exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article, Lance Katz analyses some of the potential consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on the South African Jewish community.
I write this during South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown. At the time of writing this article, so much is still unknown about COVID-19 and its potential long-term impact. Officially, the global pandemic has already infected over 1,2 million people and claimed over 65 500 lives (5.5%). The United States now has the highest confirmed infection count in the world at 300 000. Healthcare systems in European countries such as Italy and Spain are overwhelmed. Thus far, South Africa has just under 1 600 reported cases nationally and only 9 deaths. Israel, which was quick to implement protective measures and which have steadily ramped these up, now has nearly 8 000 reported cases, 46 deaths and 127 people in critical condition. Things are changing so rapidly that by the time you read this article, the above statistics will have altered materially.
Against this backdrop I was asked to offer some thoughts on the impact of COVID-19 on the Jewish community. For this purpose I have taken Jewish community to mean local, that being the Cape Town Jewish Community. However, of course much of what I write is equally applicable to the Jewish Community of South Africa more broadly and to other Jewish communities globally. Instead of employing my rusty actuarial skills to try and project my own scenario about how COVID-19 is going to play out, I decided that it would be more beneficial rather to share a few reflections and general thoughts on the question of community impact, both currently and going forward.
"Our fate and fortunes as a Jewish community are perhaps more strongly tied to those of our fellow countrymen than ever before."
Robust and Resilient
My first reflection is a positive one. I have absolute confidence in our Jewish community and in the Jewish people. We have endured incredible hardships and faced many challenges in our long history. Our ability to survive adversity, and often even thrive in such situations, is founded on some key attributes. A study by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) on communities in crisis, concluded that communities that have the following capacities are more resilient:
Sense of Community;
Narrative and Communications;
Economic Sufficiency; and
Preparedness & Security.
A cursory look through the above list will hopefully inspire one with the same sense of confidence in the South African Jewish community. We are strongly connected locally and globally. We have a deep sense of community and are possibly one of the most organized and broadly supported community structures of any Jewish community in the world. We have strong, credible, and experienced communal leadership and our community organisations are professionally managed. Perhaps most importantly, we are also financially well-resourced.
We are all South Africans
Our fate and fortunes as a Jewish community are perhaps more strongly tied to those of our fellow countrymen than ever before. We all pose an infection risk to one another. We are all dependent on the capacity of our healthcare system (private and public combined) to cope, and we are all participants in the same economy that is being strangled by lockdown. With South Africa arguably still in the early stages of the pandemic, the question on most minds is “how big and how bad can this get?”
Our State President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is certainly concerned. On Sunday, 15 March, less than two weeks after South Africa’s first reported case, he declared COVID-19 a national disaster, enacting various social distancing measures including closing schools. This was followed just a week later by the announcement of a 21 day national lockdown which began on Thursday, 26 March at 23h59. He has received strong praise for the swiftness and seriousness of his response.
There are real doubts about South Africa’s ability to uphold lockdown and social distancing measures. The potential of viral spread in densely populated townships and informal settlements is extremely worrying. There are also grave concerns about our country’s ability to sustain the heavy economic burden that lockdown entails, especially by the economically disadvantaged perhaps most affected by lockdown.
However, notwithstanding these challenges, I am once again inspired by the South African spirit of Ubuntu and by the resilience of our people, particularly when we are called on to rise to the occasion. South Africans are tough, warm, creative, and generous. In the past few weeks I have been both a participant in and a witness to all of the above character traits.
"Whilst we look inward to protect those closest to us (family, friends and community), we must not forget to look outwards too."
Individuals, businesses, NGOs and government are all coming together for the common cause. We are mobilizing resources, taking shared responsibility, coming up with innovative solutions, re-engineering our organisations, creating national solidarity funds generously supported by individuals and corporates to provide financial support, and enacting new legislation to lessen the economic burden.
Given our resources, capacities, skills, and influence, our Jewish community has a key role to play in this regard, both as a community and as individual members of the community.
In as much as we need to consider the needs of our own community, we also have a responsibility to our country and its citizens. Most of the community challenges that we will face, apply equally if not even more profoundly to the most vulnerable members of South African society.
Whilst we look inward to protect those closest to us (family, friends and community), we must not forget to look outwards too. To be sure COVID-19 presents many risks and challenges. Through our active participation in the national effort, it presents many opportunities for nation building too. I am aware of and inspired by many individuals and organisations in our community that are already responding positively to this call.
