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Visit to Iran turns into life-saving mission

When American Rabbi Sholem Ber Hecht decided to visit the Jewish community of Tehran in 1978, he simply intended to strengthen ties with Jews there. Little did he know that he would become an integral part of a mission to save their lives.

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JORDAN MOSHE

“I was supposed to stay for two weeks,” Hecht, the rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Congregation & Center of Forest Hills, Queens, told an online audience last Tuesday (16 June).

“Our message was that we came from America, were interested in the Jews of Iran, and wanted to help them strengthen their yiddishkeit. We ended up starting the process of relocating the community to America.”

Hecht played a leading role in Operation Exodus, a Chabad effort to assist the Jews of Iran, and get them safely to the United States. From 1978 to 1980, the operation successfully brought hundreds of Iranian Jewish children to the US.

The process began in August 1978 when Hecht and Rabbi Hertzel Illulian visited Tehran to establish a connection between Chabad and the Iranian Jewish community.

“In 1978, the Iranian Jewish community was successful and wealthy,” recounted Hecht. “Many Jews had become prominent, and often rabbis came to Tehran to raise money. People thought that was what we came for, but our aim was to strengthen them.”

At that time, the Jewish community of Iran could trace its history back more than 2 500 years. The destruction of the first temple and subsequent exile of the Jewish people at the hands of the Babylonian empire had resulted in Jews settling in Persia (today Iran), maintaining a continuous and strong presence until Hecht arrived.

At the time, Iran was under the leadership of a king, Mohammad Reza Shah. He had come to power in the 1940s, and had helped the country modernise, making it more democratic and even giving Jews more freedom to integrate into Iranian society. He believed that Jews were central to securing Iran’s place as a first-world country, earning him the respect and even adoration of many Jews in the country.

Said Hecht, “Jews were given more freedom and discrimination eased. They entered business, and many of them entered universities as well.” Assimilation also crept into the Jewish community, causing certain lapses in observance.

The Shah faced opposition, however. Demonstrations against him had been taking place since the 1940s, and a few broke out early in 1978. However, no one believed them to be of any major consequence, so Hecht and Illulian pressed ahead with their trip.

“We met the leadership of the community, and were invited to speak in local shuls,” said Hecht. “They received us warmly, and we saw potential for Chabad to set up infrastructure there.”

However, the growing civil unrest would change their plans completely.

“All of a sudden, violence erupted across Tehran,” Hecht said. “Different forces suddenly emerged against the Shah. It was the start of a revolution, one led by socialist workers.”

State media coverage caused a stir amongst Jews, causing people to reach out to him to help them get their children out of Iran and into America. Hecht had initially offered a few places to students interested in studying in America, but the demand increased exponentially.

“They began to understand the situation could become a real, violent revolution,” said Hecht. “I returned to the US to begin arranging student visas and permits for those wanting to come.”

Hecht needed permits from institutions willing to take the students in, but found that few were eager to assist. “The list kept increasing, the number of applicants kept growing, and no educational institutions in America were willing to help,” he said.

However, with the assistance of his late father, Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, he successfully arranged places for 30 students at Jewish institutions established by Hecht senior’s schooling network. The demand soon exceeded availability, however, leading the Hechts to make a decision that would alter the course of Jewish history.

“We reached a turning point in history for the Jews of Tehran and world Jewry,” said Hecht. “The Jewish diaspora of Persia left in droves, Jews who had lived there continuously for 2 500 years. A few thousand would end up staying, but the bulk of the community left for good.

“The Iranian Jewish community was transferred to America, and my father started that process.”

Over the coming months, Hecht and others were involved in helping hundreds of Jewish students relocate to the US. The operation had the support of leading Chabad figurehead, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (the Lubavitcher Rebbe). As the plight of the Iranian Jewish community became increasingly desperate, more applications kept pouring in, reaching a fever pitch in late 1979, when the country was in the full grip of revolution.

Hecht recalled, “I got a phone call at 04:00 begging for more permits than we’d ever given. The man told me, ‘Rabbi Hecht, you have to send us permits. It’s terrible here. The Shah has run away, Khomeini has taken over, there’s a war with Iraq, boys are getting kidnapped for the army, and girls are afraid to go out for fear of being raped. Please do what you can so we can get our kids out of Iran.”

