JOHANNESBURG — Every day for years, a tight-knit group of 12-15 men has gathered for morning prayers at the red-carpeted, oak wood-furnished synagogue in their Sandringham Gardens residence for the Jewish elderly in Johannesburg. Since the advent of COVID-19, however, their prayers have taken on an additional resonance.
With Sandringham Gardens having been locked down early, and no cases of COVID-19 among its 400 residents, the morning prayer session is believed to be the only organized minyan still functioning in the city. And as word of its unique status has spread, the group of worshipers has been inundated with requests — from Jews both local and far afield — to say mourning prayers for the deceased, and to hold naming ceremonies for newborn baby girls during the Torah reading, featuring a prayer for the physical and spiritual health of the mother.
Sandringham Gardens, which was established over a century ago, is part of the city’s Chevrah Kadisha, the largest Jewish welfare organization on the African continent, according to its communications director, Tzivia Grauman. It was locked down on March 13, only eight days after the first COVID-19 case was announced in South Africa, said Saul Tomson, the Chevrah Kadisha CEO.
Imposed two weeks before South Africa began instituting virus lockdowns, the move initially shocked both the residents and their families. “I felt completely panicky and out of control,” said Aviva Egdes, whose parents are residents at the home, although in retrospect, she added, “I also can’t think of an alternative solution.”
Echoed Clive Lazar, whose mother lives at Sandringham Gardens, “Initially I was angry that I couldn’t visit. But as the crisis unfolded, I realized they had done the right thing.”
All South Africa’s Jewish schools were closed down three days later, on March 16, and all other synagogues on March 18. On April 28, the South African Jewish community recorded its first death from COVID-19, according to Wendy Kahn, the head of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
Praying under lockdown, the Sandringham Gardens worshipers maintain strict social distancing, keeping two meters apart and sticking to their designated seats and prayer books. As people near and far have become aware of their minyan, requests have come flooding in for them to put it to additional use — so many requests, indeed, that they are now saying Kaddish (the mourning prayer) for 1,200 deceased individuals, and have named 15 baby girls.
“This pandemic is teaching us many personal, spiritual and global lessons – some painful and others inspiring,” said Tomson. “In a strange, reciprocal manner, the young people are keeping their distance from the elderly so that this miraculous little minyan can care for their spiritual needs. It is a complete reversal of the norm.”
In most communities worldwide, provisions have been made for circumcisions to continue, in the presence of a minyan, amid stringent social-distancing regulations. But no such exceptions have been widely made for the naming of baby girls — which is supposed to be done during the Torah reading in the presence of a minyan. Kaddish, too, requires a prayer quorum; it can be said on behalf of a mourner if the mourner is unable to do so.
At first, requests for the minyan’s services “spread by word of mouth,” said Grauman. When they realized the value of this minyan, said Grauman “we did publicize it a little — put it on Facebook, and sent out emails to the community. Then people overseas got wind of it. People were desperate to have Kaddish said… and the baby naming also took off.”
Requests to name babies have come from Canada, Uruguay and Brazil, as well as locally. Requests to say Kaddish have come from all over the world, Grauman said, with the worshipers collectively responsible for keeping in mind all 1,200 names while saying the designated prayer.
Not all the deceased are distant and unknown. One of the Sandringham Gardens regulars, Shabsy Mayers, says Kaddish for his lifelong friend Sol Kerzner, a hotel tycoon who died March 21 at the age of 86.
Rabbi Jonathan Fox, who officiates at the minyan, says the small congregation feels “very humbled and proud to be able to say Kaddish for so many people. They feel privileged and honored to have the merit of doing this.”
The quick lockdown at Sandringham Gardens emblemized the prompt action taken in the South African Jewish community as a whole to thwart the spread of the virus. Watching the pandemic’s effects overseas, community leaders set up forums to decide on how best to protect educational, religion and welfare activities, said Kahn, of the Board of Deputies. “We took heed of the manner in which Jewish communities in areas such as the UK, US and France were struggling, especially through the high rates of transmission at Jewish events.”
The community also sought expert advice, including from Prof. Barry Schoub, founder and former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, and Dr. Richard Friedland, CEO of Netcare Hospitals, said Kahn.
It also focused on keeping South African Jewry updated about the situation. “One of the important components of our strategy was, from the beginning, to establish an online COVID-19 platform to keep the community fully informed and educated. All communications and guidelines have been shared with the community through this forum,” she said. “A hotline was established with our expert Prof. Schoub, responding to queries by communal organizations and community members. As needs arose regular podcasts were posted, dealing with medical issues as well as with mental health issues, where we brought in relevant professionals.”
The community leadership knows that there is no room for complacency, as this week’s first death in the community underlined. As of April 29, South Africa had recorded 93 deaths, and some 5,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. “We are fully aware that the pandemic has barely started in South Africa,” said Kahn. “Government experts are clear that we have a long and hard road ahead. We are under no illusions.”
And while the Sandringham Gardens minyan is delighted to help the community at home and abroad, the general sentiment, said Grauman, is that “they will no doubt be happier when everything returns to normal — and mourners are able to say Kaddish for their own parents, and parents are able to name their own children.”
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