Zaka honoured for bravery in Bank of Lisbon inferno
Jewish rescue and recovery organisation Zaka SA has been awarded a medal of bravery by the Gauteng province for its assistance with the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD more than two years ago.
Zaka SA was honoured on International Firefighters Day on 4 May, a day in which the City of Joburg remembered all firefighters who had “courageously put others’ lives before their own, saluting them for their selfless dedication and bravery”.
Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze, one plunging to his death on the pavement below, after trying to put out the fire near the top of the high-rise building. The building was subsequently found to be only minimally compliant with health and safety regulations, and firefighters faced a lack of water and oxygen. It has since been demolished.
Zaka SA “rescued the rescuers” by offering psychological support to devastated and exhausted city firefighters, and food for 100 firefighters, with the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
However, when they reached the scene, Zaka and the SAJBD discovered that 700 students housed in a building next door needed to be evacuated for fear of smoke inhalation, and more food was urgently required to feed them. Zaka was honoured for assisting with the evacuation of these students, and for providing necessary relief.
“Bank of Lisbon was a complicated story,” said Daniel Forman, the head of Zaka SA. “There was a vacuum of resources including water availability, and we encountered a challenging scene as the three firefighters lost their lives soon into the crisis but firefighters had to continue to fight the fire. The biggest challenge was that the fire was so high up in the building, so firefighters had to preserve their oxygen supplies going up.”
Zaka SA was set up in 2015 to assist the community with emergency search and rescue, body identification and recovery, and fire-containment services. Like Zaka around the world, it’s entirely staffed by volunteers, and relies on communal support to keep going.
It has two trailers which each hold 600 litres of water, and is often the first responder in suburban fires, where early detection and response can eliminate the need to call city firefighters. However, Forman cautions that 600 litres is used up in just seven minutes, and a house can burn down in minutes, making additional resources mandatory.
Zaka is sometimes called on to fight more than six fires a month, he said, particularly in the winter months when people rely on heating devices in their homes, and fires are lit by the homeless and security guards to keep warm.
“Zaka’s fire-containment unit came about through challenges which exist in the system,” Forman said, “including the long wait for firefighters.” Another of these challenges is theft of brass parts from neighbourhood fire hydrants, rendering them ineffective.
However, he stressed that the City of Joburg had been involved in a major upgrade of these hydrants, and was amazingly supportive of Zaka generally. He praised the Gauteng government for exposing the organisation’s communal efforts.
“Not once have they not responded to our call or thanked us for our help,” he said of Joburg’s firefighters. “They do an amazing job.”
Third wave closes schools and shuls
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.
Couple dies hours apart from COVID-19
“This isn’t a COVID-19 story; it’s a love story.” So says Cindy Silberg, the oldest daughter of Simon and Maxine Schneider, reflecting on the profound legacy her parents – who died within hours of each other – have left behind.
“It just shows that they were true soulmates,” says Hayley Kissos, their middle daughter. “They got married under the chuppah as one neshoma [soul]; they passed away together as one neshoma. From the time they got married until the time they were buried, they lived their lives as one.
“They lived lives of respect: respect for each other, and of others, and through that, others respected them,” says Stacey Barnett, their youngest daughter. “Our parents would just do whatever they could to help others.”
Two weeks ago, Maxine, aged 66, tested positive for COVID-19. A day later, Simon, 71, received the same test result. Maxine was carefully monitored by Hatzolah and as a precaution, since she had an underlying condition, was hospitalised. A few days later, Simon’s temperature started going up, and again as a precautionary measure, he was admitted.
“The doctors weren’t even sure that he really needed to be admitted,” says Kissos. “This was part of Hashem’s greater plan that my father would be with my mother.”
When Silberg asked her father if he wanted her to try to make sure that he was placed in the same ward as her mother, their bond was so deep, “he said to me, ‘No, then we are going to worry too much about each other; we both have to get better.’”
Both parents remained in a stable condition, without needing to be moved to intensive care (ICU). They were making plans for them to be released last Friday.
Instead, last Tuesday night, Maxine phoned Simon in his ward to remind him to watch MasterChef – they shared a love of reality cooking and dance shows. Maxine then climbed into bed and within half an hour, slipped away quietly in her sleep.
Simon was told the news and sat with her body as they waited for the Chevrah Kadisha to arrive. “He spoke to her and said his goodbyes,” says Silberg. “He told us she was so beautiful; she looked like she was dreaming,” says Kissos.
Rabbi Mordechai Rodal phoned Simon after hearing the news of Maxine’s death. He recalls that “Simon told me, ‘Rabbi, this is just a temporary separation. We are going to be reunited before you know it … We are both the same soul.’”
