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Isha Bekia

Cape Town’s heroes: G-d’s partners in creation

Feb 26, 2021 | Chaggim


Picture the scene. The Jewish people are leaving Egypt in their millions chased by the Egyptian army. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds. With the Egyptian army behind them and the sea in front of them, they are trapped. It’s at this point that a great miracle happens – the splitting of the sea.

But before it does, something equally extraordinary takes place. Because the truth is, the sea didn’t just split. One man, Nachshon ben Aminadav, had to jump in before the miracle happened. And he didn’t just jump in. He waded in until the water reached his nostrils. It was at that point that the sea split. At great personal risk, yet with supreme, serene faith in Hashem, Nachshon threw himself into the churning waters and saved the Jewish people.

Over the past year, we’ve seen similar heroics from our Cape Town Jewish community, and in particular from our incredible network of communal organisations and community volunteers.

The Covid-19 crisis has posed an existential threat to our community. Sometimes, it has felt like the water has reached our nostrils, like we are drowning. Yet our precious Cape community has amazing heroes who threw themselves into the task of saving the community, and mitigating the impact of the coronavirus, with astonishing determination. And while the threat remains, it is in their merit, and as a result of their courageous efforts, that Hashem has brought us through onto dry land.

The driving idea behind these efforts is that we are, in the words of the Talmud, G-d’s partners in creation; that He requires us to take the initiative – to jump into the water, so to speak – and play an instrumental part in healing His world. Of course, if we are all G-d’s partners in creation, that automatically makes us partners with each other, as we work together towards a better world. And that is precisely what has happened during the Covid-19 crisis – with different organisations, different schools, different welfare institutions, different individuals setting aside those differences and working together in unprecedented ways for the common good.

There are too many heroes to document in the space of one article. But I would like to mention just a few of them.

Perhaps no organisation has thrown themselves into the pandemic quite like the CSO Medical Response Unit. They’ve gone beyond the call of duty, beyond what can reasonably be expected, devoting extraordinary efforts to provide those suffering from the disease with the care they need.  And they’ve risked their lives every day doing so.

Working with Hatzolah, they’ve also launched a revolutionary programme to monitor community members who have contracted Covid-19 or are awaiting test results, tracking their temperature, heart rate and oxygen levels on a daily basis. This is just one example of the spirit of partnership that has supercharged the Covid-19 response.

Another group of heroes are the workers of the United Chevrah Kadisha, run by the UOS. The selfless and holy work carried out by the undertakers – throughout this pandemic, but particularly during the second wave in December and January – is chesed in the truest sense – actions whose merit we cannot even imagine. On call 24 hours a day, working literal graveyard shifts at all hours of the night, these heroes have performed their work with dignity and sensitivity under exceptionally difficult conditions.

I’ve been particularly inspired by how our rabbis and rebbetzins have come to the fore, providing emotional support and spiritual guidance when we need it most, and often under incredibly challenging circumstances. Whether it’s leading funerals, coordinating shiva houses via Zoom, running  virtual prayer gatherings, continuing Torah classes undeterred, or providing congregants with much-needed counsel even when they couldn’t connect with them physically – their dedication has been remarkable. 

Another example of the power of partnership is the Gesher Fund – born from a realisation that Covid-19 is as much a financial crisis as it is a health crisis. This is something close to my heart. From the beginning of lockdown, I worked behind the scenes with a number of philanthropists and organisations such as the Donald Gordon Foundation to help set up a fund to assist businesses at risk. The outcome of these collective efforts is a unique fund offering interest-free loans to ensure Jewish businesses weather the storm – so they can get back on their feet when the crisis subsides.

 To date, the Gesher Fund has brought relief to 60 companies, ranging from single-manned operations to businesses employing 450 people. In the process, the fund has protected and preserved close to 1 000 jobs and impacted around 10 000 people. 

The Cape Town community have been ever-willing partners in these fundraising drives. Indeed, just a few weeks after its 2020 annual appeal, the UJC needed to launch an emergency Covid-19 fundraising campaign to save the community – and still managed to raise more than R30 million!

The reality is that partnerships have characterised the Cape Town Jewish community’s response across the board. The UJC, the SAJBD Cape Council, all the Jewish day schools, the David Susman Community Foundation, the Kaplan Centre, JCS, Tikvah, Glendale, Cape Jewish Seniors, Highlands House, Nechama – working together, they have helped the community weather this crisis, mitigated its impact, and embodied the idea of being God’s partners in creation.

It’s hard to think of individuals who epitomise this idea of partnership and service more than Rabbi Desmond Maizels and Eric Samson, of blessed memory. Earlier this year, Cape Town lost two of its greatest sons, two people who had community running through their veins.

Rabbi Desmond Maizels was one of a kind – shochet, mohel, dayan, community rabbi – and one of the world’s great kashrut experts. He left his mark on communities all over South Africa, but of course, his beloved Cape Town community is where Rabbi Maizels made his greatest contribution. Indeed, the Cape Town Jewish community is unimaginable without him. 

We also said farewell to another hero. The passing of Eric Samson was a huge loss that affected the South African Jewish community, and indeed, world Jewry. He was one of the greatest philanthropists this community has ever produced. There is hardly a Jewish organisation in this community that is untouched by his generosity. Eric taught the world about the power of tzedakah. He gave open-heartedly, unreservedly, changing lives, uplifting society, strengthening the Jewish world. He healed the sick, supported the poor, educated new generations of children and changed the world in a very real sense.  

Eric Samson, Rabbi Maisels, and indeed, all the Jewish organisations who have worked together throughout the Covid-19 crisis have demonstrated what it means to fulfil the great calling of our lives: to be God’s partners in creation. They’ve shown us  that no challenge is insurmountable, no difficulty cannot be withstood. That a better world is within our grasp.

To our wonderful Cape Town Jewish community, Chag Kasher Vsame’ach – a beautiful Pesach, and deeply meaningful, enriching Seders.  

May G-d bring health and healing to our community, to our country, to our world.