don’t have to be for me, but you don’t have to be against me. You don’t have to, certainly, wish death upon me because I made a choice.”

The starlet recognised the situation for what it was. It reminded her of the years of bullying she’d endured while growing up.

“I’m tenacity personified,” she quips. “I believe in standing for something. Even if you have to stand alone, or stand with very few people, be strong in your convictions.”

Born in Richards Bay and raised in Pretoria, the beauty queen discovered her love for ballet in the Jacaranda City, and went on to complete a Bachelor of Law at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for humanitarianism and creating positive change is what ultimately steered her towards competing in Miss South Africa.

“The dream [of being Miss South Africa] was planted in my heart when I was about seven,” she says. “I saw my predecessors do so many amazing things and the impact they could have.”

As a devout Christian, the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem was a dream come true.

“It was emotional. We went to the Western Wall and heard a prayer. I literally felt a sense of renewal and rebirth, and said to G-d, ‘Let your will be done.’ I was at peace from that moment on. For me, spiritually, that trip was everything and more.”

Mswane describes Israelis as “extremely friendly, very welcoming”, and even picked up a little Hebrew. “Todah”, she says perfectly. “The first thing I asked when I arrived was how to say thank you because I say thank you a lot!”

No trip abroad would be complete without sampling the country’s cuisine, and this journey was no exception. “Oh, the food! I think I gained weight. No, I know I gained weight,” she laughs. “I’m not a bread girl, but I couldn’t get enough of the bread there. It was so fresh! You could just get the sense that it was made with love.”

She’s even become a fan of Israel’s most famous dish – hummus.

“I’ve been converted. I had it the other day at a restaurant [in South Africa] but it didn’t hit the spot.”

Now that she’s back on home soil, Mswane is serious about placing the entire ordeal behind her and focusing on how she can help South Africa overcome unemployment.

“I don’t regret my decision one bit. I’m so happy I went. Israel was everything and more and I’ve often said that I would have gone regardless of the location. My stance was never political; it was me going to pursue a dream that I have always had.”

The battle has now turned to the courtroom where last month, nongovernmental organisation Citizens for Integrity (CFI) brought a case over the government’s withdrawal of its support to the high court as a matter of public interest. Although it failed to get the urgent hearing it anticipated, “no merits of the application were discussed. The only aspect discussed was urgency. The case continues,” says CFI founder Mark Hyman.

The application by Africa4Palestine (formerly the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions group) to be amicus curae (a friend of the court) wasn’t even heard by the judge, who asked it to leave.

The department of sport, arts and culture falsely claims on its website that the case was struck from the roll. Minister Nathi Mthethwa argues online that, “Our position is rooted in the responsibility to encourage a culture of moral stewardship amongst all who carry the South African name.” He has yet to respond to an open letter by CFI saying it isn’t too late for him and the government to apologise to Mswane.

Says Hyman, “We remain steadfast in the belief that only when the government is held accountable for its unacceptable conduct toward its own citizens, and the courts make such orders, can we say that we are making South Africa a better democratic society. This is what we seek to do by fighting for the rights of South Africans in this case.

“CFI remains convinced that the government has avoided its obligations and has failed to respect the rights of its citizens, and needs to be taken to task because of it. We believe that the government had no constitutional right to interfere in legitimate private business affairs in the first place or to bully such a party into submitting to the government position and to publicly sanction her for refusing to comply with its demand. We also believe that the government has unconstitutionally impaired Miss South Africa’s dignity by detailing to the public, in emotive terms, the nature of private discussions simply in order to justify a decision which it imposed on her.”

Mswane, though, has already put it behind her.

“I definitely cannot say I’m the same person. Before, I was searching for validation and support from everybody. Post everything, I feel like if something resonates with me deeply, I don’t need validation. Resonating with me should be enough.”

It’s often said that a person’s name has the ability to shape them. Mswane’s parents must have known this when they named her “Lalela” which means “listen” in isiZulu.

The greatest lesson she’s taken from the experience is to listen to her heart.

“If you know that you have found peace in a decision, do it, because you need to stand for something in life. Not everyone is going to agree with you, and that’s fine, but you need to back yourself all the damn time.”

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‘Kosher’ prawns and mussels spark packaging alert

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For some Jews, kosher prawns and mussels would be a dream come true. So, when it emerged in December 2021 that two local treif seafood products had a United Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) Beth Din kosher hechsher on their packaging, many laughed it off as a humorous error.

Others took it more seriously, saying that if prawns can be labelled kosher, there may be mistakes where the distinction isn’t so clear cut.

The prawns were a Woolworths product, while the mussels were from Shoprite.