Hecht’s father went out of his way to bring as many of these children to America as possible, putting them up in dormitories and with Jewish families across Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Eventually, more than 1 800 Jewish youngsters were successfully extracted from Iran and made a part of American Jewry. This came at considerable financial cost for Hecht senior, but he never once waivered in his commitment. Nor did his son.

“The Rebbe wanted them to be part of a functioning Jewish community with a structured leadership,” said Hecht. “The Rebbe wanted them to be part of strong Jewish life, and we strove to give it to them.”

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Lifestyle

Joburg – city of architects and dreamers

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In spite of its reputation for being the “engine room” of the country, Johannesburg has many elegant, experimental buildings designed by Jewish architects.

Johannesburg Heritage Foundation’s Flo Bird and Brian McKechnie recently took viewers on a virtual tour of many of these buildings, downtown and uptown. Some of them have fallen into disrepair, but they are still a testament to innovation, and continue to contribute to the lives of those who live and work in them.

The tour, unusually, linked the buildings to their creators’ graves at Westpark Cemetery, with epitaphs contributing to our understanding of who they were.

“This tour was inspired by encountering the graves of architects whose work I loved,” Bird said, pointing out that a virtual tour allows us to traverse the large Westpark Jewish Cemetery with ease.

It started with Morrie (MJ) Jacob, who died in 1950. Jacob designed the Doornfontein Synagogue (1905) otherwise known as the Lions Shul, named for the bronze lions on either side of the stairs. In its day, Doornfontein was a desirable address for Jews. Though today the shul is squashed up against Joe Slovo Drive with an ugly fence, it’s still loved for its beauty and unusual touches like minarets, stone columns, and basilica-like space.

Another one of Jacob’s buildings, Cohn’s Pharmacy in Pageview (1906), is an example of the city’s obsession with corner buildings, which tended to be far more elegant and accentuated than those in the middle of the block. Jacob’s Jewish Guild War Memorial building in the old city centre (1922/23) is a pile of an Edwardian building which also celebrates its corner status.

Israel Wayburne (1983) is known, among other things, for employing famous activist and communist Rusty Bernstein. He’s responsible for a number of the maisonette flats (two down, two up) in Yeoville.

“Each building contributes to an interesting and varied landscape [compared, say, to monotonous Fourways],” said Bird.

One of his most well-known buildings is, in fact, the ohel at Westpark, which has a religious and aesthetic function (in spite of an unsightly drainpipe addition at the front). “Luckily Issie doesn’t have to see it as his grave is on the other side of the building,” Bird commented.

Louis Theodore Obel (1956), who was in partnership with his brother, Mark, was a graduate of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – as were many of the architects mentioned. Obel and Obel made a great contribution to art deco architecture, including the Barbican Building (1930), which was the tallest building in Johannesburg at the time, Astor Mansions, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers, and Beacon Royale flats (1934), at the bottom of Yeoville on Louis Botha Avenue.

Maurice Cowen (1990) contributed to the decorative facades of many of Joburg’s best-known schools, including Parktown Girls and Jeppe Boys, and the panels gracing 1930s-era Dunvegan Chambers, Roehampton Court, Shakespeare House, and Broadcast House in the Johannesburg CBD. The latter was the original home of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. The crazy antennae designed for the top of this building didn’t have any real function, McKechnie said, though it copied the antennae on top of the BBC, and there was briefly the idea of using it to dock airships.

Another Wits graduate, Leopold Grinker (1973), was an anti-establishment figure who disliked modernism. Grinker’s Normandie Court (1937) in Delvers Street, Newtown, combines art deco with his obsession with the streamlined form of ships. So too does Daventry Court in Killarney (also built in the 1930s), which was Killarney’s first modern block of flats.

Harold Leroith (also a Wits’ alma mater) is best known for designing Temple Emanuel in Parktown (1954). This minimalist, modern building has concrete recesses which make it sculptural and provide shade for its windows. It also shows concern for materials like stone and face brick.

Leroith also designed Redoma Court, which architects consider one of Johannesburg’s best buildings, and the iconic, shiplike San Remo (1937) Both are sadly in a dilapidated state in Yeoville.

Monty Sack, an architect and artist and another Wits graduate, (2009), incorporated the work of artists in Killarney Hills built on top of Killarney Ridge, built to house actors for the studio of American financier Isidore Schlesinger.

