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The other pandemic

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The Jewish Report Editorial

As I write this, I’m recovering from COVID-19. I have settled into isolation and healing – and, of course, putting to bed the first edition of the SA Jewish Report for 2022.

We have come a long way since the panic and devastating fear of getting coronavirus. I’m so grateful for that, although, like everyone, I certainly didn’t want to get it. But, thankfully, if I was going to get it anyway, this was the time to get it. I guess I have what is commonly called “COVID light” as I’m not 100%, but I have had far worse flu viruses.

It was around this time two years ago that we started hearing about this killer virus in Wuhan and we tracked down a South African Jewish man in the city who told us just how hectic it was.

Never in a million years would I have been able to predict what the next two years would look like for any of us. Our world went off kilter, to say the least.

Suffice to say this has been a long journey for all of us – in our community, in the greater South Africa, and the world. No-one has been spared some kind of significant pandemic experience – whether it involved contracting the virus or not.

Most of us who are vaccinated and contracting the virus at this point are the lucky ones. We have watched helplessly as others suffered and experienced that abject fear in not knowing how it was going to play out for them.

When I realised I had COVID-19 en route home from my glorious holiday in the Western Cape, I wasn’t fearful. I knew what to do. Strange days indeed when you head home from holiday, but go straight to Ampath for a COVID-19 test before you reach your front door. That was us. What is that saying in Monopoly, “Head straight to jail [in this case, Ampath], do not pass go, or collect R200”?

It’s not to say that some people aren’t getting a serious case of this virus. There are people who have been hospitalised, but most of them are either unvaccinated or have other comorbidities. I’m not a doctor, so I will stop right there.

However, we dare not make light of COVID-19. As we have learnt, this coronavirus does some strange things, and just when we think we know how it works, it mutates. How many people do you know who have been with someone throughout their isolation with COVID-19 and yet didn’t contract the virus. Then, that person goes to a shop a month later where someone has the virus and contracts it. Go figure!

So, while I believe that we are learning to live with this virus, we certainly don’t know that it’s coming to an end or that our lives are going back to normal. We – or the experts – simply don’t know.

My belief is that the worst days of COVID-19 are over and, as long as we’re vaccinated, we’ll start getting a semblance of our lives back in 2022. From my mouth (or in this case, my fingers) to G-d’s ears!

However, as the fear of COVID-19 subsides, the other pandemic that has many in a vice grip is that of sexual violence. A number of times since the start of the COVID-19 era, our president has brought up this other pandemic. This is the pandemic of gender-based or sexual violence and abuse.

Unfortunately, every year from as far back as I remember, our leaders speak about this dreaded scourge in our society, but not a lot happens.

This issue was recently thrown into our ball park because of Chaim Walder, who was somewhat of a folk hero in certain groups in the Jewish world. Only, it turned out that he was a sexual predator for decades too.

Somehow, he had never been brought to book over all these years, and was protected when his individual victims reported him to their leaders. Then, when it eventually began to be dealt with, Walder committed suicide.

Yes, he was a part of the religious community in Israel, but, in my opinion, that’s not specifically relevant to this fairly common scenario. I believe it happens in every society to some degree or other.

On page 8, Rabbi Sam Thurgood and Koleinu’s Rebbetzin Wendy Hendler and Rozanne Sack deal with this situation more closely.

I believe that it’s natural to want to protect those to whom we look up to and admire. We don’t want to believe that someone we care about or trust is a monster. However, the reason sexual violence and abuse is a pandemic is simply because monsters get away with their crimes. The two reasons for that are: victims fear reporting what happened to them, and people inadvertently protect the monsters and dismiss the victims who come forward.

In the light of the Walder scandal, we do have reason to consider where we, as a community, are going wrong in terms of abuse. We also need to look at it on a national and international level.

We have to understand that though most people are good, there are monsters who live in our society and they don’t look like monsters. They don’t come across like monsters. And, if allowed to continue to harm people, they will. For the most part, they are psychologically tainted – although this isn’t apparent – and they can’t stop.

So, by protecting them, we are allowing them to spread their disease and harm innocent people. By stopping them through use of the criminal justice system, we ultimately help them to stop harming others.

One of the most important things we must do is make it safe and easy for victims to be able to report what happened to them, and to believe that justice will be done to stop these predators. We have to enable them to let the criminal justice system work.

It’s so difficult for someone who has been subject to gender-based violence or abuse to report it. They have so much fear. They fear the person who harmed them. They fear the shame it might bring on them and their families. They fear the secondary rape/abuse that reporting it will entail and more.

