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Third wave closes schools and shuls

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Amid a merciless third wave unlike anything the Johannesburg Jewish community has seen before, a number of Jewish schools have decided to close, and Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein is calling on shuls not to hold minyanim until after Monday 28 June.

The rapidly changing situation and spiralling number of infections has led to a change in the initial decision taken at a meeting convened by the chief rabbi on 10 June with rabbis, senior committee members of shuls and medical experts.

“Initially, Professor Barry Schoub, and Dr Richard Friedland advised that individual shuls should take the decision whether to suspend their services temporarily based on their unique risk circumstances,” said Goldstein.

However, later this week, on the advice of Schoub, a virology expert, and Friedland who is the Netcare CEO, Goldstein called on the rabbonim in Johannesburg and Pretoria to “suspend minyanim for the next two weeks” and sent letters to the shuls in this regard.

“The situation remains fluid, and will be reassessed on an ongoing basis and the community kept informed,” he said. “We pray the situation improves so we will be able to responsibly reopen on June 29.”

Rabbi Ricky Seeff, the director of the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE), which governs King David schools, said, “As the number of COVID-19 cases in Gauteng began to increase at an alarming rate, as did the Hatzolah numbers over the past week, we felt that closing the schools was the correct course of action for the safety of our teachers, students, and the broader community.”

Asked if children are catching and transmitting the virus more now than in other waves, he said, “Although the numbers within our system have been very low, there is undoubtedly a noticeable shift from previous waves. Children of all ages have tested positive for COVID-19 in the current wave.

“The majority of cases [of children contracting COVID-19] reported have been due to family transmission and social events that have taken place outside of school,” he said. “As such, in our high schools, a large number of students have needed to isolate. Thankfully, the King David system has been able to adapt and stream the lessons to students at home.”

Seeff said the SABJE consulted with a team of medical advisors on a weekly basis. “We firmly believe physical schooling is ideal due the educational and social benefits for students, and we have tried to keep the schools open. Last week, our medical advisors felt that the time had come to consider closing due to the spread within the community.”

At this point in time, all King David schools are online. “We will continue to monitor the situation and make the decision to reopen according to data and medical advice,” he said. Online teaching is available for all grades. High school exams continue on campus. “Given the short duration of the school day, the large ventilated venues, and the lack of social interaction [during exams], our students and staff will be safe for exams to continue in person.”

“The decision to close was more challenging this year because parents are back at work and may struggle to assist their children with online schooling,” said Seeff. “We have received an overwhelmingly positive response to the decision in spite of these challenges.”

Rabbi Yossi Liberow, the managing director of Torah Academy, said the school had closed most grades. “Exams will continue until when we intended to complete the term. We are definitely seeing children catch the virus more so than in previous waves. In the past few days, we have seen a bigger increase in cases,” he said.

Rebbetzin Natalie Altman, the director of kodesh and ethos at Yeshiva College, said, “We’ve closed our whole preschool and playschool. Grades R, 1, and 2 remain open. Grades 3 to 6 are online. Grades 7 to 11 are writing exams, and they remain at school. Our Grade 12s are doing block lessons, and they remain at school.

“There’s no question that the Hatzolah numbers are reflecting that children are catching and transmitting the virus, much more now than in other waves, and being affected by it,” she said. “We have many more children that are COVD-19 positive. In addition, six or seven girls in our girls high school have lost grandparents [in the third wave]. It’s been quite traumatic and sobering.”

Johannesburg general practitioner Dr Daniel Israel said, “We have seen in this third wave a far bigger spread of COVID-19 among children [than in other waves]. In my own practice, I’ve diagnosed a one-year-old and a three-year-old in the past week with COVID-19, as index cases in their families. In schools, it’s sometimes impossible practically to make children adhere to guidelines to the point of no risk whatsoever. So when cases are high, it certainly isn’t the time to be playing the risk game.”

Therefore, he thinks it’s the correct decision to close schools. “It will make a big difference to the amount of contact. The challenge is what kids do when they’re not at school. If they have arrangements and sleepovers, then it’s far less safe than interacting at school with masks and ventilation.”

In terms of age groups, “the youngest kids are definitely a problem. We’re getting cases in very young children who can’t wear masks because they’re too young – that’s really a spreading environment. Where it’s also a problem is early and mid-high school, because kids there seem to have an attitude that they’re invincible, and sometimes they’re rebellious and don’t follow the rules. Matrics are normally serious enough about it that they wear a mask and are careful. And certainly in the primary schools, the kids are quite compliant. So, I believe we could return to school in stages based on age groups,” Israel said.

Said Schoub, “All the Jewish schools have been exemplary in carrying out COVID-19 precautions. However, the present COVID-19 epidemic is particularly severe in the Jewish community, and it was felt it would be unwise to keep the schools open at this time. Data has indicated that the extent of the epidemic in the Jewish community currently exceeds that of the first and second waves, and temporary closure of schools would be a wise precaution.”

