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The long shadow of gender-based violence

“We like to believe there’s no gender-based violence in our community – that Jewish husbands, wives, parents, and professionals don’t abuse. However, abuse is alive and well in the Jewish community in South Africa and around the world. We aren’t immune.”

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TALI FEINBERG

These are the words of Rozanne Sack, one of a multitude of experts and survivors speaking at a SA Jewish Report webinar on 1 July, which unpacked the long-term effect of abuse and how difficult it is to confront it.

Human rights lawyer Professor Bonita Meyersfeld pointed out that one in three women experience gender-based violence – even in our own community. “It’s a low-level civil war. Complicity is 50% of the problem,” she says.

Crossing a line

Sack told her story: “It was a huge shock when I realised that a medical professional, whom I had trusted completely, had crossed a boundary by manipulating me to believe that I needed unnecessary medical examinations which were for his own sexual gratification.

“There were years of ‘grooming’ [a process of manipulation and trust-building that a perpetrator will use to create an atmosphere in which they can abuse someone]. He was my doctor, and I really trusted him. I put him on a pedestal, and never challenged anything he did medically.

“So, when I realised that a boundary had been crossed, it took a long time to decide what to do. It soon became evident that I wasn’t the only one this had happened to. This helped me make the decision to press charges in order to prevent others from the same abuse. By going to the Health Professions Council of South Africa, I trusted that it would uphold the Hippocratic Oath and make the right decision about whether he was fit to continue practicing.”

Accepting that she had been abused was hard, but standing up to it was equally painful. “The whole process took about four years from when it was reported until the council hearing,” she says. Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and one other woman, who had experienced similar abuse, joined Sack in pressing charges. Hendler and Sack have since founded Koleinu South Africa, a helpline for victims of abuse in the Jewish community that also educates about abuse and advocates for change.

No matter how hard it was for Sack, she encourages others to speak out. “During those four years, the three of us who laid charges had a lot of support from those in the community who knew about the case. However, some prominent members of the community put pressure on us to drop the case. We were intimidated, told that terrible things would happen to us and our families, and told we were destroying this person’s family and bringing shame to the community. While the support was there, it paled in the face of this onslaught.

“It was even more traumatic to go through this victim-blaming. We were described as hysterical women on a witch hunt, liars, and moserim [a Jewish person who reports a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities]. Learned rabbis have said that lashon hara [speaking badly of others] and the concept of the moser don’t apply to abuse. Safety is more important. We even had to send a lawyer’s letter to a prominent member of the community to desist from intimidating victims.

“For those four years, I lived with my ‘heart in my throat’. I was often shaky, and some days it was hard to function normally. To this day, I avoid going to doctors. I was always an open and friendly person, very trusting, but now I’m much more wary. This is a heavy price to have paid. If the perpetrator had shown remorse or acknowledged what he had done, it would have helped my healing process, but we never got that.

“The day before the hearing, one of the complainants got death threats. During the hearing, we all endured long cross-examinations which attacked our character. We pushed through, and when the perpetrator was found guilty on all charges of performing acts of a sexual nature on his patients, we felt hugely relieved.

“We were disappointed at the weak sentence [suspended from practicing for one year as long as there were no further complaints within a five year period].

“Wendy and I started Koleinu because we experienced first-hand how hard it is for abuse victims in the community to speak up and find support and direction. While our community is doing better, we have a way to go to becoming a safe space for people to come forward. We know people might want such an incident to be dealt with internally within community structures – be it the shul, school, or other organisations – but often that protects the perpetrator and doesn’t allow for justice to take its course and for victims to be protected. We want all communal organisations to have policies in place to allow abuse to be reported to the correct authorities so that there is clear direction and no room for intimidation.”

Abuse by a sibling

Thumi*, a survivor of gender-based violence, also shared her story. She asked to remain anonymous as she has opened a case against her abuser.

Thumi has been a victim of verbal and physical violence at the hands of her brother since they were children. “I was once in a confrontation with him, and my mother said, ‘He is a man, he will beat you.’ At the time, it didn’t mean much, but now I realise it was showing a boy child that he had every right to beat a woman.”

