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The Jewish Report Editorial

The other pandemic

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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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