Sidney Abramowitch (2016) passionately lobbied to save Joburg’s historical buildings such as the Markham Building, and is known for designing Innes Chambers in 1963, now used by the National Prosecuting Authority. This unusual building with Y-shaped columns representing the scales of justice, was covered with mosaics, which recently had to be painstakingly restored.

Lastly, the tour touched on the work of Gerald Gordon (2016), also a Wits graduate, who the group described as “an outstanding brain who was unable to limit himself to any single factor”. Gordon, who incubated many of South Africa’s best-known architects in his many years of lecturing at Wits, is best known for designing mountain houses on Linksfield Ridge, such as 7 New Mountain Road (early 70s), which literally cling to the edges of cliffs.

He’s also known for developing a new construction method he named “thin-skin architecture” which uses no bricks and is extremely strong because of its monocoque construction (a type of construction used in cars and aeroplanes).

Like many others, the brilliance and bravery of these Jewish architects leaves a legacy that can’t be eradicated.

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Nominations open for a historic Jewish Achiever Awards

The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards 2020 is now open for nominations.

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JORDAN MOSHE

Just when you thought nothing familiar and fabulous was going to happen, the SA Jewish Report is calling you onboard to begin its journey to this year’s Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.

COVID-19 may have brought live entertainment and events to a grinding halt, but this year’s awards will be held in a format that will make history and give ample recognition to those who have achieved great things.

This is the 22nd year of this unique awards ceremony in which Jewish individuals are acknowledged for the powerful, influential, and life-changing roles they play in South Africa. The Absa Jewish Achiever Awards acknowledges those who deserve recognition for their contributions to society, paying tribute to the men and women who have enhanced our community.

Scheduled to take place in mid-October, the annual extravaganza evening will go ahead in spite of a host of virus-related challenges.

“For the first time in the event’s history, we will be holding an online-offline event,” says Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of the SA Jewish Report. “While the actual event will be streamed live for people to watch without being present, guests will still be able to take part in this incredible event.”

Sackstein explains that while tables can be purchased as usual, the seating is virtual, as guests will experience a gourmet dining experience in the comfort of their own homes while watching the live event.

“Those who buy tables will have their meal delivered to their home, from cocktails to dessert,” says Sackstein. “We will also feature a virtual red carpet, with guests taking photos of themselves at home and sharing them online.”

While they tuck into their meal at home, guests will enjoy a livestream of the event, enjoying the evening’s entertainment and awards.

The awards are another area where exciting changes have been made.

“While guests are eating and watching the event, award winners will be announced live and have their awards handed over to them at home by a team waiting to ring their doorbell. This means that guests will actually see the handover of the award, and feel as though they are still part of the event without actually being there.”

Some of the award categories have also been transformed. In spite of the challenges posed by our trying circumstances, members of our community remain determined to stand out and make tangible contributions, and the awards need to reflect this, Sackstein says.

“Beyond being online, the event must be experiential in that it is relevant to the times in which we are living,” he says.

“COVID-19 has ensured that the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards has changed, and certain award categories have been adjusted to reflect our reality. Business leadership in the time of COVID will replace the usual Business Leadership Award, the Professional Excellence award will become the Professional Excellence in COVID award. Other categories will be similarly adjusted.”

Changes like these are essential, Sackstein says.

“Awards which ignore our circumstances would be meaningless,” he says. “We have moved to recognise those doing remarkable work and their efforts at this very moment which are most relevant to our community.

“We are celebrating our heroes. Heroes emerge in moments like these. Ordinary people have really grasped the mantle of leadership and provided such a remarkable example that we should all emulate.”

Every member of our community is encouraged to participate in acknowledging the tremendous efforts of those who have risen to the occasion of COVID-19 and beyond.

“While a lot of people are depressed and fatalistic about our reality, others have seen the opportunities it offers and striven to make our lives so much better,” says Sackstein. “We have to recognise and celebrate them, using them as an example of what we can do in these difficult times.”

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Neighbour snatches family from fire

A fast-acting neighbour has been hailed as a hero for rescuing a young family whose flat was moments away from being engulfed in smoke and flames.

