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Vaccination drive in our backyard

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Voices

There was a welcome return to shul and school this week, as well as the reopening of restaurants and other facilities. While infection rates remain high, the worst of the dreaded “third wave” appears to be behind us. Thankfully, Hatzolah’s latest figures show a significant decline in COVID-19 cases in our own community. That being said, the pandemic is still very much a part of our daily reality and won’t go away by itself. What the past 16 months have shown is that the only way that people can protect themselves over the long term is to ensure that they are vaccinated as soon as possible.

Fortunately, there has been a steady uptick in vaccination rates countrywide. For the Jewish community, the process has been greatly facilitated by the availability of vaccination services within the community itself. This past Sunday, a pop-up vaccine centre at The Base in Glenhazel (the brainchild of Dr Menachem Hockman, who also headed up a vaccination drive at the Jabulani Mall) reported that 3 000 people had been vaccinated. Both the Chevrah Kadisha and more recently Hatzolah have set up vaccine centres, respectively operating at Sandringham Gardens and above KosherWorld (1 Long Avenue, Glenhazel). It’s a reminder of how fortunate our community is to have so effective a communal infrastructure to assist and guide it during difficult times like these, along with so many dedicated volunteers, professionals, and benefactors who ensure that the wheels keep turning.

Jewish helping hands

In the wake of the devastating violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has prioritised the alleviation of hunger caused by the unrest. The SAJBD Food Relief Fund, together with our partner, The Angel Network, is working with nongovernmental organisations on the ground to ensure that vital food aid is directly, efficiently, and timeously distributed. In KwaZulu-Natal, we are working on several projects, including partnering with the Union of Jewish Women in delivering food and other necessities to aged and children’s homes in need, and with Rev Shlomo Wainer, who is working with Christian groups in Inanda and Phoenix.

In Gauteng over the past week, we have inter alia worked with the Clive Mashishi Foundation through its church network in distributing hundreds of food parcels in Eldorado Park, Orange Farm, Vanderbijlpark, and Kliptown. During the unrest, Ditau Primary School in Orlando East was looted, and all the food for children’s meals stolen. Following an approach from the school, this week, we replenished its pantry so that the school feeding programme can continue. During our recent clean-up initiative at the Mayfield Mall in Daveyton, we realised that the hard-hit East Rand area is often neglected in terms of food-relief drives and thus this week, are arranging for food relief to be delivered to Daveyton.

We thank all our valued colleagues, partners, volunteers, and supporters who are making it possible for us as the representative face of the Jewish community to contribute on the ground and make a meaningful difference to those in need in our society.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Getting on board with 2022

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In memoriam: George Szemere

I start this week’s column with a tribute to Holocaust survivor George (Stern) Szemere, who passed away in Johannesburg last week. George was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940, at the start of World War II. In the final year of the war, his father was one of those taken by the Arrow Cross to the Danube River, told to jump into the icy water, and then shot. George went into hiding with his mother and sister, and survived. In 1958, he left Hungary and subsequently settled in South Africa where he married.

Shirley Beagle, who assists Holocaust survivors with claims under various compensatory and hardship funds, only discovered George fairly recently. Just before the holidays, he was admitted to Helen Joseph Hospital and Shirley was concerned with his welfare. Through our network of Jewish Community Service doctors, we found Jewish doctors to monitor and visit him. I attended his funeral over the weekend. In spite of it being very small, it was dignified and moving.

How Lalela boosted a nation’s spirits

Coming near the end of another trying year, Miss South Africa Lalela Mswane’s success at the Miss Universe pageant in Haifa, Israel, came as a much-needed boost to national morale. Mswane represented our country with grace and courage, and was rewarded by being placed third out of 80 participants.

However, perhaps even more impressive was how she stood her ground not only in the face of an extraordinarily vicious campaign of bullying, intimidation, and invective on the part of the local Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, but also the opposition of high-ranking government members. All manner of pressure was brought to bear on her to withdraw from the event, but in the end, her right to choose and the wishes of the majority of South Africans prevailed. The Jewish community supported Mswane throughout this process, and it was a pleasure for our leadership, together with hundreds of other South Africans, to be part of the enthusiastic crowd at OR Tambo International Airport welcoming her home.

Latest COVID-19 guidelines

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has taken the lead in convening regular meetings of the national communal leadership to discuss issues, share information and best practice, and plan and co-ordinate our response. To ensure that decisions are based on reliable and up-to-date information, we have included medical and other experts in the discussions. On Sunday, a Zoom meeting was held to brief communal leaders on the medical and legal considerations regarding mandatory vaccination. Professor Barry Schoub and Neil Kirby from Werksmans Attorneys set out the scientific and legal framework for the question. Based on this information, each organisation will assess the situation from their perspective and decide how to proceed. A recording of the meeting is available. I encourage those seeking information to write to midweekcovidupdate@gmail.com.

Solidarity with Beit Yisrael Shul in Colleyville, Texas

On behalf of South African Jewry, the SAJBD sent messages to Jewish communal organisations in America and to the American Embassy expressing our support after four members of the shul were taken hostage by a gunman in an antisemitic attack. We are immensely thankful that they all escaped unharmed.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Pass the potatoes over the violence

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Some years ago, for no reason that I can clearly remember, there was a spate of “drive-by” shootings. What started as horrific and shocking headline news, soon retreated into the latter pages of the daily newspapers.