So, we have to find a way of making it easier, not more difficult, for them to help us to protect potential victims.

I know our community may be distrustful of the police. However, those in the know, like Koleinu and certain specialist lawyers, know the police who specialise in gender-based violence. They can be trusted and know their job.

This is but an introduction to this issue, as I believe we all have a lot to do to make this place a safe space for the community. The only way to do this is to stop the perpetrators of gender-based violence or abuse. I stand by the rabbinic leadership, organisations like Koleinu, and anyone else who is going to make this a reality.

Shabbat Shalom and may your 2022 be a safe, peaceful, and healthy year!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Celebrating our youth as they matriculate

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This is one of my favourite editions of the year, when we get to celebrate our children completing matric. We pay tribute to them as they move from school into the rest of their lives, from childhood into adulthood.

For parents, it’s an emotional time because it’s proof positive that their babies are growing up and getting ready to take on lives as independent individuals.

For matriculants, it’s a little scary but extraordinarily exciting. Some know exactly what they want to do from here on. For others, the idea of choosing a career is daunting and almost impossible.

I was lucky. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be a messenger of the truth and use my writing skills and extreme inquisitiveness to do it.

Many people aren’t so lucky, and finding their path isn’t easy. It can be daunting because of fear of wasting time.

Can I say that taking a gap year, starting a course or degree that interests you, or even getting a job is never a waste of time? It represents life experience, even if it doesn’t turn out the way you want it to. Any experience is worthwhile, and will take you to the next step in your life.

Besides, if you start studying or begin your career a year or two later, in the bigger scheme of things, it doesn’t make a jot of difference.

In this edition, we profile as many matriculants as possible. However, no matter how many we do, we never seem to do enough, and someone or someone’s parents are going to be upset.

I recall a few years back how I was accosted at shul by a grandmother who wanted her incredible grandson’s profile in the newspaper. We didn’t get it in for some reason, and she was livid and abusive. No matter how much I explained the situation to her, she took it personally and insisted that I was a bad person because I didn’t tell the community about her phenomenal grandson.

I understand her. I understand the love and pride we have in our children and grandchildren. However, please understand that no matter how well your child or grandchild has done or how phenomenal their story, we only have so many pages. We can only do so many profiles. So, forgive us if their personal story hasn’t made it into the newspaper.

I know there are many who question why we put some stories in the newspaper and not others. Some don’t like what we put on the front page, and believe another story should have gone there. I’m grateful that people care enough to worry about this, but we do put a lot of thought into what we cover and what we don’t and where it goes in the newspaper.

So, we led the newspaper today with the incredible news that those of us – myself included – who are of Lithuanian Jewish descent are likely to have an easier time getting Lithuanian passports.

This is a major step forward. However, I do hear the Lithuanian ambassador, Dainius Junevičius, calling for us to take more of an interest in Lithuania and what it has to offer us. Also, what we can do to form alliances with the country of our ancestors.

I also understand the terrible tragedy that befell many of our ancestors in Lithuania, which makes it uncomfortable for some. However, we do share so much and, as long as Lithuania acknowledges it and wants to make real amends, we should be looking at how we can do this.

This week, the Lithuanian ambassador visited the Holocaust memorial at Westpark Cemetery on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Wednesday). He said: “We will never forget the 200,000 brutally murdered Lithuanian Jews and will never forgive their killers.”

However, as we always say, we can forgive, we just cannot and must not forget. See Sylvia Foti’s piece on this page about her grandfather.

On page 3, Nicola Miltz writes about the new hechsher offered by disgruntled former Beth Din mashgichim. Although they say they’re doing it for the community and not because they have an axe to grind, I wonder if it’s in the interest of the community.

Though I believe competition is always good and keeps us on our toes, the truth is that we are a small community and don’t need more than one hechsher, or do we?

Is it actually possible to bring costs down and do things better? I can’t say. However, in the same way as I believe we have way too many Jewish schools and perhaps shuls for our community, having more than one hechsher seems unnecessary. Especially because if you really want to, you can find your way to acquiring the Canadian or other international hechshers.

Think of it this way: you have 200 children at a school as opposed to 1 000. That means you have far less money to pay for the best teachers and equipment because you get far less in school fees. It works exactly the same for shuls and in regard to a hechsher, or am I wrong? Time will tell.

Before I end off, I would like to welcome officially our new Israeli ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, and his spouse, Elena Esteban Oleaga. He submitted his credentials on Tuesday. May he have a successful tenure.

