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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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The miracle of the maroon handkerchief

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Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.

Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.

A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.

“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.

Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.

In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”

A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.

“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”

So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.

She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”

She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”

Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”

Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.

Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”

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COVID-19 vaccination could be compulsory at workplace

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As vaccination becomes more freely available in South Africa, questions arise such as can you make vaccination compulsory and can you dismiss someone if they refuse? Do you have to allow time off to get vaccinated, and what happens if an employee has an adverse reaction? These questions and many more are new to our labour law, and will be subject to litigation over the next many years.

In terms of the department of employment and labour’s latest regulations, the minister has recognised that employers may in terms of their own internal rules make COVID-19 vaccination compulsory.

Obviously, the compulsion must be subject to certain oversight, and must be reasonable in all circumstances. The employer would have to take into account their own operational requirements, and must be able to justify that in terms of these requirements, they would expect employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Over and above this, each case must be carefully explored, discussed, and subject to proper consultation, taking into account the employee’s circumstances. These circumstances can include medical, religious, bodily integrity, and any other factor reasonably raised by the employee or the employee’s representative.

Obviously, each particular employer would develop a set of guidelines and rules which would be read with the disciplinary code and would be properly implemented after consultation with the employees or their representatives.

These rules must be made subject to the above-mentioned criteria, and would probably be differently implemented in accordance with the operational requirements of the position of the actual employee.

For instance, if a buyer for a company has the duty to travel abroad and can do so only if vaccinated, then there would be a compulsion to be vaccinated. It would be incumbent upon the employer to explore whether there are other ways of doing the job or whether an employee is willing to accept another position which doesn’t require vaccination.

It’s absolutely vital for every employer to read the regulation, and to advise all the necessary parties within the next three weeks of their intention to make vaccination mandatory and which employees will be affected.

Obviously, even once vaccination has been made mandatory, it would be subject to the employees being able to obtain the vaccination, and might require the employer to help obtain them. The employer’s policy will take into account various factors such as consultation with all the representatives at the workplace, and will respect bargaining council agreements and any other collective agreements with trade unions.

If there is an informal committee representing the staff and/or a workers forum, these bodies must also be consulted.

The minister of health has published draft regulations for the establishment of a no-fault compensation fund for injuries caused by the COVID-19 vaccination. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund will be established in terms of the regulations as an amendment to the regulations of the Disaster Management Act of 2002.

Although this compensation fund for vaccine injury hasn’t been formed yet, the various ministers involved are taking into account commentary from the public, and will be getting legal advice from parliament’s legal advisors.

The injury must be related to vaccination. An injured person may not institute a claim through the court process against the national or provincial government until the claim has been adjudicated by the relevant panel through the compensation fund.

Only if the person is dissatisfied with the outcome of the adjudication or the amount awarded can that person lodge an appeal, and the appeal must be determined by the relevant decision maker. Only after pursuing a claim with the scheme can a person look to the courts if that person is still dissatisfied.

Businesses are urged once again to warn their staff that protocols are in place, and breach of COVID-19 rules and regulations will lead to spread of infection and almost inevitably disciplinary action.

I’m involved in no less than a dozen cases where employers have reported and taken action against recalcitrant employees. It’s time, once again, to reiterate the fundamental, basic rules such as social distancing, mask wearing, and sanitising. Over and above this, any staff member exhibiting symptoms must report these symptoms to their health officer or senior management, and should immediately take sick leave.

The consequences of a staff member remaining silent could be loss of their position and more seriously, the spread of infection.

Employers will have to educate staff about the value of vaccination along with normal social distancing, masks, and hand sanitising. Education in these circumstances, I believe, will be the strongest factor in convincing all staff to get vaccinated.

A consolidated direction on occupational health and safety measures in certain workplaces was gazette on 11 June 2021. This contains new requirements with regard to vaccination.

It’s clear from this that an employer must give employees time off to be vaccinated. The employee may be required to provide proof of an appointment to be vaccinated. Time off shouldn’t be regarded as sick leave, but should be given as a form of special leave.

If there are negative effects from vaccination, the employer will grant paid sick leave in terms of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act. If the sick leave has been exhausted, there could be a claim in terms of the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act. Employees will produce the vaccination certificate thereafter, and a medical certificate if they’ve had complications.

  • Michael Bagraim is an attorney specialising in labour law, and advises nationwide on the restructuring and management of labour forces. He is also a Democratic Alliance member of parliament.

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Pop-up vaccination site sets record

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A pop-up vaccination site in Glenhazel carried out just more than 11% of the total 27 053 vaccinations administered across the country on 25 July, setting what is believed to be a record.

Three thousand COVID-19 vaccinations were administered at the volunteer-run site at The Base Shul on Sunday.

“Discovery has exceeded the number of vaccinations we did at The Base in a day, but the district manager of Joburg told me at the site that they haven’t exceeded more than 1 200 in any one of their sites in Gauteng,” said 27-year-old Dr Menachem Hockman, popularly known as “Dr Menoosh”.

Menoosh attributes the speed and efficiency of the process to the many volunteers who did the administration and all the other necessary procedures for vaccination.

“This is an initiative that we are trying to roll out at the moment, and it just shows the impact of having those extra hands to volunteer,” says Menoosh. “Bara [Baragwanath Hospital] and other sites have as many nurses as we have, they just don’t have those volunteers, and it shows what a difference they made. It was also something special at the site to show the impact of all our volunteers.”

One of the volunteers, Dalya Gerson, a dietician, said, “My role prior to the day was recruiting volunteers, organising them, showing them what they would have to do on the day, and giving them specific roles. I was also a volunteer for the day.”

According to the messages Menoosh has received, everyone was in and out within half an hour, including the 15-minute waiting time. “That’s brilliant for any vaccination site,” he said.

The speed came from the strategy of divorcing the administrative role from the vaccination role. “All the vaccinators had to focus on was administering vaccines, so they could push people through much quicker. That was our strategy.”

To help other government sites achieve a similar speed, volunteers may be dispersed through Gauteng VAX Volunteers (GiVV), a programme that operates at vaccine sites. These volunteers assist with, among other things, administrative tasks, filling out vaccination cards, registering individuals that are eligible for vaccinations, and updating and processing information once vaccinations have been administered.

“Running these sites is how we are helping the health department, which provided us with the vaccines,” said Menoosh. “We want to maintain that close relationship with it to allow us to do more. I want it to be given the credit for allowing us to do it, and it’s very important for it to continue to allow us to do so.”

  • To help out or be a part of GiVV, apply by completing the sign-up form on www.givv.co.za. GiVV can also be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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