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Community unites in eye of the storm

  • CommunalLeaders1
In an extraordinary display of unity and co-operation, leaders of all Jewish communal and civic structures came together this week to find ways to prevent further deaths in our community as the pandemic substantially worsens.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Jun 25, 2020

“Together, we implore the community to self-regulate and take responsibility,” said Wendy Kahn, the national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). “The alarming rate of infections in our community is a warning that it’s up to us to do everything in our individual power to prevent further deaths in our community.

“Individuals, families, and communities need to take control and stop irresponsible social gatherings and socialising.”

Zev Krengel, the national chairperson of the SAJBD told the SA Jewish Report, “We were in training during the past few months, the real war is about to start, and the next four to five weeks will be make or break for our community and South Africa.”

Weeks of stringent preventative measures coupled with lockdown fatigue, complacency, and differences about how to deal with the restrictions, have precipitated the call for a more united front. It has come amidst a mounting medical emergency in the form of rapid expansion of the virus.

The urgent gathering took place on Sunday via Zoom, and was attended by the entire communal leadership, including Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, all communal structures, community organisations, and experts in the field of infectious diseases.

Those present said it was an unmatched display of solidarity and camaraderie during this unprecedented time of crisis. Reports from leaders of various sectors of the community including schools, shuls, and welfare allowed for productive dialogue and exchange of ideas.

The last time a gathering like this took place was in March around a boardroom table at the Johannesburg offices of Beyachad, where communal leaders discussed the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, then still in its infancy in South Africa.

The words of Krengel and Kahn echoed the stark messages delivered by medical experts Professor Barry Schoub, the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare.

Dr Friedland highlighted the severity of the situation. “We are entering the most dangerous phase of the pandemic. The next four to six weeks are critical. The number of positive cases in Gauteng is doubling weekly. The numbers of infections as a percentage of tests conducted is rising rapidly,” he warned.

“We understand the devastating socioeconomic forces which drove the government to relax lockdown restrictions, but paradoxically, this isn’t the time to lessen our guard. We need to remain hyper vigilant. The textbook on coronavirus hasn’t come out yet. Every day we know more, but we are still at the beginning of the learning curve. Now isn’t the time to relax. There is solid scientific evidence that wearing a mask is singularly the most important precaution, together with washing hands. We didn’t know this in March – that’s how quickly this is evolving.

At the time of publication, the total number of COVID-19 cases in South Africa had spiked to 106 108 cases. The nationwide death toll now stands at 2 102.

Professor Schoub said the meeting was held in a “spirit of total unity of purpose” as the various sectors confronted the COVID-19 pandemic each within their own sphere of interest. “It was particularly gratifying to see leaders from all sections of community life coming together with a single agenda of addressing the pandemic which has affected the community in so many different and often severe ways. For me, it was particularly heart-warming to be part of such a dedicated, committed, and knowledgeable team, unified and working together to combat this unique plague.”

Schoub said the metrics of the epidemic were being closely and continuously monitored by a team of epidemiologist and actuaries, supporting virological and medical expertise. “Decisions affecting the community structures are and will continue to be assessed based on this robust scientific knowledge.”

Lance Abramson, the chairperson of Hatzolah, said the virus was “very much in our community, alive and well. It’s not something out there somewhere. Our numbers are only going up from here. We aren’t expecting to see a reduction in the numbers.”

He hailed the organisation’s 60 frontline responders and dispatchers, the majority of whom are volunteers, and urged the community to make use of Hatzolah’s home wellness monitoring programme and the emotional wellness helpline, both of which he said had been hugely comforting for those who had tested positive and were in quarantine.

“At present, there are 110 active positive cases that we are looking after. It’s important to note that this is only a sample of people in the community because not everyone is on the programme,” he said.

Abramson said Hatzolah faced numerous challenges. “The complexity of responding to emergencies in this environment is much higher than in a non-COVID-19 setting.”

Chevrah Kadisha Chief Executive Saul Tomson detailed the multiple challenges facing the organisation at this time.

“The Chev is unique in being one of the only Jewish organisations dealing with residential-care facilities and financial-assistance services. The Chev is 70% private-donor funded, with the state being an almost non-existent funder. We are dealing with a black-swan event that has an impact on our organisation in every way,” Tomson said.

Present at the meeting were representatives of the SAJBD from Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Cape Town, and Pretoria; Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein; the South African Zionist Federation; the Chevrah Kadisha; the South African Board of Jewish Education; Yeshiva College; the South African Rabbinical Association; the Union of Orthodox Synagogues; the Union for Progressive Judaism; Hatzolah; the Community Security Organisation; and the South African Union of Jewish Students.

“What has been so heartwarming throughout this challenging period is our communal unity,” the chief rabbi said. “All the different parts of our community – welfare and security organisations, schools, and shuls – have worked together for the common good. It’s this spirit of partnership, this unity of purpose, that gives us the strength and motivation to confront any challenge. Our unity is the heart of who we are as South African Jewry, and I’m so proud of all our communal leaders and organisations. Truly, what a blessing and privilege it is for all of us to be part of this precious South African Jewish community.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Jonathan Davis 26 Jun
    Very proud of the South African students AT IDC HERZLIYA who have remained in Israel and those who have courageously returned and are continuing to return to IDC Herzliya. 

    Our Students from South Africa are IDC's finest. As a community you have a lot to be proud of WITH OVER 80 SOUTH AFRICAN STUDENTS NOW STUDYING AT IDC HERZLIYA. There are other outstanding South African students at other great universities in Israel, as well. If they remain in Israel, they will join the dynamic South African community in Israel which has contributed so much to strengthening the the State of Israel in any way you can imagine. if they return overseas, they will become great ambassadors of Israel and Jewish communal leaders either in South Africa or other countries so it is a win, win. 

    This is a great testament to the Zionist values of your great community while you UNITE UNDER THE EYE OF THE STORM. WE PRAY FOR YOUR SAFETY AND WELFARE AND GOD BLESS YOU ALL WITH THE GREATEST OF HEALTH AND HAPPINESS.

    SHABBAT SHALOM.

    Jonathan Davis, 
    Head of the Raphael Recanati International School
    Vice President IDC Herzliya


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