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NICOLA MILTZ

Last Thursday night, Jonathan Penn and his heavily pregnant wife Simone put their children and themselves to bed early due to unscheduled load-shedding, which plunged their flat on the third floor of Glen Manor in Glenhazel into darkness.

The couple ate an early dinner while it was still light enough to see, and were tucked up in bed by 18:30 with their two children, Judah, 5, and Ayden, 3, in the main bedroom with them.

Simone had lit candles to provide some soft ambient lighting, including a vanilla scented Yankee Candle on the mantle.

Sometime later, the family was shaken awake by frantic, loud banging on their front door and screams to get out.

The Penns were oblivious to the fire which had broken out in their kitchen just a few doors away.

Neighbours Marlon Nathan and his daughter, Tali, were arriving home after fetching takeaways when they saw rising flames in the kitchen of the flat next door to theirs. Had they been a few minutes earlier, they wouldn’t have seen the fire.

“As we rounded the stairs and turned left, we saw flames and thick black smoke coming from Jonathan and Simone’s kitchen. We dumped our bags and takeaways, and rushed to try get them out of there,” said Tali, 23.

Working together, the father and daughter team sprang into action and began screaming and knocking at the door to the flat. Pandemonium ensued as the family jumped out of bed and were greeted by a wall of smoke.

Simone, who writes a blog titled Mothers’ Nature, related her experience the next day. “In the glass windowpane above the front door we could see burning orange reflections. We all started to cough. We couldn’t breathe. The children were screaming. Jonny was trying to pull us away from the flames and the smoke into the lounge. He was scared the blaze was in the passage. He knew not to touch the handles. He knew not to open any doors. He thought we were trapped.

“I fumbled with the keys, one arm over my mouth. I couldn’t remember how keys worked. I couldn’t remember how the door worked.”

She told the SA Jewish Report that at that moment, she feared for their lives.

As Marlon was about to kick down the front door, it opened, and frantically, he pulled Simone, Judah, and Ayden out. The little girl, disorientated, ran back inside when she couldn’t see her father through the smoke. Marlon ran headlong into the smoke to retrieve her.

Tali, a student nurse currently working the COVID-19 wards at Milpark Hospital, said, “I’ve seen my share of trauma, but it’s entirely different when you see your father dash into a fire.”

Once the family was safe, Marlon said his focus turned to extinguishing the fire which was getting out of control.

“My priority was first to get the family out of the flat, and then to contain the spread of the fire. There are 88 flats with many elderly residents. I had no time to think about anything other than putting out that fire,” he said.

Jonathan and Marlon ran through the building collecting fire extinguishers to battle the flames.

Security guard Prince Elliot used large buckets of water to put out the last of the fire.

A distraught Judah was worried about his two birds, Tweety and Koko, whom he had left behind in all the commotion. He was calmed when a firefighter much later appeared clutching a perfectly intact bird cage containing two finches.

“That was when I broke down. Every single Penn was safe and accounted for,” said Simone.

The family believe a surge caused by the power outage caused a spark which ignited the fire. “We suspect a spark landed on a large tablecloth I had folded in the kitchen,” said Simone.

Relieved and grateful, she said, “I think Hashem sent angels in the form of Marlon and Tali, and then Prince. But of course we owe everything to Marlon. We owe him our life. He and Tali appeared at the exact right moment. I shudder to think what five minutes either way would have meant.”

Marlon, 56, who has been treated for smoke inhalation said, “I’m not a hero. I just did what anybody in that situation would’ve done.”

He was meant to be in Israel for his daughter’s wedding, but cancelled his trip the day before the fire. His daughter says she now knows why. “He was meant to be here to save lives,” she said.

“I believe the family was minutes away from dying. The smoke was so heavy and thick, they would have died in their beds. They wouldn’t have got to the front door. You could hardly see them when they came out. It was scary,” said Marlon.

A firefighter told the SA Jewish Report it could have ended very differently. “This was a potentially deadly fire. One flat can take out the building. There are many different people living there with different needs, including elderly in wheelchairs. There is a petrol station next to it and restaurants. It was potentially very dangerous.”

The Penns say their experience has taught them a lot about fire prevention. They recommend keeping a fire extinguisher, installing smoke alarms, turning off the mains when the power is cut, and installing surge plugs for appliances.

Both the Penns and the Nathans are living with family members while their homes are cleaned and repaired.

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