It was during this time that I recall reading a Madam & Eve cartoon in The Star newspaper. If memory serves me, it went something like this: Madam and Eve are having dinner, when there’s a burst of gunfire. Windows shatter, the table is upended, and they find themselves taking cover to save their lives. It’s during this fracas that Eve turns to Madam and says, “Do you think we’re becoming desensitised to this?” Madam, looks at her and in response says, “I don’t think so Eve. Please pass the potatoes.”

That is what I felt when I heard of the hostage situation at the synagogue in Texas during Shabbat last week. I wanted to be shocked and for it to have an emotional impact. And yet, if I was eating carbs, I could easily have asked for the potatoes.

The lack of outrage was reflected across many media outlets. Business Insider lead with the headline “The Texas synagogue hostage-taker was on the phone to his kids when he was shot dead, his brother says.” In spite of the qualification that this was according to his brother, the headline shows a clear attempt to humanise the “hostage taker” and illustrate that he’s a father, whose dying act was in the service of parenthood.

It doesn’t focus on the victims, who spent 10 hours not sure if they would survive, and doesn’t give credit to the fact that the act was in fact focused on the release of his sister, a vehement outspoken antisemite who is serving a life sentence for terrorism. Rather, the picture created is that of a family man, cut down while chatting to his children.

Is it little wonder we prefer potatoes!

Columnist Bari Weis explains it brilliantly. Her theory is that in order for there to be an appropriate public reaction, both the perpetrator and the victims need to be acceptable. White, right-wing Nazis make the “perfect” terrorists, whilst non-religious, non-Hassidic, secular Jews make the perfect victims. If either one of those aren’t present, then there will be an attempt to play down the incident. Which is why the “hostage-taker” was referred to as a Brit, a father, a brother, anyone but an Islamist.

She puts it this way. “It’s not difficult to gin up outrage these days, yet you won’t find celebrities or sports stars or influencers making #colleyville or #antisemitism go viral. Meanwhile, the members of our so-called intelligentsia are claiming the real victims aren’t those innocent Jews held hostage, but Muslims who could face Islamophobia-inspired violence.”

It’s worth monitoring our own reaction. Because we too fall prey to what we read and how incidents are reported. If we’re not vigilant, we’ll soon find ourselves in a cartoon, under fire asking for the potatoes.

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Voices

Late to the COVID party

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It’s like man-flu, only with everyone around being even more annoying than they usually are. That’s my experience a few days into a bout with Omicron. Thankfully, I’m late to this series and have experienced none of the pilot, season one, Beta, or even Delta. I have also been twice vaccinated, and given what I have seen of this variant, might suffer the real symptoms but not the anxiety of prior episodes.

Not that you would think that I was ill if the family’s reaction is anything to go by. Instead, they seem annoyed that I have had an impact on their lives and they are now forced to quarantine when the year is about to get started.

No cups of tea, no mopping of my brow when clamminess overtakes me, and no slow shaking of heads in a sad, sympathetic manner. Not a get-well card or gift or a slab of Lindt 80% chocolate.

Nothing.

Quite the contrary. It seems that much like the overnight erection of the Berlin Wall, I find myself having been barred from parts of the house where others reside.

Hostile stares and accusatory looks are more the theme. I try in my rasping, weak voice to explain that I have no idea where I got the plague from. But my words fall on the uncaring, more concerned about quarantine than the delicate health of an ageing father.

It might not be true to say that I haven’t been preparing for this diagnosis for two years. As a third-generation hypochondriac (on both sides), from the day I heard the word “Wuhan”, I became certain that we were all going to perish. A pandemic is something I have unknowingly been training for most of my life.

I have imagined, enacted, and re-enacted the recipe of this positive diagnosis so often, that when it did arrive, it was admittedly almost anticlimactic. That’s not to say that it didn’t, much like COVID-19 itself, take my breath away.

In some sense, it’s my time to shine. The number of interviews, podcasts, articles, and sessions I have conducted on COVID-19 has by no means made me an expert on it, but it has allowed me to engage with those who are knowledgeable. So much so, that someone referred to me as “the deputy head boy of COVID South Africa”. Head boy, I assume, being Dr Anton Meyberg of the Sunday COVID Podcast. Not that I accepted the title by any means – because simply put, I’m no one’s “deputy”.

Lack of sympathy aside, the reality is that I’m deeply grateful for so much. I don’t feel well at all, I have lost my voice, am incredibly fatigued, and my family is annoying.

For me, Omicron hasn’t been easy. But the fact that I have this variant and not one of the prior variants, the fact that I’m vaccinated and that our medical care, family, and community is so exceptionally caring makes this something to celebrate, not fear.

It’s also possible that when my kids gesticulate wildly when I come near them it’s not because they are unsympathetic and don’t want me around, but rather because they are so concerned about me that seeing me like this is too painful for them to witness.

I’m certain that must be it.

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