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WhatsApp messages use Jewish community to sow divisions

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As social media in South Africa last week became a minefield of fake news and incitement amidst civil unrest, one WhatsApp user attempted to draw the South African Jewish community into the fray.

Messages written by someone who called himself “Ari Goldberg – Israeli peacekeeper” were full of profanities and hate speech against the Indian community, including the line, “The Jews in Israel will kill you.”

They were posted with images of Israeli flags on a group called “Durban Support”. According to a member of the group, most of the people on it were members of the Indian community.

The person also changed the topic of the group from “Durban Support” to “Mossad is watching you!” and “SA must burn and die”. Members of the group told its admin to remove the user, which it did. However, the damage he caused may have the long-term effect of sowing divisions between the Jewish and Indian communities where none existed before.

The messages were shared with SA Jewish Report chairperson and tech guru Howard Sackstein, who immediately tried to put out the fire by emphasising that they were created to sow division and hatred at a time when communities are feeling vulnerable.

“This is clearly fake nonsense specifically sent to try ferment racial hatred,” he responded to the person who queried it. “It’s quite obvious from the following – the guy claims to be an ‘Israeli peace keeper’, but Israel doesn’t deploy peace keepers anywhere. The number used [to send the messages on WhatsApp] is American, not Israeli. India and Israel have a very close relationship.

“The telephone number is unlisted on True Caller, which means it has been used specifically to send this message – a clear sign of someone trying to incite hatred. People who use fake numbers would never put their names to a message.

“The number is registered in Sioux Falls South Dakota, United States,” Sackstein said. “I have searched, and there appears to be no Jewish community in Sioux Falls South Dakota. I have googled, and there is no Ari Goldberg in Sioux Falls South Dakota. All this means is that someone thinks this is a good time to try create racial hatred between Jews and Indians where none exists. One has to ask, what sort of sick person would do this?”

He requested that his message be sent to the WhatsApp group where the ugly messages were posted. “People must know that political looters and criminals must be exposed and dealt with. I have been to India four times, and many of my close friends are Indian – no fake instigator will ever drive a wedge between us.”

So, why would someone create a message like this, hoping to stir up hatred and divisions between Jews and Indians? “In vulnerable times like last week, we see the best and worst in people,” said local social-media expert Sarah Hoffman. “We have witnessed people trying to rebuild, but we’ve also witnessed existing prejudices and burning hatred. When people are under pressure, it’s an opportune time to make such kind of comments.” She encouraged people to disassociate themselves actively from such comments if they are shared on a WhatsApp group, and to encourage the group admin to block the user.

In the wider context, “We have seen massive polarisation of society globally, as witnessed during elections in the United States and Israel, and in political divisions in South Africa,” said local tech expert Arthur Goldstuck. “As a result, individuals feel emboldened to stir the pot with a mixture of their own bigotry and their desire to see the worst happen to the ‘other’. Refusal to acknowledge the rights of those with different views is a ‘pandemic’ in itself. Our own community witnesses this daily, as do others, and religious and political leaders don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand their own roles in either condoning or failing to condemn such attitudes.

“You don’t have to be an extremist to be a bigot, and that’s part of the problem,” he said. “Ordinary people who see themselves as decent and even reasonable develop blind spots when it comes to other races, nationalities, and political views. Blind support of populist leaders has created a massive us-and-them crisis in which everyone loses. The resultant chaos allows agents provocateur to behave with impunity, confident they won’t have to face consequences, and relish in their apparent power to sow further division.

“Multicultural society is detested by bigots, and the antipathy towards multiculturalism in our own community provides fuel for the expression of hatred towards others. Only if we move from an ‘us-and-them’ mentality to a ‘we’ mentality can we reduced bigotry.”

Said Karen Allen, senior research advisor on emerging threats in Africa at the Institute for Security Studies, “We see this [kind of message] at times of heightened tension and unrest. People stir the pot by tossing divisions into the mix, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. For example, we saw it during the xenophobic attacks or at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Often there are more users on these platforms during difficult times, so it’s an opportunity to amplify messages. They aim to drive divisions at certain points in time.

“Also, social media allows for a much wider reach. Imagine that this person took to the streets of Durban with a loudhailer, he would reach only a certain number of people,” she said. “But on social media, the way the algorithm is designed, it amplifies such messages. So even if you share this message online to say it’s awful, the fact that you shared it propels it further.”

