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This year’s Jewish Achievers are real winners

When music director extraordinaire Bryan Schimmel, stood up to accept the SA Jewish Art, Sport, Science and Culture award, he ensured there was nary a dry eye in the 600-strong Absa Jewish Achiever Awards audience.

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Achievers

HELEN GRANGE

“All through school I was not the cool kid or the popular kid. I was shy, awkward, introverted, self-conscious, afraid of speaking, marginalised because I was different. And all I ever wished for was acceptance.

Absa Jewish Achiever Awards 2017
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“The saying goes ‘careful what you wish for’. In finding my place on the path unwinding, here I am in front of all of you, feeling mightily accepted,” he said to a standing ovation.

Once too shy to speak because he had a terrible stutter, he had the audience enraptured as he told of his journey to this award.

“Being named as a Jewish Achiever has a certain resonance for me. I am not a shul-goer, I am not shomrei Shabbos, I am not always observant. But I am extremely proud of being Jewish. On my path unwinding, I’ve always been guided by the words of Hillel that I wear permanently on my left forearm: ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when?’.

“And so, I say to every kid who is not the cool kid, but who has a dream and a passion, I accept this award as a symbol of inspiration and hope to all of you… If you follow your heart, if you live outside your comfort zone, and if you strive to be the best version of yourself at all times, you will find your place in the circle of life.”

And Schimmel was just one of the nine phenomenal winners of this year’s premier event on Sunday evening. 

The auspicious Lifetime Achiever Award, in honour of Helen Suzman, was awarded to Simon Susman, chairman of the Woolworths Group and non-executive chairman of the London-based Virgin Active fitness group, who said that his life was divided into three parts, the first being about learning, the second about earning and the third about giving back. So, now he participates in numerous, mostly Jewish organisations, in order to do the latter.

He said: “My parents taught me very high standards, deep Jewish principles and values, and I try and live up to those every day.”

Susman also credited his many business mentors along the way, including Lord Marcus Sieff, former chairman of Marks & Spencer, and his “powerful grandmother”, daughter of the founder of Marks & Spencer Michael Marks, who taught him to “honour powerful woman”.

He thanked the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, saying “recognition by one’s peers is the only real recognition”. He also thanked the woman in his life. “I’m very grateful and lucky, lucky too to have a partner in Megan, who I met late in life and is showing me new adventures.”

Pravin Gordhan

Winner of the Humanitarian Award in honour of Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris was announced as Pravin Gordhan, who said he was grateful for this “very humbling award” and congratulated the other award winners for the “remarkable contributions they’ve made to their respective fields of endeavour”. 

“We are just activists and public servants, so let me give this award to the Treasury team, the good people at Revenue Services and SA Reserve Bank, and all the good public servants who do their best to keep South Africa on the right road,” he said.

Addressing the vexing issue of state capture and corruption, he urged South Africans to be more proactive: “These are not issues for politicians, but issues for the people… The Jewish community is extremely resourceful, with great skills, talent and entrepreneurs, some of whom are here today, and has produced fascinating freedom fighters from whom my generation learnt some of their politics and principles.”

Gordhan highlighted the importance of “cultural silos” – “these give us a sense of identity and meaning”.

“But equally, as we build a new South Africa, we also have to find important bridges across those silos, and that requires people of foresight… This community has produced illustrious people who’ve contributed to the Freedom Charter, which stands as a testament to real imagination, foresight but above all, humanity,” he said.

Don Krausz

The KIA Community Service Award was given to 87-year-old Don Krausz, Holocaust survivor, who has spent his life since escaping the horrors of the Holocaust, making sure young people know what really happened.

He tells them of his terrifying experiences at Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany.

He relayed how, when he began as a Holocaust educator, most survivors were going to Jewish schools to talk. He questioned why they were preaching to the converted and wanted to go to the other schools to talk to them. He went to schools, some of which were not ready for his message yet. Things have since changed.

In his emotive speech, he spoke of how he had in the past reminded those who, when they think of the children who were killed in the Holocaust, they focus on Anne Frank, but, he says, there were 1,5 million children who were murdered in the Holocaust and not just this one heroine.

Ryan Canin

The Creative Counsel Young Jewish Entrepreneur Award went to Ryan Canin, CEO and co-founder of DocFox Inc, a web application designed to fight money laundering and simplify compliance for financial services firms, locally and abroad.

“I want to thank the many people in this room who put time and effort, which is unique in the Jewish community, into really growing young entrepreneurs,” he said.

Ronleigh Gaddin

Winner of Europcar’s Jewish Woman in Leadership Award was Ronleigh Gaddin, CEO of the Amani Spas Group. Gaddin said the Jewish Achiever process has been one of “self-introspection and reflection”.