As shown in the memoir Educated by Tara Westover, violence at the hands of a sibling can be extreme, and is bound up in complicated family dynamics.

“The first time I laid charges against my brother, my mother said she would be on his side, and asked how I could put my own brother in jail. I had to drop the case,” Thumi said.

Since then, her mother has realised what’s at stake, and has supported her daughter in opening a new case. However, her initial support for him is still deeply painful.

She says violence in the home is rife in her community. Many can’t report it because they depend on the abuser as a breadwinner, and because it could divide the family. While they may try move away, economic circumstances don’t always allow it. And if they do move away, there’s always the chance they may need to return home, and it’s not worth creating conflict. She says we need deep, systemic changes so that women aren’t beholden to family members that abuse them.

Gender expert Lisa Vetten of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research confirmed that economic circumstances often prevent women and children from escaping violent situations. While some say a woman should find employment to solve this problem, many can’t, and others don’t want to, and should be respected.

“I didn’t realise how the abuse affected me until I became a mother myself,” Thumi says. “I have a son, and looking back on what I experienced, I decided to raise him differently. I allow him to cry when needed. I come from a culture where the African black man doesn’t cry. Men harbour so much anger, and this leads to violence. We need to raise boy children to be a ‘person’, not a ‘man’.”

Clinical psychologist Leanne Zabow says gender-based violence often comes from deep insecurity in men. They never learn to deal with such feelings, and then react with violence when they feel threatened. Children who witness violence are more at risk of perpetrating it.

“Some children identify with the aggressor, while others identify with the victim, and choose a different path,” she says. Some mothers value their boys over their girls, as a reflection of how they don’t value themselves. These patterns need to be worked through in therapy to prevent repetition down the generations.

Luke Lamprecht of Women and Men Against Child Abuse agreed that intervention should start early, and often young boys aren’t prioritised. They are treated only after they have committed an act of violence, but parents, teachers, and society as a whole needs to work with that child to prevent it happening in the first place.

Thumi is also resisting these patterns by refusing to be in an abusive relationship. She notes that women in her community don’t talk about gender-based violence. Even her own sisters won’t talk about their violent brother. Yet, if women joined forces, they could have a much bigger impact. She would also like to see the mothers of perpetrators say that they don’t condone what their child has done.

Even winning Miss SA didn’t mask the horror

Another speaker, Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Laurel Olivier, told the SA Jewish Report that at 26, she has the world at her feet, but her life hasn’t been without struggle.

“I was sexually abused from the age of seven until I was 11. I’m grateful I don’t remember much of it, but I remember how it happened the first time. There was definitely grooming, and the person was able to get to me because my parents had just divorced and I wasn’t solely in either parents’ care, but was staying at a relative,” she says. “I know the trauma was bad, or I wouldn’t have got post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety. The aftermath is much harder for me than the trauma.”

Even when she achieved her dream of becoming Miss South Africa, a dream she hoped would take her away from that past, she still woke up the next day with the reality that she was a survivor of sexual abuse. “It never leaves you. I understand that as a child, my brain suppressed the trauma because its primary function was growth and survival. It was only when I was in my early 20s that I suffered the full ramifications.”

Today, she knows that her voice and platform can empower other survivors. She believes that the primary way to support a survivor of abuse is to believe in them. They also need to be reminded of their dignity, which is why she is so supportive of the rape comfort kit packs (filled with toiletries and items like a teddy bear, that comfort someone dealing with abuse) that South African publicity guru and activist Penny Stein is working to distribute throughout the country.

“When Penny handed me that pack, and it said, ‘It’s not your fault’, I cried. I’m not a very emotional person, but I needed to read those words.”

Miranda Jordan-Friedmann of Women & Men Against Child Abuse spoke of how such violence begins even before a child is born, for example, those who are conceived as a result of rape. She says these children are the most vulnerable to abandonment or violence, which in turn might make them violent adults, continuing the cycle. “Hurt children hurt other children, and eventually hurt other adults,” she says.