Community Needs and Funding
Thus far, in South Africa the economic impact of COVID-19 has been greater than the health impact. This will most likely worsen before it improves. South Africa was already in a fairly precarious economic position before the pandemic. The lockdown regulations are materially worsening that picture.
According to the Kaplan Centre Survey of the Affiliated Cape Town Jewish Community, unemployment in our community stands at 1%. This will most certainly rise whilst household incomes are likely to drop. Further, according to the Kaplan Centre Survey, 36% of community members are self-employed. This represents a particular economic vulnerability during lockdown. These factors will inevitably result in more individuals and families in need of the support of community institutions e.g. Jewish Community Services (JCS), Highlands House, and school fee remissions.
"This will be a test for our community structures but one that our community resources and capacities are well placed to endure."
At the same time as community needs rise, community funding sources may be negatively impacted. Traditional donors are likely to find themselves with less disposable income, weakened personal balance sheets, troubled businesses, and priorities on the home front that trump communal responsibilities. Community trusts and foundations will also have depressed asset values and investment income levels. This will be a test for our community structures but one that our community resources and capacities are well placed to endure. One interesting observation is that, whilst some donors may be forced by circumstance to withdraw or reduce support, others are responding to the crisis with an added sense of philanthropy.
Other than Highlands House and the elderly, for the most part our community assumes that the healthcare needs of its members are taken care of by the individual community members, who themselves rely on South Africa’s highly regarded private healthcare sector. Alternatively, some community members use the less regarded but still fairly reliable public healthcare sector. CSO (Community Security Organization) provide a brilliant community paramedic service but their cases still ultimately end up in either the private or public hospitals.
However, if COVID-19 overwhelms both the private and public healthcare sectors, our community structures might need to expand their ambit to address a potential community healthcare crisis. Such a scenario is difficult to contemplate as it is unclear what resources would be required, how these could be speedily mobilized, and whether it is practically possible.
Relationship to Israel
Many shlichim that come from Israel each year to do community service in Cape Town have been “evacuated” back to Israel. With flight restrictions and lockdown in both Israel and South Africa, visiting Israel (or even making Aliyah) is impossible at the present time.
Things that we have come to take for granted: Israel’s accessibility, Israel as a safe haven should we need it, Israel as our country too. These are not working assumptions in the present circumstances. It is too early to say whether this might impact how South African Jews perceive Israel.
Also to be considered is how local community and broader South African funding priorities might shift local donor funding capacity for Israel causes.
And yet despite the sudden distance, we are still deeply connected. We follow Israel news, the political shenanigans, Israel’s response to COVID-19 and its impact on Israeli society. We hope for a cure or a vaccine to come from their scientists. We reach out to friends and family in Israel. They reach back.
Social and Spiritual Needs
The core purpose of lockdown is isolation. This is unpleasant but manageable for most families. However for those on their own, the impact can be devastating. The community structures are already active in reaching out to its most vulnerable and lonely members through a variety of structures e.g. synagogues, JCS and others. Technology is a wonderful enabler in this regard.
However, notwithstanding these efforts, I would suggest that we will need to challenge ourselves even further to ensure that no community member is, God forbid, left behind and forgotten about. We will also need to strengthen community mental health services to address the inevitable mental health fallout from lockdown and its ramifications both socially, physically and economically.
From a spiritual perspective, we have turned to technology as our safe haven. The explosion of online “minyanim” and shiurim provided both locally and internationally via Zoom and other technology platforms is remarkable. It is not quite the same as getting together at Shul, Shabbos can be lonely, and certainly halacha poses some other challenges e.g. an online Orthodox minyan does not count for halachic purposes and therefore mourners are unable to say Kaddish. Nonetheless these online forums are working.
With Pesach just around the corner, The Academy of Jewish Learning is running an online Pesach preparation course, called “Solo Seder”. Not unexpectedly, Jews are adapting and innovating.
Wishing all the readers of this article good health and a Chag Kasher v’ Sameach.
 The statistics quoted above are, as at 14h00 on 5 April 2020, from the country specific COVID-19 data provided on www.worldometers.info
Lance Katz is CEO of SACAP, The South African College of Applied Psychology, and a lay leader in various Jewish community organisations. He is married with two children.