“The erroneous use of the Beth Din logo on products is nothing new,” says a member of the local Kosher Consumers Organisation (KCO), speaking on condition of anonymity. “It happens from time to time and occurs throughout the world. It’s acceptable, and mistakes do happen, but only up to a point. We’re concerned about the frequency with which this is happening in South Africa. Almost every alert which goes out is about products which contain the logo when they shouldn’t, or products which contain the incorrect designation of parev or dairy. As consumers, it’s impossible to keep track. It also makes one question the reliability of the logo when it does appear on a product.

“Chocolate, cold drinks and the like is one thing, but prawns and mussels is another completely,” the consumer says. “This is unacceptable. It speaks to a breakdown in controls and systems of monitoring and approval. In an age of fake meat and fake cheese, the damage that can be done by the Beth Din logo on non-kosher seafood can be immeasurable. The response from the UOS has been tepid – one email sent to the community. One email only. What about people who have no email? Where’s the urgency?”

The KCO points out that “the treif seafood which bears the Beth Din logo is made in Cape Town. The latest extremely confusing alert which went out about wine which has the Beth Din logo on it, but also the Hebrew words ‘not kosher’ is also a product made in Cape Town. Following the passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels a year ago, the UOS of Johannesburg has taken over the kashrus operations of Cape Town.”

The group says it remains anonymous because it’s fearful. “We wish we could be open, but one cannot tackle the establishment these days without repercussions. We understand that our anonymity may prevent us from being taken seriously, and that’s a price we need to pay. But we’re concerned for our livelihoods. The Kosher Consumer Organisation of the 70s to the 90s was a powerful force in the community. Times have changed, the community has changed. But it had a great history and was well-received by the community.”

Commenting on the treif seafood labelling saga, UOS Kosher Department Managing Director Rabbi Dovi Goldstein says the error lies with the companies concerned. “Woolworths and Shoprite are longstanding and major clients of the Kosher Department, with thousands of kosher-certified products on their shelves. Both companies have been committed to the Jewish community for years and were most apologetic and co-operative in rectifying the problem when this printing error was brought to their attention,” he says.

“In both instances, the mislabelled products were brought to our attention by members of the community. Unfortunately, errors like these occur from time to time all around the world. When we were made aware of them, we remedied it by notifying the community via email and our various social-media channels, and we contacted the companies and had the products removed from their stores or the logo covered, to which they agreed.

“Where issues of mislabelling occur, we work with manufacturers to address the issue to ensure it doesn’t happen again and notify our community immediately,” Goldstein says. “In addition, over the holiday period, Villa Cape wine was also seen on shelves bearing an unauthorised logo, together with the Hebrew lettering stating ‘not kosher’. This was an unauthorised use of our logo, and the company in question has also been contacted and the products recalled from the shelves.

“The reality is that we have tens of thousands of products with our logo on the shelf, which is positive for the kosher consumer. The community is our eyes and ears on the ground, and may very well spot a labelling error on packaging on the shelf before we do as the kosher department. We have recently established a dedicated email for community members to send this kind of information through to our team. If you come across any product that bears our logo and seems unauthorised, please email notkosher@uos.co.za with a photograph and the details of the packaging, and we will investigate.”

Woolworths spokesperson Kirsten Hewett said, “We apologise for this labelling error. Accurate, transparent, and helpful product labelling is very important for our customers. The kosher authority notified us of the packaging error on 20 December 2021.

“We immediately removed all the incorrectly labelled products from our store shelves on 20 December. As an interim measure, a sticker will cover the kosher logo on the packaging while the label is being corrected. While we do have procedures in place to prevent mistakes, we are reviewing these procedures and will implement further controls to prevent errors in future.”

One community member complained directly to Woolworths, and shared extracts of the response he received. “Our technical team was extremely concerned to hear about the matter. All factories producing products for Woolworths are audited independently by various inspection services to ensure that the highest standards are maintained.

“Following your complaint, we have conducted a full investigation with the manufacturer which involves a detailed investigation of the label printing and approval process. We have identified the error, and have corrected it immediately. We have addressed this with our supplier and reinforced the importance of following the correct labelling procedure. We take pride in adhering to the correct kosher practices when manufacturing and packing our kosher products,” the company wrote.

The Shoprite media team said, “The supermarket chain would like to apologise to its loyal customers for oversight of this labelling error. It has already agreed with the UOS of South Africa and Kosher SA to ensure that the packaging is updated and correctly labelled in its next packaging print run. A kosher alert was subsequently issued detailing the particulars.”

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COVID-19 – a Kilimanjaro for KDVP alumnus honoured in Canada

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South African-born doctor Graham Sher was surprised, speechless, and deeply moved to be appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honours, on 29 December last year.