Seven hours later, Simon, too, slipped away in his sleep.
Having first met through a mutual friend when Maxine was 15 and Simon 19, three years later, Simon asked permission to propose to Maxine on her 18th birthday. They wed soon after, and set up home first in Orange Grove and then Sydenham. On 10 June, they would have celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary.
“They were the salt of the earth,” says Avril Epstein, Maxine’s younger sister. “It was a privilege to have chosen to be her sister. She was the nucleus of our family.” Justin Farkas, a family friend especially close to Simon, recalls how on the day Simon died, he was still trying to uplift people. “That day, from hospital, he created a WhatsApp group to help a gardener in a complex where he was involved. This is how he was to everyone. Everyone looked up to him as a father figure.”
Maxine worked as a legal cost consultant, mostly half days to be able to be with her daughters in the afternoon. Simon was a part of The Star newspaper team for more than three decades, working until retirement as credit manager.
Their house was “a simcha home”, reminisces Kissos, describing how it became a venue for endless parties to celebrate various people’s birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and other happy events. Sometimes, even just on ordinary weekends, “people would arrive at 08:00 on a Sunday for breakfast,” Barnett remembers.
They had seven grandchildren ranging in age from three to 20, and “each one believed they were the favourite” the family jokes.
Their father made few but strong stipulations for his family. “Growing up, we had to have dinner at the dinner table every night, and then when we left home, my father had two rules,” recalls Kissos. “The first was we weren’t allowed to emigrate. We were to stay here as a family. The second was that we didn’t go to sleep not talking. We always followed through.”
The Schneiders’ deaths are sadly part of the recent rapid increase in cases of the virus. Specialist physician pulmonologist Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital says that “by every single definition in the book, we are definitely in the third wave”. However, compared to previous waves, “it has a slightly different trajectory, and we don’t really know if it’s going to suddenly shoot up or keep going up more slowly for longer than before”.
Three main trends have emerged in the current wave. First, although previously a person who got the virus might land up infecting maybe one or two others in their family, now entire households are contracting it. What remains unclear is whether this is because the virus itself is more transmissible or people are living in closer proximity to each other than before. Most cases are being traced back to social gatherings, work functions, or dinner parties.
Second, people who are vaccinated, or even both vaccinated and who had the virus before, are assuming that they are immune and then contracting COVID-19. Zinman said people have to remember that even with the vaccine, “there’s a chance that you’ll get COVID-19 very mildly or not even know you have it, and yet still be able to transmit it”.
Lastly, ICU beds are still in desperate demand, with ambulances driving around to eight or nine hospitals to try and find space for their patients. People are also staying in ICU longer during the current wave, making the situation more dire. “Maintaining the proper behaviour to try and prevent transmission of the virus” is the only tool people have to keep safe, say frontline medical expert.
As the Schneider family grapple with the rawness of their loss, they cherish the small details of lives lived so closely together. Whether it was the pair of winter and summer pyjamas the couple brought every grandchild for each season; the endless chocolates Simon offered even just before mealtimes; or Maxine’s need to bake 11 pesadiche ginger cakes in one morning so that nobody would be left out; even their light-hearted bickering about whether the TV was too loud or too soft – all are reflections of the “warmth they radiated”, says Silberg.
She considers how at their funeral “seeing their graves together, I thought at least they have taken the next step together. There is something comforting in that. I told my children they were lucky to have known their grandparents.” I said, “Take those lesson into your life – that’s how you will keep my parents alive.”
Singles find romance in the Cloud
“COVID-19 lockdown? It’s epic. It’s probably the single greatest thing that has happened to single people ever.”
This assertion by gym owner Nicholas Ingel, who has been on the dating scene for four years since his divorce, reflects the fact that many older daters in the community are finding brave new ways to meet their beshert and keep a social distance.
“Before, we were tied into a relationship or a potential relationship only with people that we could physically meet. Now, we are no longer locked in by location or even time,” says the 49-year-old, reflecting on the possibilities for romance across the Zoom-iverse, even in the post-COVID-19 world to come.
Even after the pandemic is contained, the world won’t go back to the way it was before, Ingel says. “This is the new normal. It’s a hybrid between in-person and online meeting, and what an amazing thing it is!”
Lisa Kowalsky, the original founder of the Joburg Jewish Singles 35+ Facebook group, agrees, having recently launched an online series of dating events for the community.
“Obviously COVID-19 made it very difficult for us at first. I tried to get people to continue to interact by putting up questions on the Facebook page to which people could respond. Then I came up with online speed dating, which has been brilliant.”