Sipho Marima, a brand ambassador for the Women For Change Run, says men need to take on an activist role – it’s not enough just to be non-violent. He runs the last two kilometres of marathons barefoot as an active symbol of solidarity with abuse survivors, emphasising that turning the tide against gender-based violence in this country is in our hands.

*Not her real name

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Lifestyle

Joburg – city of architects and dreamers

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In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.

Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.

The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.

“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.

It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.

Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.

Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.

“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.

One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.

Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.

Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.

Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.

Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.

Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.

Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.

Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.

Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.

He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).

Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.

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Nominations open for a historic Jewish Achiever Awards

The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards 2020 is now open for nominations.

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JORDAN MOSHE

Just when you thought nothing familiar and fabulous was going to happen, the SA Jewish Report is calling you onboard to begin its journey to this year’s Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

COVID-19 may have brought live entertainment and events to a grinding halt, but this year’s awards will be held in a format that will make history and give ample recognition to those who have achieved great things.

This is the 22nd year of this unique awards ceremony in which Jewish individuals are acknowledged for the powerful, influential, and life-changing roles they play in South Africa. The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards acknowledges those who deserve recognition for their contributions to society, paying tribute to the men and women who have enhanced our community.

Scheduled to take place in mid-October, the annual extravaganza evening will go ahead in spite of a host of virus-related challenges.

“For the first time in the event’s history, we will be holding an online-offline event,” says Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. “While the actual event will be streamed live for people to watch without being present, guests will still be able to take part in this incredible event.”

Sackstein explains that while tables can be purchased as usual, the seating is virtual, as guests will experience a gourmet dining experience in the comfort of their own homes while watching the live event.

“Those who buy tables will have their meal delivered to their home, from cocktails to dessert,” says Sackstein. “We will also feature a virtual red carpet, with guests taking photos of themselves at home and sharing them online.”

While they tuck into their meal at home, guests will enjoy a livestream of the event, enjoying the evening’s entertainment and awards.

The awards are another area where exciting changes have been made.

“While guests are eating and watching the event, award winners will be announced live and have their awards handed over to them at home by a team waiting to ring their doorbell. This means that guests will actually see the handover of the award, and feel as though they are still part of the event without actually being there.”

Some of the award categories have also been transformed. In spite of the challenges posed by our trying circumstances, members of our community remain determined to stand out and make tangible contributions, and the awards need to reflect this, Sackstein says.

“Beyond being online, the event must be experiential in that it is relevant to the times in which we are living,” he says.

“COVID-19 has ensured that the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards has changed, and certain award categories have been adjusted to reflect our reality. Business leadership in the time of COVID will replace the usual Business Leadership Award, the Professional Excellence award will become the Professional Excellence in COVID award. Other categories will be similarly adjusted.”

Changes like these are essential, Sackstein says.

“Awards which ignore our circumstances would be meaningless,” he says. “We have moved to recognise those doing remarkable work and their efforts at this very moment which are most relevant to our community.

“We are celebrating our heroes. Heroes emerge in moments like these. Ordinary people have really grasped the mantle of leadership and provided such a remarkable example that we should all emulate.”

Every member of our community is encouraged to participate in acknowledging the tremendous efforts of those who have risen to the occasion of COVID-19 and beyond.

“While a lot of people are depressed and fatalistic about our reality, others have seen the opportunities it offers and striven to make our lives so much better,” says Sackstein. “We have to recognise and celebrate them, using them as an example of what we can do in these difficult times.”

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Neighbour snatches family from fire

A fast-acting neighbour has been hailed as a hero for rescuing a young family whose flat was moments away from being engulfed in smoke and flames.

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NICOLA MILTZ

Last Thursday night, Jonathan Penn and his heavily pregnant wife Simone put their children and themselves to bed early due to unscheduled load-shedding, which plunged their flat on the third floor of Glen Manor in Glenhazel into darkness.

The couple ate an early dinner while it was still light enough to see, and were tucked up in bed by 18:30 with their two children, Judah, 5, and Ayden, 3, in the main bedroom with them.