Therefore, she advises that users don’t re-share something abusive or hateful, even if it’s to criticise it. “South Africa is a divided country,” she said. “Touchstone issues include race and sometimes the divisions between certain communities. The fact that social media and messaging platforms can be anonymous means that often there’s little consequence for it.”

However, South Africa’s new Cybercrimes Act, which has just been signed into law, may start to have an impact. “Malicious communications on social-media platforms are offences under the Act. Part two of the Act makes it an offence to incite damage to property or threaten to damage property or persons,” Allen said.

Furthermore, “if tweets, messages, or conversations include fake or deliberately manipulated images, the offences may amount to cyber forgery. Simply re-sharing deliberately manipulated content that is malicious could make any one of us unwittingly assistants in committing a crime.”

Sackstein said that these messages aren’t necessarily created to support one side or the other, but to “create as much chaos as possible, because if you destabilise your opponent, it weakens them”. That’s why someone writing a message like this may be a person who would “benefit from additional racial strife”, and the Jewish community is just a tool for them to achieve that. Tomorrow, they could post a similar message trying to create discord amongst other communities.

“It’s important that we understand the context and the dangers. It’s a deliberate attempt to sabotage. Be very careful what you share or forward as you are possibly being manipulated,” he said.

Meanwhile, Police Minister Bheki Cele said in a speech on 13 July, “We issue a stern warning to those circulating inflammatory messages on social-media platforms which are aimed at inciting violence and disregard of the law. Those who engage in such acts will be liable for criminal offence and can receive a fine or be sentenced to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years.”

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‘Happy-go-lucky’ twins’ tragic deaths raises questions

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Identical twin brothers Leonard and Jason Rom – inseparable in life and death – were laid to rest side by side on Sunday, 16 January, at Westpark Cemetery on a bleak, grey morning attended by a small gathering of mourners.

No one knows exactly what pushed the brothers, aged 44, to take their lives in a dramatic, seemingly macabre, and grisly finale to what must have followed months of anguish, desperation, and despair.

Devoted to each other from birth until their dying minutes, the Rom brothers’ bodies were found on 10 January in their company-branded car in Simon’s Town, about 35km from Cape Town.

The bodies of Jason’s four beloved bulldogs, Hercules, Franky, Gucci, and Coco, were found with them in their small Peugeot. Attached to their car was a trailer containing all their belongings. Both divorced, Leonard leaves behind two young children, a boy and a girl.

His distraught son clutched onto the trolley carrying his father’s coffin for what seemed like forever as the twins’ coffins were wheeled side by side to their final resting place.

According to reports, Simon’s Town police were called to the scene at about 08:30, where they found the brothers with gunshot wounds to their chests. They were declared dead on the scene by paramedics.

Captain Frederick van Wyk told the SA Jewish Report that the circumstances surrounding the deaths are under investigation, and an inquest has been opened.

The Roms’ untimely and sudden deaths have left many reeling in utter disbelief. Those who knew them were aware that the brothers were extremely close and did everything together. They lived together and were in business together as the former owners and partners of 1 Two 1 Cellular, a cellphone repair company in Craighall Park, Johannesburg.

“They couldn’t live without each other. I have never seen a brotherly bond like this,” said their friend, Quentin Neuper, who described them as fun-loving, warm, and friendly.

“They were awesome guys. I adored them. They would go out of their way to help customers, often driving to their homes. Every time I was in the shop, they made me laugh and made my day.”

He said Jason loved his dogs “with his life”. “They were his everything. They both loved animals. We are all trying to make sense of this.”

The brothers apparently didn’t leave a note, but no sooner had news of their passing spread, so too did rumours and wild speculation.

Was it a hit? Was it a robbery gone wrong? Were they on the run? Was it a moment of blind madness fuelled by drugs or alcohol? Were they simply in too deep, above their heads? Or did they fall prey to the endless cycle of depression and anxiety exacerbated by the brutal COVID-19 pandemic?

The twins may have taken the answers to their graves, but they have left behind loved ones hanging on to lasting memories.

Jason’s ex-wife, Monique Cardona, told the SA Jewish Report that she last spoke to Jason about two weeks ago. She kept in regular contact with the brothers, even though she had been divorced from Jason for 10 years.

“I’m shocked, this was totally unexpected. They seemed ok, things were hard, but they weren’t more down than usual,” she said.

“They weren’t just brothers, they were best friends, attached at the hip. They even wore matching clothes sometimes and always had this way of making people smile,” she said fondly. “They came as a package deal, and always ran things by each other.”