And finally, I want to congratulate our 2021 matriculants who did us proud. This group of youngsters have probably had the toughest and most challenging two years leading up to those finals, but they triumphed.

May you all go on to have successful careers and lives. Don’t forget to let us know about your achievements.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

We don’t need saving, thanks!

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There must have been a giant international Jewish sigh of relief when all those who were held hostage in the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, managed to escape after a more than 10-hour standoff.

And while the hostage taker was killed when the rescue team moved in to free the hostages, there are way too many concerns about this just to move on.

We cannot ignore the fact that a hostile stranger was able to walk straight into a shul without being stopped. This is extremely concerning.

We have seen the terror and violence that has ensued when Jewish schools and shuls weren’t properly secure and safeguarded, especially when people were praying.

I know it doesn’t seem right to have armed security outside a shul or school, but what’s our alternative? The Jewish world has learnt too many times that there are none. We have to secure these precious places to safeguard our lives.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter how small you shul or shtibel is or how safe you feel in it, we – and I mean South Africans and the world over – have to be sure that we can learn and pray in peace and security. It’s that simple.

Sitting on the southern tip of Africa where we understand crime, we can clearly see the analogy of leaving the front door of your home and your garden gate open all day and night. We just wouldn’t do that. Not a chance. We would be asking for trouble. In fact, I have phoned neighbours before to make sure they were okay when they accidentally left their gate open in the middle of the day. So, why would we leave our shuls and schools open for anyone to access?

In some places around the world, we would be seen as paranoid or even ridiculous, but unfortunately, we have learnt the hard way.

Having said that, bli ayin harah (without the evil eye), we have been fortunate that our South African shuls have never been attacked the way the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was during a Shabbos morning service. The attacker killed 11 people in the shul, and wounded six. This wasn’t the first incident of its kind, nor will it be the last.

Our lesson in this for the Jewish world is to safeguard Jewish institutions no matter what. Fortunately, in South Africa, we have the Community Security Organisation (CSO) and CAP, and between these two organisations, every precaution is taken to safeguard our community.

I’m grateful every single day for the CSO and CAP. I’m also grateful that our community got this message loud and clear long before the rest of the world. I appreciate that we don’t take what the CSO says lightly because we shouldn’t. They keep us safe.

So, it made me sit up when I heard that the CSO was concerned that the hostage taker had a goal in sight, to release an Al-Qaeda prisoner in return for the hostages.

Again, hostage taking isn’t something we’re very familiar with in South Africa. It happens, but not much.

The thing is: we can’t allow it to happen. How easy is it to take a hostage or hostages and demand that some lowlife gets out of prison? Let’s not even take this to the level of antisemitism, which isn’t difficult. At all costs, we have to prevent this from happening.

Desperate people do desperate things. And as is so obvious in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, some are willing to take their own lives in the process of vengeance, hatred, or simple antisemitism. So, we have to take every precaution and, to be honest, there are many communities around the world who could take a leaf out of our book.

This brings me to an opinion piece that was carried in the Jerusalem Post early in December, in which Rabbi Stewart Weiss called on Israel to save South African Jewry.

When I first read it, I kept wondering what he was going on about. He had convinced himself that we needed rescuing as our days here were numbered. He made us out to be real miskeinim (desperate souls) waiting to be saved by Big Brother Israel. Really?

I’m not going to challenge him because South African Jewish Board of Deputies National Chairperson Wendy Kahn did that exceptionally well in a later edition of the same newspaper. However, what astonished me is how he missed the fact that we have a model community here, one that takes care of ourselves. We may have people who don’t like us much, but we live in a democracy, and we can and do hold them to account.

Yes, it’s true, the ruling party has taken a stand for Palestinians and against Israel, but this sentiment doesn’t extend throughout the country.

And in truth, antisemitic attacks in South Africa have actually been the lowest in the diaspora, according to Kahn’s piece.

In 2019, Kahn says, South Africa recorded just 37 incidents compared to Canada’s 2 207, Australia’s 368, and 1 805 in the United Kingdom. Also, South Africa doesn’t see much in the way of violent antisemitism, according to Kahn.

As she says, “We aren’t a community in distress”, nor do we need rescuing.

What we have is something Jewish communities around the world long for, and that’s a strong, vibrant, unique, and close-knit community which takes care of itself and has a wonderful quality of life.

I agree that South Africa has problems, but who doesn’t? It’s true that as individuals, we all have our fair share of issues, not least of all in the COVID-19 era. But we are just fine, and don’t need saving. Those of us who want to make aliyah are doing so. Those of us who want to continue our quality of life in South Africa don’t want to be “saved”, thank you very much.