Simone had lit candles to provide some soft ambient lighting, including a vanilla scented Yankee Candle on the mantle.

Sometime later, the family was shaken awake by frantic, loud banging on their front door and screams to get out.

The Penns were oblivious to the fire which had broken out in their kitchen just a few doors away.

Neighbours Marlon Nathan and his daughter, Tali, were arriving home after fetching takeaways when they saw rising flames in the kitchen of the flat next door to theirs. Had they been a few minutes earlier, they wouldn’t have seen the fire.

“As we rounded the stairs and turned left, we saw flames and thick black smoke coming from Jonathan and Simone’s kitchen. We dumped our bags and takeaways, and rushed to try get them out of there,” said Tali, 23.

Working together, the father and daughter team sprang into action and began screaming and knocking at the door to the flat. Pandemonium ensued as the family jumped out of bed and were greeted by a wall of smoke.

Simone, who writes a blog titled Mothers’ Nature, related her experience the next day. “In the glass windowpane above the front door we could see burning orange reflections. We all started to cough. We couldn’t breathe. The children were screaming. Jonny was trying to pull us away from the flames and the smoke into the lounge. He was scared the blaze was in the passage. He knew not to touch the handles. He knew not to open any doors. He thought we were trapped.

“I fumbled with the keys, one arm over my mouth. I couldn’t remember how keys worked. I couldn’t remember how the door worked.”

She told the SA Jewish Report that at that moment, she feared for their lives.

As Marlon was about to kick down the front door, it opened, and frantically, he pulled Simone, Judah, and Ayden out. The little girl, disorientated, ran back inside when she couldn’t see her father through the smoke. Marlon ran headlong into the smoke to retrieve her.

Tali, a student nurse currently working the COVID-19 wards at Milpark Hospital, said, “I’ve seen my share of trauma, but it’s entirely different when you see your father dash into a fire.”

Once the family was safe, Marlon said his focus turned to extinguishing the fire which was getting out of control.

“My priority was first to get the family out of the flat, and then to contain the spread of the fire. There are 88 flats with many elderly residents. I had no time to think about anything other than putting out that fire,” he said.

Jonathan and Marlon ran through the building collecting fire extinguishers to battle the flames.

Security guard Prince Elliot used large buckets of water to put out the last of the fire.

A distraught Judah was worried about his two birds, Tweety and Koko, whom he had left behind in all the commotion. He was calmed when a firefighter much later appeared clutching a perfectly intact bird cage containing two finches.

“That was when I broke down. Every single Penn was safe and accounted for,” said Simone.

The family believe a surge caused by the power outage caused a spark which ignited the fire. “We suspect a spark landed on a large tablecloth I had folded in the kitchen,” said Simone.

Relieved and grateful, she said, “I think Hashem sent angels in the form of Marlon and Tali, and then Prince. But of course we owe everything to Marlon. We owe him our life. He and Tali appeared at the exact right moment. I shudder to think what five minutes either way would have meant.”

Marlon, 56, who has been treated for smoke inhalation said, “I’m not a hero. I just did what anybody in that situation would’ve done.”

He was meant to be in Israel for his daughter’s wedding, but cancelled his trip the day before the fire. His daughter says she now knows why. “He was meant to be here to save lives,” she said.

“I believe the family was minutes away from dying. The smoke was so heavy and thick, they would have died in their beds. They wouldn’t have got to the front door. You could hardly see them when they came out. It was scary,” said Marlon.

A firefighter told the SA Jewish Report it could have ended very differently. “This was a potentially deadly fire. One flat can take out the building. There are many different people living there with different needs, including elderly in wheelchairs. There is a petrol station next to it and restaurants. It was potentially very dangerous.”

The Penns say their experience has taught them a lot about fire prevention. They recommend keeping a fire extinguisher, installing smoke alarms, turning off the mains when the power is cut, and installing surge plugs for appliances.

Both the Penns and the Nathans are living with family members while their homes are cleaned and repaired.

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