She’s aware they had sugar diabetes and heart issues, but they never spoke about depression. She said as far as she knew, they wanted to make a new life for themselves and start over.

Initial reports last week suggested the brothers were tourists in the Mother City, but it has since been established that this wasn’t the case.

There was no summer holiday for the beleaguered twins, who had experienced financial difficulties in recent years to the point of closing their shop and working from home. It’s believed they left Johannesburg a few months ago in the hope of starting a new life after a series of financial blows which left them with few options. Some said they were thinking of starting a food-truck business.

Their company was once successful and thriving with clients far and wide. It was even rumoured they assisted Oprah Winfrey on one of her visits, and the company was once nominated for a 702 small business award.

Things were good for a while, said friends this week. They were known for miles around for providing excellent, personal service. Jason took care of the customers in the front of the shop, while Leonard was the technician.

Having started out in the early 2000s, the company grew steadily. Sadly, the business took a few knocks, and after some time, Jason sold his house in Fairmount, just a few houses from Leonard’s house. It’s believed a series of break ins, some bad luck, and the pandemic finally took their toll. Relationships fell apart, and the close-knit brothers lived together before deciding to try their luck in Cape Town sometime last year.

Customers this week praised the pair for their expertise and professional service, many recalling their jovial, friendly, and good-humoured demeanour.

“This is a story I cannot get my head around,” said Rabbi Shaul Bacher, describing their passing as “a calamity” and a “tragedy of such magnitude”. Speaking at the funeral, he said, “There are no words to give comfort.”

Bacher said it was “hard to believe” that both brothers were in such a bad way that neither could see a way out or persuade the other that they were making a grave mistake.

“I work in drug rehabilitation, I have seen depression, but I have never seen something like this. You can’t make this up,” said Bacher.

Like most, the rabbi is dismayed at the circumstances surrounding their passing. “None of it makes any sense,” he said, urging the urgency of addressing depression and anxiety.

“All of this is hard to fathom, but we need to take something from this that will encourage those in need to reach out and get the help they desperately need. People should also make it their business to become aware of those suffering around them.”

The twins’ half-sister, Beverley Mans, who lives in Israel with their sister, Sharon Slimowitz, said the family was heartbroken and in shock. “We are all devastated beyond words, we can’t believe it,” she said.

“They were such happy-go-lucky boys, we cannot believe what transpired. Whoever you ask is in total shock. They didn’t say much, we know times were tough for them as for everyone else. They wanted to start a new life in Cape Town.”

She said the Rom boys were born in Johannesburg, and made aliyah with their late mother in 1994. They returned to South Africa, where they were first involved in the towing business before starting 1 Two 1 Cellular.

Their loved ones are waiting for the results of the inquest, hoping it will help them to reach closure.

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Kiff vibes for a well-known psalm

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The South African Jewish community received a special Shabbat “gift” on the first Friday of 2022, when David Scott (better known as The Kiffness) released his latest remix on 7 January. Taking a joyful rendition of the psalm Im Hashem Lo Yivneh Bayis by the Shira Choir, the South African musician added his own beats and even a cameo of a cat, to take it to new heights.

For many, it was a delight to see such a celebrated South African performer embrace Jewish music and bring it to his diverse and global audience.

What’s more, Scott released the song online just hours before his wife gave birth to their first child. “It’s been a crazy day,” he told the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation (Gardens Shul) pre-Shabbat Zoom session, where he was a special guest. The shul’s chazan, Choni Goldman (Choni G), had provided invaluable advice to Scott as he worked with the song and then invited him to join the community online.

When Scott shared that his wife had just gone into labour, Gardens Shul Rabbi Osher Feldman blessed the musician and his family. He also thanked him for showing that music can bring people together.

Making time to speak to the SA Jewish Report from the hospital after his son was born, Scott explained how the remix came about. “Most of my remixes start with fans messaging me on Instagram, Facebook, or email. This particular video of the Shira Choir (who are based in Brooklyn, New York) popped up in my inboxes a couple of times, so I checked it out and was instantly hooked and amazed by the wonderful music.”

He says that the choir was aware that he was working with its music. “Whenever I embark on a collaboration of this nature, I always reach out to the original artist[s], introduce myself, tell them what I do, and ask if they would be okay with me doing a remix. I sent them an early draft of the remix I was busy working on. I was very glad to hear that they liked it! The rest was history.”