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Get on with living … cautiously

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Too many people I’m close to have COVID-19. My housekeeper, two close friends, my sister and her family, and my rabbi. Go figure!

This is way too close to home. Having said that, home is exactly where we have been since this time last week.

We have been isolating. Doing what it takes to make sure that we don’t pass on this virus that we thought we might or might not have.

“We are sick of COVID-19!” It sounds like the mantra of this community, this country, and possibly the world. And I can’t say there’s any surprise in that.

This is the fourth time we have been bulldozed by this potentially deadly virus. This is the second December holiday that has been sorely impacted by this maddening illness. This is the third time I have had one of those irritating things stuck up my nose in a COVID-19 test. Others have had it done more often. And it’s the umpteenth time my precious plans have been thrown asunder because of this dreaded lurgy. I would so like to shout out that it’s enough, only I dare not do that.

You see, as much as I’m sick and tired of COVID-19, the virus seems to be getting smarter about spreading itself around those I care about. In that group are those who are more vulnerable.

The truth is, I would hate to know that I made anyone sick, especially if they got particularly ill or found themselves in a difficult situation because of me.

I have no desire to play G-d. I have to consider other people – we all do.

This weekend, my family and I were invited to go to a barmitzvah of a dear boy who is my son’s best friend. It was an event we had been looking forward to for ages. It was going to be a barmitzvah party to remember.

The young man was having a joint barmitzvah with his first cousin, whose birthday was just days apart from his.

The reason they were joining forces was because they have close family who live around the world and they wanted them to share in their simcha.

So, as you can imagine, first, the overseas family weren’t able to come. Then, the party was postponed, but the boys were still going to go ahead with reading their haftorah.

Only, the last straw was that our rabbi got COVID-19, and that put paid to the barmitzvah at this point.

These friends have been so gracious in accepting the inevitable, as were the young, soon-to-be barmitzvah boys. They learnt a very important lesson that you have to roll with the punches and deal with things not happening the way you want them to.

But though the disappointment was inevitable, the mother of my son’s best friend said, “We want this to be a special day, not a day that will be remembered for making people sick.”

I get that. I guess that was a similar reason for the rabbi of our shul making the decision to shut the shul down until the spike passes.

I know there’s absolutely nothing illegal in having protocol-compliant events. There are still large barmitzvahs, weddings, and other end-of-year functions happening. They may well be run totally according to government protocols, but that doesn’t mean they won’t land up spreading this variant. Who knows? Nobody does, that’s the point.

I cannot say to anyone, “Don’t have your event.” It’s not up to me and, more than that, I understand the need to have some fun. I understand the need to let my hair down. I understand the frustration of living so long under the threat of this dreaded coronavirus.

The idea of dancing at a party or having just plain fun is so enticing.

It’s such a difficult decision to make – to have or not to have an event. It’s difficult to decide to stay home from a restaurant because this variant is so contagious.

We planned a lovely outdoor end-of-year lunch, which we cancelled under advisement. I was so grumpy about it as I really wanted to spend time with my co-workers and our board. But, we did the right thing, albeit the unpopular and irritating thing.

I believe many of us are in a position where we want to do the right thing, but it’s becoming more and more difficult because we are so gatvol of living with this constantly mutating virus.

There are many who are questioning whether they should go on holiday, and some have already cancelled.

I’m not one of them. I believe I can safely have a beautiful holiday without putting myself or others under threat of illness. It isn’t that difficult to stay within your little bubble and not get up close and personal with others. Spend time on the beach, but keep your distance. Spend lots of quality time outdoors. Fly a kite. Take a long walk in the fresh air. Get a tan. Relax. Take a deep breath. Enjoy some quiet time with a good book.

Do those things that you don’t have time to do during the year but don’t involve being in close proximity to people without masks. You know the drill. We can all do it, it just takes being conscious and thinking before doing.

I know it’s frustrating to have to think constantly of ways of having fun that don’t involve being surrounded by people. I get it, but the time will come when this dreaded coronavirus is nothing more than the flu.

From all accounts, this strain of COVID-19 is much more contagious than the ones we have seen before, but it doesn’t seem to be making most people very ill. This is a very, very good sign. It appears to signal just what we are hoping for. Exactly when that will be, I can’t say. But it will happen.

So, for now, let’s just go with the flow. Do things consciously. And, most importantly, stay healthy and have a wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful holiday!

We won’t be publishing over the holiday period, but we’ll be back on 13 January 2022.

Shabbat shalom!

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