This King David Victory Park (KDVP) matriculant, who has been chief executive of Canadian Blood Services (CBS) since 2001 and an executive from its founding in 1998, was honoured for his contribution to public health and for being instrumental in the development of Canada’s largest blood system operator.

During Sher’s time leading CBS, a national organisation with 4 000 employees, he has navigated the challenges posed by the West Nile virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome. Having also summited Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013 to raise funds for his organisation’s national public cord blood bank, his latest obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although I’ve managed many crises in the past, nothing has been as big, complex, sustained, and challenging as COVID-19,” Sher told the SA Jewish Report.

“In the many challenges I have had to lead the organisation through over time, I have had to be agile and responsive to understand what the nature of the emerging challenges are. I have had to protect the blood supply. I have made sure that safety is the single most important factor in every decision we make. I literally have been very close to the notion that a safe and secure blood supply is non-negotiable.”

When Sher emigrated to Canada after matriculating from KDVP in 1980 and completing his medical and doctoral degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, he could never have dreamed of being tasked with conquering such hurdles.

“I had an outstanding and phenomenal education at Victory Park,” says Sher, who was at the school from Grade one to matric. “I remember very well some of my outstanding teachers. A lot of people were highly influential in my life – Joseph Sherman, Jeffrey Wolf, and a number of maths and science teachers.”

His time at KDVP was important for him in many ways. “I came out of there certainly prizing the values of education and striving to do one’s best. I grew up in a household that was probably substantially below the economic norm within King David, so I was very grateful for the financial support from the community, the board, and others to help me get through my time there.”

It taught him, he says, that there are always people in the world less fortunate than oneself. “It has certainly influenced who I am and the type of work I do. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to spend my career working in the public rather than the private sector.”

After becoming the first person in his extended family to obtain a university degree of any kind, he initially undertook a post-doctoral research programme at the University of Toronto. While there, he was accepted to pursue speciality training in haematology, the study of blood and blood disorders.

“One of the reasons I chose to come to Canada as opposed to the United States is that I’m a big believer in publicly-insured and publicly-administered healthcare systems,” says Sher. “Those systems, which we have in Canada, are better health systems than those in which access to healthcare is dependent on one’s economic ability.”

In the spring of 1998, when Sher was comfortably settled in Toronto with a flourishing academic medical career at the University of Toronto and the Toronto Hospital, he was approached to become the vice-president of medical affairs of a new organisation that would be replacing the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Before he knew it, he had his first executive position with the organisation that became CBS. Less than three years later, at just 38, he became its second chief executive.

“My role as CEO is to lead the organisation, set strategy, ensure operational success, and make sure we can deliver against our mission and mandate. What that entails is delivering a large number of products and services to the healthcare system to support every hospital in Canada.”

Sher says CBS is unique because it’s a national organisation, meaning that it has a responsibility for delivering products and services to the entire healthcare system across the country.

“Although our name stresses the word ‘blood’, we’re involved in many other business lines,” he says “We’re responsible for collecting blood from blood donors in Canada, manufacturing it, and testing it, making sure it’s safe, and sending it to all the hospitals. But we’re also responsible for the collection and manufacture of many human-plasma derived pharmaceuticals. We run a diagnostic laboratory division. We’re also responsible for all of the work involved in stem cell bone marrow transplantation and organ transplantation for the country.”

Some of the organisation’s achievements during Sher’s time at the helm are developing new products and services, commencing work with the organ and tissue donation and transplantation community, and opening a national public cord blood bank to collect and provide lifesaving cord blood stem cells for transplant.

Sher hired Tusker, a guide company in America, to lead him and the 24 other members of the group up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest single free-standing mountain in the world, in 2013.

“Tusker’s owner turned out to be a Jewish ex-South African named Eddie Frank, who was a very good friend of one of my first cousins. He had a photograph of me at the Barmitzvah of my cousin, Paul Sher, 50 years earlier. To make a long story short, in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for personal and professional reasons, I landed up connecting with an excellent African Jewish guy who lives in the United States and is world famous for leading clients up Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Frank successfully led Sher, who was in the best shape of his life at the time, and the other members of the group to the summit and back. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life by far,” says Sher. “It was a complete life-changing event. It taught me that I could push myself to physical and emotional extremes in a way I had never really understood before.”

The previous year, the youngest of Sher’s three sons had his Barmitzvah at the Johannesburg-based Greenside Shul. “It was the same shul where I had my Barmitzvah,” says Sher. “Interestingly, the rabbi, Mendel Rabinowitz, was a good friend of mine at school at King David.”

Going forward, Sher wants to continue preparing CBS for the post-COVID-19 world.

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