“The original is already a masterpiece on its own. My remix just injects a bit more chutzpah into the song,” he says.

The response to the remix has been hugely positive. Asked why he thinks this is the case, Scott says, “Music is a universal language, and people recognise and resonate with good music regardless of where it comes from. But I do think there’s something special about this song. I feel as if the composer tapped into something much bigger than ourselves when he wrote the melody, as did David when he wrote The Song of Solomon (Psalm 127).”

The lyrics translate as, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. Indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. Guardian of Israel.”

“The song resonates because it’s a gentle reminder that everything we build is in vain unless it is built upon solid principles,” he says. “I have always believed that anything that’s difficult now will make life easier in the long run, and anything that’s easy now will make life harder in the long run. We live in a society where instant gratification is rife, so it was refreshing to hear David’s psalm in the context of music. Music has a way of making truth more digestible.”

Though the response has been overwhelmingly positive, “unfortunately there have been a few negative comments”, he says. “My response is always either to ignore them, block them, or if I’m up to it, respond in kindness. The few nasty comments I have seen, I‘ve decided to block.”

On working with Goldman, Scott says, “I know Choni G through performing at Barmitzvahs, Batmitzvahs, and weddings together. When I began remixing the song, I wanted to make sure I had all the right translations and transliterations in place. I knew Choni could help me, but what I didn’t know was how gracious he would be with his time and willingness to help. What a guy!”

For his part, Goldman told the SA Jewish Report that “Dave messaged me asking if I know the song, saying people had sent it to him asking to remix it, and he digs it. I told him, ‘Go for it!’ I knew the choir, and pointed out that the verses are from Psalms. Dave is a super talented guy. He didn’t need my help! But wherever I thought I could help out from a Jewish perspective, or just by being a soundboard for him, I did.

“Over the next two weeks while he remixed it we were in touch with various things,” says Goldman. “This ranged from giving my take on subtleties, how people might receive it, to helping with translations, transliteration, and Hebrew text, and putting him in touch with the right people in New York to license the song. The remix is great, and I’m a big fan of his work. I’d love to work on something together at some point. I’m sure we will.”

Scott says that joining the Gardens Shul pre-Shabbat Zoom session was “really great. It was very special to receive such a wonderful blessing from the rabbi before heading to the hospital as we prepared for the delivery of our first-born son.”

Asked if he would work with more Jewish music in future, he says, “I’m open to all kinds of music as long as it resonates with my spirit. This particular song resonated with me deeply, and maybe it will open more doors to working with more Jewish music in the future.”

He says the community can support him by simply subscribing to his YouTube channel. “You will be notified of my upcoming videos. Every view helps me to keep an income and to continue what I enjoy doing.”

To the South African Jewish community, he says, “I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the warm reception to the song. It was a leap of faith on my part [as a Christian] to work with music outside of my own faith, but I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and went for it. I did find comfort in knowing that the Psalms are celebrated in both faiths and essentially point toward the same thing, which is G-d. So with that in mind, I had a gut feeling that it would work out, and I’m glad I was right. I have nothing but love and respect for my Jewish brothers and sisters.”

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Shock as ‘Eishet Chayil’ murdered in Cape Town

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At the beginning of 2021, Doreen Lewis’ brother, David Lewis, died from COVID-19 at age 68. The siblings lived together and were deeply involved in the Cape Town Jewish community. But before the year was out, tragedy struck again: Doreen was murdered in her home in lower Vredehoek around midday on 14 December 2021.

Described as having a “special neshama”, Doreen (73), dedicated herself to caring for her brother, who was born deaf. She was planning her brother’s consecration an hour before she was brutally murdered. The two siblings are now buried one grave apart.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from London, their surviving brother, Frank Lewis, says he hadn’t seen his siblings since before the pandemic, but they spoke every day. Even though he left South Africa in 1989, he never imagined his sister would one day be tied up and murdered in her own home.

“Doreen was a beautiful girl who never married. She dedicated herself to caring for my late parents and brother,” says Frank, pointing out that there are many “unanswered questions” about the murder.

Their cousin, David Stein in Cape Town, says that after her brother’s passing, Doreen lived alone, although more recently her domestic helper and her husband had moved in after their room on the property had burnt down. Because the domestic helper’s room was being rebuilt, there were many builders on site. The flat is in Myrtle Street, right by the Gardens Shopping Centre.