On the Synthesis Podcast of 13 June, Linksfield Clinic pulmonologist Dr Anton Meyberg described the situation in hospitals as “anarchy”, and said he believed shuls (and other places of worship) should be closed and religious gatherings curtailed. Anyone over 60 or those with comorbidities should keep away from such gatherings, Meyberg said. “Put yourself first, contain yourself, even if you are vaccinated. If schools are closing, it should trigger in our minds that we are in trouble.” He called on religious and community leaders to speak up and encourage compliance.

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Declining immunity points to need for booster shot

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Booster jabs may well become essential as it appears that antibodies to COVID-19 decline significantly six months after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

That’s according to a recent study by the Sheba Medical Center, Israel’s largest hospital, rated by Newsweek as one of the top-10 hospitals in the world for the third year running.

Published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine on 7 October 2021, the study was conducted on 5 000 of Sheba’s medical workers comprised of different populations including immunocompromised individuals who were monitored with weekly serological testing.

The findings clearly illustrate a waning response to the vaccine, with neutralising antibodies decreasing sharply in the first three months following the second dose of the vaccine, and significantly abating afterwards.

“This study tends to support the view that durable protection decreases sometime after vaccination, especially after six months,” says Professor Barry Schoub, who chairs the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines.

Schoub, also professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, points out that Sheba’s study and the observations of increasing post-vaccination “breakthroughs” aren’t definitive evidence of waning immunity after six months.

“These observations may be a reflection of the prioritisation of higher-risk individuals, such as the elderly, in the earlier stages of the vaccination programme, as, for example, in Israel. It’s important to note that the precise correlates of immune protection are still being studied and haven’t yet been definitively established. Neutralising antibodies may well be one of these components.

“However, other elements of the immune system certainly also play an important role in immune protection, such as cell-mediated immunity and non-neutralising antibodies, and these are considerably more durable than neutralising antibodies.

“Studies in South Africa and the United States have demonstrated the persistence of these components of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 well past nine months following vaccination. Nevertheless, as an added precaution in certain vulnerable situations, such as people who are immune-suppressed or are in high-risk exposure situations such as healthcare workers, it may be appropriate to administer a booster dose of vaccine.”

As of 7 October, United States President Joe Biden is one of the about 6.4 million people who have received a booster shot in America, according to an NBC News analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Meanwhile, England and several European Union member-states have already launched their own booster campaigns, and, from 11 October in Australia, severely immunocompromised individuals could get COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Interestingly, Israel is believed to be the first country to make a valid vaccination passport conditional on having received a booster shot. On 26 September, it introduced new rules for determining coronavirus vaccination status, making a booster shot a requirement for full inoculation and vaccination passports.

Another Sheba study was one of the main determining factors in Israel’s decision to administer a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. It showed an increase in COVID-19 morbidity as time elapsed from vaccination.

“These study results have great significance, especially for countries that haven’t yet administered a booster dose or for countries where six months have already passed since its citizens received the second dose,” Professor Gili Regev-Yochay, the director of the infectious diseases unit at Sheba, told the media. “We anticipate that these findings will be a significant part of decisions on vaccination protocol in the future.”

Schoub says that the following two issues are still under discussion: when the booster will become available in South Africa; and what other vaccines besides Pfizer will need a booster.

With other research coming out of Israel, the Jerusalem Post has noted, “If COVID-19 doesn‘t make you sick, diet soda might.”

According to Ben-Gurion University scientists, new research has found that certain artificial sweeteners can cause previously healthy gut bacteria to become diseased, leading to discomfort and digestive issues.

Ariel Kushmaro, a researcher from the university, noted that there’s little accurate labelling of artificial sweeteners on products, making it difficult to know how much each product contains.

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Blue plaque recognises Muizenberg Jewish community’s heritage

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Muizenberg holds a special place in the hearts and memories of many South African Jews, and its Jewish community has now been recognised for its historic significance in the area with a prestigious blue plaque.

The plaque was unveiled at a small ceremony at the beginning of September.

Blue plaques are commemorative signs placed on buildings and in locations of significance. The Muizenberg synagogue on Camp Road was one of two buildings in the area, as designated by the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society, to receive blue-plaque status.

“I was contacted by Glenn Babb, the head of the Muizenberg Historical Society. It wanted to honour the Muizenberg Jewish community for its service and influence in Muizenberg over many decades, and thought it appropriate to put a plaque at the shul,” says Muizenberg Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Ryan Newfield.

Chris Taylor, the chairperson of the Muizenberg Historical Society, told the SA Jewish Report that the plaque was to commemorate the Jewish community’s integral role in Muizenberg history, rather than the shul building itself.