“I’ve had the privilege of meeting the most incredible people. I stand here and salute every single nominee, each of whom is a winner in their own right,” she said, adding: “To reach a landmark such as this award raises the expectations I have of myself, and motivates me to continue to succeed, to build my company and my own reputation.”

Gaddin, daughter of the late Russell Gaddin – a stalwart in Jewish leadership – said she knew how proud her father would be of her today and that she accepted this award in his name. 

Avi Mishan

Avi Mishan, MD of SMD Technologies, distributor of computer technology worldwide, was announced winner of the Absa Entrepreneur Award. Especially thanking his business partner Simca Diskin, Mishan said: “He has been with me from the beginning, the best investment I’ve ever made. From a two-man show selling calculators out of the boots of our car, to where we are today, this award is just as much yours as it is mine.”

Brett Osrin and Laurence Rapp

The evening ended with the announcement of Brett Osrin, CEO of Ecowize cleaning company, as the winner of the Absa Unlisted Company Award, and Laurence Rapp, CEO of Vukile Property Fund, as winner of the Absa Listed Company Award.

Said Osrin: “The amazing part of the Jewish community is that we grow up not wanting to be the postmaster. We grow up wanting to be the CEO of any business, irrespective of the size.”

To this, Rapp added: “This is the most unique and meaningful award, because it not only recognises business achievement, but more importantly, it comes from this community that I love dearly, and am so proud to be part of.”

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Achievers

The angel at our table who disrupted mass starvation

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Few individuals have saved as many lives as this year’s Absa Jewish Achiever Humanitarian Award winner Glynne Wolman, founder of The Angel Network.

“The Angel Network and Glynne have been angels in our lives and we are standing because of them,” said Clive Mashishi of the Clive Mashishi Foundation in a video at the awards on Sunday, 7 November.

Mashishi marvelled at Wolman’s “passion for helping others, her zeal, determination, and her personal conviction to say, ‘People cannot starve whilst we have the necessary resources to help them.’”

Dorianne Weil, a clinical and organisational psychologist, said, “Glynne exhibits a real resilience and determination. She just doesn’t give up. She is a consummate human being and a real mensch, and it’s fitting that she has won the Cyril Harris Humanitarian Award.”

On receiving the award, Wolman said she felt honoured, humbled, and enormously grateful. “I accept it on behalf of a phenomenal team that I’m fiercely proud of and privileged to work with. I dedicate this award to the countless community leaders we work with who are on the ground and give their all with no thought of reward. They teach us daily about the generosity of spirit. They are the true heroes.”

Wolman launched The Angel Network as a non-profit organisation in 2015 because of the need by so many who have so little. “Initially, we did the nice-to-do things like providing Easter eggs, school shoes, and blankets,” she said. “But we soon found that we were able to do other things like assist with education, upskilling, training, and job creation.”

Unfortunately, the negative effects of COVID-19 meant that The Angel Network had to turn its focus to giving handouts to prevent millions from dying of starvation. “Everything was urgent,” recalled Wolman. “We had to feed people and help them stay warm. People were becoming unemployed. There were many more people that needed assistance.”

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, said, “Towards the beginning of the pandemic, we saw the terrible suffering around us as a result of the lockdown. We looked to find the person and the organisation that could help us get the food to beneficiaries quickly, directly, and responsibly. That was when we connected with The Angel Network and the phenomenal Glynne Wolman. She is a social disrupter who has changed the way that charity is given and poverty is alleviated.”

Said Mashishi, “The Angel Network helped us to help our people and give them hope. It has donated equipment, food parcels, and shoes to us.”

Hella Ledwaba, executive director of the non-profit Vuka Skhokho, said, “We had only been able to work with a few waste pickers here and there, but after connecting with Glynne, we were able to see them regularly and be close to them.”

Hayley Glasser, who sits on The Angel Network’s executive committee, said, “Glynne’s belief in others and her ability to help them believe in themselves is a defining characteristic of hers. It has contributed to making The Angel Network the success it is today.”

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Achievers

An infectious passion for tackling disease

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Internationally distinguished but refreshingly humble, Professor Lucille Blumberg, epidemiologist and former deputy director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, has devoted her life to the study of infectious diseases.

“Lucille is tireless,” says Professor Marc Mendelson, the director of infectious diseases and HIV medicine at the University of Cape Town. “She is the go-to person in South Africa if you have a problem in infection – she’s my go-to person. She brings together an amazing ability to amalgamate clinical expertise with the laboratory side, and most importantly, the public-health side of infectious diseases.”