“They think the guy [who murdered her] posed as a builder or insurance agent. It happened around noon – in broad daylight,” he says. “The domestic helper and her husband were in the flat, but they heard nothing. The murderer can be seen on the security cameras but because he’s wearing a mask, it’s difficult to identify him. All he took was an old cell phone. The motive was probably robbery.” Stein says the domestic worker discovered the body, but isn’t a suspect.

“The investigation is being dealt with by seasoned detectives”, Warrant Officer Joseph Swartbooi of the South African Police Services Western Cape Media Centre told the SA Jewish Report. “The investigation has reached a sensitive stage, and the investigating officer is following up on all leads.”

Captain Ezra October of the Cape Town Central Police Station added that he had interviewed the investigator, Detective Warrant Officer Shaun Bardien, regarding an update. “He informed me that the investigation is at a sensitive stage. The community arranged possible video footage, and he is awaiting feedback.”

Bardien is a member of the Serious and Violent Crimes detectives unit. Local media report that he and his team have successfully solved two murder cases in the Cape Town City Bowl, so there’s hope that this killer will also be apprehended. Victims in the two cases were aged 81 (killed in 2017) and 60 (killed in 2018). They were both killed in their homes.

Cape Town Jewry and the wider community reacted in shock and anger to the murder, especially because the area has deteriorated in recent years. “We lived near Gardens Centre for a while and it was more dodgy than just about anywhere else we’ve lived subsequently, including on Long Street,” wrote one resident of the area on Facebook. “A very uneasy mix of street dwellers and car guards checking out everybody and everything. My car got broken into four times near Gardens Centre.”

Said another resident, “I moved here last year, and as much as I know that no area is unaffected by crime, I have never felt this uneasy in my own home.” Another person added, “I have been threatened by multiple car guards while walking in Schoonder and Myrtle streets after shopping.”

“The Gardens Centre area has been frightening for us all to park nearby and approach on foot for many years,” wrote a third resident. “This area has been described as a hot spot for years. Residents have had to fight for themselves.”

Doreen’s brother, Frank, says they spoke about his sister moving after David’s passing, but she didn’t want to as she was comfortable in her lifelong family home. Her murder comes after another elderly Jewish couple, Rosalie Bloch and Aubrey Jackson, were tied up and murdered in their home in 2018. Two years ago, Western Cape police offered a R100 000 reward for information, but the investigation has stalled.

“Doreen was a quiet type, and well-loved. She was an excellent cook and baker,” says Stein. “Their parents always had a welcoming and hamishe home. They lived close to Schoonder Street Shul, and every visiting rabbi would spend Shabbat with them.”

Cape Town attorney Peter Greenberg knew the siblings for many years. “I had my law practice in Gardens Centre for 28 years and during this time, I got to know Doreen and her brothers. I think David’s passing was devastating for Doreen as they were very close. Doreen was devoted to taking excellent care of David’s day-to-day needs. She was well-loved and a true eishet chayil [woman of valour]. Her untimely and sudden passing was a huge shock.”

“David was the first deaf referee in South Africa, and was known to have given Rabbi David Rosen a red card in a local soccer game,” Stein says. “He also played bowls and loved Yiddishkeit. They were both in hospital with COVID-19. Doreen survived, David didn’t.”

“David refereed at provisional and club level, and he represented South Africa as a referee at the Maccabi Games as well as local derbies,” says his friend, Adam Zartz.

Frank Lewis’ sister-in-law in Cape Town, Jenny Cohen, says, “Doreen had an amazing sense of humour. She would do small acts of kindness, like taking a plate of homemade biscuits to the guard every time she visited the cemetery.” Now, she lies in that same cemetery, taken too soon.

Stanley Norrie of Café Riteve on the Cape Town Jewish Community Campus says Doreen visited the café every day, spending time with old friends as they reminisced about their childhoods centred around Schoonder Street Shul. Writing on Facebook on 15 December 2021, he said, “Two weeks ago, Doreen Lewis was celebrating a birthday with her friends at Café Riteve. Every day we saw Israel, Noreen, and Doreen smiling and laughing. Yesterday, she was brutally murdered! We are so sad and wish her family strength. It’s absolutely incomprehensible.”

Zartz says Doreen battled in the wake of her brother’s passing, especially because COVID-19 restrictions meant that she couldn’t attend the community events she so loved. “Maybe this was Hashem’s way of saying that she and her brother needed to be together. Their memory will be cherished.”

Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stop on 08600 10111.

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