Kowalsky, who started the events last month, hosts South African only and international Jewish singles dating events. Each participant gets a minimum of eight dates that last five minutes each. Participants share only their first names, and the dates are held on a special online platform that mimics a date setting.
“It has been such a success. We have had so many matches. In the first event, almost everyone had between one and four matches. Some people dated afterwards, and lots said it was so much fun.”
Michelle Blumenau has thoroughly enjoyed participating in two of the events. “It’s a low-stress way to meet new people via your computer.”
Blumenau explains the process. “It’s a Zoom-like platform, but there’s only you and one other person on the screen for a couple of minutes. Then the next person arrives. It’s just enough time to get a sense of the other and whether you would like to see that person again. If you both agree to meet, you are sent each other’s contact information the next day.”
She says it certainly has advantages over traditional dating. “It saves you having to sit through a drink or a meal with someone when there is absolutely no connection. It’s very good in that way.”
Meanwhile, Lorna Falkson, who voluntarily organised many social events for older singles before lockdown, has started coming up with outdoor activities that allow people to gather in COVID-19-compliant ways.
She recently held a garden get-together that was so popular, she had to turn people down as she could accommodate only 50 people to ensure social distancing. Moreover, she laughs, once the participants arrived, she struggled to get them to leave!
Kowalsky and Falkson say it’s clear that many singles have found life during COVID-19 lonely. In this context, Kowalsky’s Facebook group and Falkson’s gatherings have become not just about dating but serve as a place to connect in general.
“People form wonderful friendships and make great networks. Being single might be the common denominator, but it’s just a starting point,” says Kowalsky.
She says there has been a huge increase in the numbers of people joining the Facebook group during COVID-19, with about 150 new members recently joining the now 900-member collective.
For the first time, this includes Jewish singles from outside South Africa, although Kowalsky has been careful to ensure that they are specifically looking to meet South Africans.
Each member is carefully vetted and each post monitored. She is assisted by fellow administrators Wendy Miller, who is able to offer legal advice, and Colin Gluch, who is her “male counterbalance”.
The group was started in 2017 and since then, romance has blossomed for many of those in the group, with several serious relationships on the go and engagements confirmed.
For some members, it was their first foray back into the social world after a painful experience like the death of a spouse. “One member in his 70s lost his wife 10 years ago. He had become a hermit. He told us how this group had changed his life. He was going out; he was dating; he was having the best fun.”
Kowalsky herself isn’t single, and her passion for the project is motivated by a wider love for the community. “I love to see people happy” she says.
Yet, at times, she gets frustrated by the fact that people allow their inhibitions to get in the way of putting themselves out there. For example, page activity statistics show that about 90% of them are actively reading posts. However, this statistic isn’t represented when it comes to attending events. “The truth is, people moan and groan about where they are, but they’re not always putting in the effort.”
A reason could be insecurity. “A huge problem with singles is self-esteem. You have to realise that a lot of them have come out of bad marriages where their self-esteem has been broken, or they are widowed. They might not have dated since they were 18 years old. Now they’re like 50 or 60 -– where do they begin?”
Falkson says “older men are more shy. If you phone a shadchan [matchmaker], they will tell you there are no men on the books. But the reason there are no men on the books is that men don’t come forward. Yet, there are so many. What I would like to do is encourage them to make contact.”
Falkson says she is motivated by her experience of arriving in Johannesburg as a farm girl from Limpopo. “When I came to Johannesburg at the age of 20, I didn’t know anybody. I opened up a newspaper, and although then I wasn’t religious at all, there was a little advertisement for a Jewish matchmaker. I thought okay, well, this is my only hope.
The lady set her up on a number of dates. Eventually via one of these, she met a man who later introduced her to her husband, although they are now divorced.
“If you live in Johannesburg, there can be hundreds of people around you, but you can be very lonely. That’s why I’m passionate about creating opportunities for people to meet.”
Ingel urges people to rethink their attitude to dating. “Men tell me there is no one to date, and women tell me there is no one to date. We get brought up with these fairytales, and they’re not true. No one’s perfect. Stop looking for perfect – it doesn’t exist. It’s not about settling, it’s about understanding what’s real.”
The disjuncture is in how “people are arrogant in what they look for, but insecure in what they offer”.
They need to find a middle ground in their sense of self. “You aren’t as good as you think you are, but you certainly aren’t as bad as you think you are,” he says.
He suggests that rather than a hindrance, being older is an advantage. “[Being in the 35+ category], is really when you come into your own. I know myself better now than I have ever known myself. I’m comfortable with who I am. I know what I want, and importantly, I know what I don’t want.”
Ultimately, his advice is to remember that relationships aren’t repair shops. “We can’t fix people, and we can’t expect people to fix us. Learn to love yourself first.”
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