“For a couple of years, we’ve had a low-key project to erect blue plaques on buildings of historical significance or to commemorate people,” he says. “For example, Agatha Christie learned to surf in Muizenberg, so we have one for her. A great deal of the history of Muizenberg was driven by the Jewish community. At its peak, there were about 600 families living there, mainly from Lithuania. Although there has been an exodus of Jews from Muizenberg since the 1960s, they left behind a great deal of history. This blue plaque is to commemorate that past. The shul is and was the heart of the community, which is why we felt the plaque should go there.”

He notes that there are still a small number of Jews who live in Muizenberg or who come on holiday, mainly from Johannesburg. He finds it interesting that the builder of the synagogue was Charles McCarthy. Taylor dug into his history, and found that he was “an Irish Catholic Cockney, who converted to Judaism for the woman he loved before coming to South Africa from London. So, he was an Irish Catholic Cockney Jew.”

According to the book Muizenberg: the Story of the Shtetl by the Sea by Hedy Davis, the woman McCarthy fell in love with and married was Fanny Schindler. They settled in Kalk Bay, and McCarthy never accepted payment for his work on the synagogue. He served on the shul committee, and was a loyal member of the Muizenberg Hebrew Congregation until his death. He and his wife are buried in the Muizenberg Cemetery. Their story is just one of many that made up the thriving, dynamic Muizenberg Jewish community in its heyday.

Newfield says he was asked what they wanted to be written on the plaque. “I left the words to some of the oldest and most involved members of our community. They chose to keep it simple, and give its full name – the Muizenberg and Kalk Bay Hebrew Congregation – and the date of establishment. The date itself was subject to dispute, but the earliest was 1916, the first step in setting up a Talmud Torah. We went with that date, as everyone who was involved in setting up the Jewish infrastructure of Muizenberg should be honoured.”

The keynote speaker at the ceremony was Democratic Alliance federal council chair Helen Zille, who spoke about “various Jewish people who changed Muizenberg forever, like Gerald Musikanth and Mendel Kaplan, who helped to build the boardwalk to Kalk Bay, as well as many others”, says the rabbi.

“I commended the society for remembering history as the Jewish people so often remember their history, and it seems the Torah promotes looking back at the past to understand who we are in the present,” he says. “I also mentioned that in a world of numbers, where everyone is focused on COVID-19 numbers, vaccination numbers, etcetera, the Jewish people have defied numbers. The Muizenberg Jewish community is no different. Somehow, a little corner of Africa was built and largely influenced by a few hundred Jewish families that would forever change this part of the world.”

“The event itself was delightful, and Helen Zille asked to be invited to our century anniversary of the current shul building in 2024,” he says. “It was a bad week of weather, but somehow the sun came out for the event, and Glenn Babb joked to me that G-d answered my prayers.”

Ward councillor of the Cape’s Ward 64, Aimee Kuhl, told the SA Jewish Report, “I’m always enthusiastic about anything that celebrates history in my ward because I believe that only once we remember where we come from do we know where we’re going.” She made the time to attend the blue plaque unveiling ceremony at the shul, and says, “We cherish the Jewish rich cultural history that we have in Muizenberg. As ward councillor, I’m very aware of that history.”

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Pretoria rabbis ordained after challenging year

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In terms of learning, it was a regular year for Yeshiva LeRabbonus Pretoria, which in late August conferred semicha (ordination) to 11 students from the class of 5780/5781, but in many other respects, it was very different. Due to complications with travelling to South Africa, the final-year rabbinical students began their year over Zoom and their dormitory life in Namibia before finally being allowed to travel to the yeshiva in Pretoria to begin the year in earnest. Two graduates had to return overseas prior to the semicha ceremony, watched on Zoom by family and friends across the globe.

Open hashgocha protis (divine intervention) brought the bochurim through flight paths wrapped in serious red tape, and the rebbe’s brocha to the bochurim was felt, making the students more determined to learn Torah and work towards smicha.

More remarkable was the way the bochurim who finished their pre-smicha year over Zoom were able to return to complete the smicha year.

At the tekes (graduation ceremony), Dayan Rabbi Gidon Fox, the menahel (principal) of the yeshiva, exhorted the bochurim to dig deeper into themselves than in past years to realise that shlichus (being an emissary) is built on bringing out the best in others, even if it means suffering discomfort to do so.

The academic year took place during the months when South Africa was under lockdown, making interaction with the wider community difficult, which is in itself a tutorial in shlichus! Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Finkelstein cited various sources that “Torah learned with deep devotion at a time of harshness within the universe is the ultimate connection to the Aibeshter (uppermost) and the ultimate refinement of the nefesh habehamis (the human soul).”

The ceremony marked the 19th graduation class of Pretoria’s yeshiva, starting in October 2001 as Yeshiva Mahon L’Hora’ah under Rabbi Levi Wynberg. Five years ago, the name was changed to Yeshiva L’Rabbonus Pretoria under Finkelstein, who was born in Pretoria, coming full circle. The yeshiva is hoping to have 20 graduates in its 20th graduation year.

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