Why South Africa’s Jews Have Fared Better Than Most in Coronavirus Crisis

Only a handful of the 50,000-plus community have been infected so far, with South Africans citing luck and timing

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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A general view of a deserted Long Street, usually one of the busiest and most popular entertainment areas in Cape Town, with a billboard reading Stay Home, April 3, 2020.
A general view of a deserted Long Street, usually one of the busiest and most popular entertainment areas in Cape Town, April 3, 2020.Credit: AFP
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

In countries like Great Britain and Sweden, not to mention New York state, Jews have been vastly overrepresented in the coronavirus death toll. The South African Jewish community – knock on wood, some would add – has thus far been largely spared.

To date, not one death from the COVID-19 disease has been reported among South Africa’s estimated 50,000-plus Jews. Although Jews returning from trips to the United States were among the first confirmed cases in the country, the spread of the infection within the community appears to have been contained – at least for the meantime.

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, notes that when the pandemic first reached South Africa early last month, “several cases” were reported in the Jewish community. Currently, she says, “we know of no new infections.”

As of Tuesday, there were a total of 1,686 confirmed cases in the entire country and 12 deaths.

The virus was initially spread in the Jewish community by several members who had traveled to the United States and brought it back with them. “It appears now that with the community’s early shutting of schools, shuls and downscaling of simchas [Jewish life cycle celebrations], this started decreasing,” Kahn writes in an email. “We are now 10 days into the intensive government 21-day lockdown, and we are hearing of less and less communal infections.”

Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, standing in an office.
Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.Credit: Judy Maltz

She says she is aware of only one South African Jew who was in serious enough condition to require a respirator, but that he was now recovering.

It took some time until the pandemic reached this country situated at the bottom tip of Africa – and home to the largest Jewish community on the continent. This little reprieve would seem to explain why it has fared better than most.

“South Africa’s delayed entry into the pandemic has allowed us to learn and benefit from best practices elsewhere,” Kahn notes.

The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in South Africa was reported on March 5, and the first confirmed case within the local Jewish community on March 11. On March 28, South Africa introduced one of the strictest lockdowns of any country in the world: Residents are prohibited from leaving their homes except for essential activities. Jogging and dog-walking are strictly prohibited, as are cigarette and alcohol purchases.

The Jewish community in South Africa was a few steps ahead of the game, issuing its own coronavirus-related guidelines almost two weeks before the national lockdown.

On March 13, the Board of Deputies, in consultation with prominent physicians, banned weddings and bar mitzvahs, and issued restrictions on the number of participants at funerals. Three days later, all Jewish schools in the country were closed, and on March 18 all synagogues were shuttered.

“South African Jewry has had the added benefit of being able to learn from other communities around the world about what has worked, and where situations were not handled well,” Kahn writes.

‘Insane’

Adina Roth, the national chairwoman of Limmud South Africa, is the founder and director of a popular egalitarian-style bar and bat mitzvah program in Johannesburg. For that reason, she says, she was closely monitoring the situation from the start.

“I suspect that a big reason for the outbreak in other Jewish communities was the Purim holiday. But it hadn’t really even arrived in South Africa by Purim – certainly not in the Jewish community,” she says in a phone conversation. “So I think that luck was definitely a factor here.”

A man carrying recycling materials walking under a billboard explaining coronavirus, in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, April 2, 2020.
A man carrying recycling materials walking under a billboard explaining coronavirus, in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, April 2, 2020.Credit: Themba Hadebe/AP

Roth had organized a megillah reading event on Purim and consulted with a doctor friend who is a specialist in communicable diseases before moving ahead with it. “She was fine with it and even RSVP’d that she’d attend,” she recounts.

Exactly one week later, she had a bat mitzvah scheduled for one of her students. By then, though, the virus was starting to spread. “My friends in America were telling me that it was insane to hold a bat mitzvah, so again I consulted with this doctor who said that as long as we took precautions – no kissing, standing apart – it would fine,” Roth says.

“On the morning of the bat mitzvah, we received a message that a South African woman who had been to a bat mitzvah in the United States and had then returned and attended a bat mitzvah in South Africa had tested positive. I freaked out.”

On that very day, she adds, all the Jewish schools in the country were shuttered, and since then Roth has not heard of any new cases.

She remains cautious, though. “Some people say that here in South Africa, we’re just a little behind the curve, that this is just the beginning,” she explains.

Even if things eventually take a turn for the worse, Roth believes South Africans may be better positioned than Jews elsewhere to meet the coronavirus challenge: “We’ve always lived with a lot of uncertainly here – whether it’s because of high levels of crime or political corruption and instability – so there’s always this feeling of living on the edge, and we’ve developed a certain kind of resilience.”

The Jews of South Africa, she says, have also been overwhelmingly vigilant about obeying the new restrictions. “People are absolutely aware of how horrific things could get if this spreads, especially into the townships,” she says, referring to black communities where living conditions are often dire. “The Jewish community definitely understands that this cannot be allowed to become an insanely out-of-control situation, which it could become.”

Indeed, as Kahn notes, South Africa faces unique challenges in confronting the pandemic. “These include a weak economy, strained health care facilities, densely populated informal settlement areas where social distancing is complicated, and the fact that we are going into winter, which is identified as adding difficulty,” she says.

South Africa's "traveling rabbi," Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft.
South Africa's "traveling rabbi," Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft. Credit: Judy Maltz

For the Jewish community, the lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time of year, says Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, national director of the Small Jewish Communities Association, which provides religious services to about 250 rural communities in South Africa. “Our community surveys have consistently shown that among South African Jews, the Passover seder is even more observed than Yom Kippur,” he says. “And unfortunately, this year that’s not going to happen.”

Before the country went into lockdown, Silberhaft was able to deliver basic Passover supplies – matza, grape juice and Haggadahs – to hundreds of Jews in remote communities around the country. He also serves as chief rabbi of a host of tiny Jewish communities in 11 sub-Saharan countries.

“We’ve managed to get up Passover supplies to almost all them well in advance,” he relays. “Unfortunately, the one exception has been Zambia, where there’s a substantial Israeli community and where our shipments have been blocked at the border.”

But a solution has already been found. “Members of the community there are meeting today [Sunday] to make their own matzas and wine for Passover,” Silberhaft reports.