Mendelson was just one of the many medical experts and professors who paid tribute to Blumberg, who received this year’s Absa Professional Excellence Award – From Covid to Hope. Among her myriad achievements, Blumberg has most recently been instrumental in developing a system to document South Africa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She realised right at the beginning of the pandemic that as a country, we didn’t have a hospital surveillance system and so she very quickly mobilised and spoke to the right people to make sure that this happened,” says Professor Lynn Morris, the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand. “She recruited volunteers, who were inspired by her vision and call for action to help her set up what is now called the Datcov Hospital Surveillance System.” This system collects comprehensive, real-time data on morbidity and mortality including demographic, clinical, and treatment information, and it’s shared through daily and weekly reports.

The Datcov system has very quickly become a vital source of information and continues to guide the national response to the pandemic. “Lucille is extremely passionate about everything she does and will stop at nothing to make sure that things happen as they should,” says Morris. “She’s a force of nature and a can-do person – just the sort of person you need in an emergency.”

Having started her career in clinical medicine, Blumberg later discovered what she calls, “the magical world of microbes”. An exciting field that always offers something new to discover, the study of infectious diseases combined with the management of outbreak responses remains her passion and one for which she is internationally respected. Indeed, Blumberg has done extensive work with the World Health Organization and other international bodies on globally important outbreaks and epidemics.

“I’ve been working in outbreaks for almost 20 years and never came across anything like COVID-19,” says Blumberg. “It’s changed all our worlds and it’s required a tremendous effort, huge resilience, and extra resources. It’s put vaccines on a new trajectory and brought many different players together.”

In accepting her award, Blumberg said, “Public health is never about one individual, it’s always about a team and making a difference to community lives.” She paid tribute to the SA Jewish Report and the webinars it hosted for lightening the dark days of COVID-19, her beloved mother for teaching her all the important things in life, and her team who helped establish the Datcov system.

“I want to recognise the wonderful nominees, especially the healthcare workers who have shown great courage, worked long hours, and saved many lives on the frontline,” she concluded. “They are the true heroes. We will get through this, we will continue to show great resilience and come together as a community. It’s vaccines that will open up our world and allow us to travel and dream again.”

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Achievers

Transforming spaces for working moms

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Cara Saven, the founder and chief executive of Cara Saven Wall Design, isn’t just fulfilling her company promise of “transforming spaces around the globe, one wall at a time”, she’s also working to change the corporate landscape for working mothers.

“Cara’s created her business around doing the work and being a mother all at the same time,” says Stacy Closenberg, the company’s sales and operations director. “In this business, we’re all mothers, all doing this massive juggle between trying to run the business as well as fetching from school and running around. Cara’s given us the opportunity.”

Indeed, Saven started Cara Saven Wall Design 15 years ago out of a desire to be available to her children. “I’d entered the corporate world and while I loved my job with all my heart, it had no place for me when I became a mother,” Saven said upon accepting her Europcar Women in Leadership Award at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards on 7 November.

“I wasn’t yet living in a society where they saw the benefit of retaining mothers in their ranks. So, I did what many women in my position who refused not to see their babies until 18:00 did, I quit, and figured out another way to make money.”

In doing so, Saven decided to employ fellow mothers. “I decided I would grow my company with the most competent people I knew – mothers – women who had mastered the art of efficiency and time management. So, we got building. With schoolwork and snotty noses and homework thrown in between. With flexible hours or working from home, we built.”

Today, Cara Saven Wall Design is an internationally successful business, offering a range of more than 1 000 wallpaper designs as well as customisable options. The company’s growth has been exponential. “Cara went from operating in South Africa only, to opening up international branches, with agency agreements and printers in the Netherlands, Australia, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates,” says Bryce O’Donnell, the managing director of Construct Capital. “She did this all in such a short space of time, it was inspiring to watch.”

“Not only is Cara exceptionally talented, she’s always striving to better her product, herself, and everybody works around her,” says client Andy Graff, of Andrea Graff Interior Design. O’Donnell agrees. “She lives and breathes her brand. The way she runs her business, the way she treats her people, the service they provide, there’s no doubt that she embodies excellence in everything that she does.”

Saven’s employees echo these sentiments. “Cara has been a personal leader who is inspirational and motivating,” says Creative Business Director Megan Sherratt. “I’ve seen the company grow exponentially, and I believe this is from the passion, the dynamism, as well as the hands-on approach she takes in managing her business. Her positive nature is what makes her grow.”

In her acceptance speech, Saven spoke of “lucky women”, women who have more opportunities than the female generations that came before them. She believes COVID-19 and the resultant fusion of our work and home lives has “broken down the illusion that we don’t have private lives that are happening while we work”. It gives her reason to believe that her daughters won’t have the same struggles she did. “They will be lucky enough to live in a society that doesn’t offer only two choices for corporate women, nine to five or quit when they have children. They are lucky women.”

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