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Mandela Recalled by South African Jews Now in Philly

December 11, 2013 By:
Bryan Schwartzman and Eric Berger
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Sharon Katz (second from left) met Nelson Mandela many times and said the world has lost a true giant. She lives in Philadelphia and South Africa.

Sharon Katz didn’t hear of Nelson Mandela’s passing until after the plane touched down in her native South Africa. For Katz, an educator and musician, the fact that South Africa’s first black president was 95 didn’t make facing his death any easier.

“People are heartbroken because of everything that he stood for,” said Katz, reached outside of Cape Town. She splits her time between the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia and the South African city of Durban. “I hope that the vision he created for South Africa, we’ll be able to hold onto that.”

Katz is one of dozens, perhaps more, of South African Jews who now live in the Philadelphia area. Some were anti-apartheid activists, others were reticent to speak out due to the real fears of living in a police state. Some left while Mandela was still in his prison cell on the notorious Robben Island; others were in the country to witness the momentous, if not always smooth, years after his release.

But all those interviewed said they felt a profound connection to the man who is universally credited with shepherding in a peaceful transition from white minority rule to democracy. 

Katz grew up in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. She was active in the Habonim Zionist youth movement and attended the Jewish day school her parents started. But, at about age 15, she started sneaking out of the house to visit black-only townships, meeting with black musicians and actors.

She graduated high school in 1973 and came to Philadelphia in 1981 to study music therapy at Temple University. She stayed here until 1990, when Mandela was released from prison.

In the early 1990s, she founded what came to be known as the Peace Train, a roving group of more than 100 white and black musicians meant to embody the spirit of the new South Africa. When Mandela was running to be his nation’s first freely elected leader, the group played at some of his campaign stops.

Katz said that everything that’s been said about Mandela’s generosity and warmth of spirit is true.

Mandela, she said, once told her that she embodied “the spirit of the African National Congress.”

“I will never forget the words,” she added, “and I have lived with the words for the last 20 years.”

She’s spending the week attending  memorial events and she was planning to take some young black students to a ceremony at Cape Town’s largest soccer stadium.

Katz, who visits family in Israel yearly, said she had been too focused on building a just society in South Africa to worry about Mandela’s attitude toward Israel or his dealings with Yasser Arafat, the former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“I’ve always been very one-track minded in terms of the liberation of South Africa,” said Katz.

The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his plans to attend Mandela’s memorial services “brings tears to my eyes.”

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When Mandela was ill over the summer, Rabbi Robert Leib of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington prepared a personal reflection that he delivered during Shabbat services after the ANC leader’s death. 

The Reform rabbi left his native Cape Town, where he served three years as associate rabbi at a Reform synagogue, for good in 1989 at the age of 30. Only once during his time there did he speak publicly about the evils of apartheid, he said, noting that it was dangerous to do so.

“Do I regret that I didn’t do or say more? Absolutely, very much indeed,” he said. “I never knew when plain clothes policemen or informants were in the sanctuary. I was told to guard your tongue and be very careful.”

He considered himself a conscientious objector and said he left when it became clear he could no longer avoid military conscription.

The rabbi hasn’t been home in nearly 20 years, but next year he’s planning to lead a congregational trip to South Africa.

“Once in a lifetime, an individual rises through the ranks who has the extraordinary willpower and intellect” to bring about “racial reconcilation and social justice.”

Still, he said, “from my perspective as a South African Jew, it was very painfully difficult to try and reconcile Mandela’s embrace of Middle Eastern despots with the cherished goals and dreams and aspirations of the Jewish people.”

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Julian Krinsky, a former professional tennis player who left South Africa in 1977, does not have the same qualms about Mandela’s relations with Arab leaders.

“He did 99 percent good work,” Krinsky said. “Maybe he went to Arafat and gave him a handshake, but you can’t hold that against him — not when you look at the body of work.”

Krinsky left his home country months after the Soweto Uprising, when black students protested against the government’s ruling that black schools could only teach in Afrikaans, the language of the ruling minority. He moved to Philadelphia with his wife, two children and $1,200, not knowing anyone in his new country. 

“We were scared to fight the system, so we left,” Krinsky said. “That was our passive form of saying apartheid doesn’t work.”

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Steven Stein was involved with anti-apartheid student groups as a medical student in the 1980s at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He remembers riot police being an almost constant presence on campus. The classes at the school were integrated, but the hospitals were still segregated, meaning white students could do rounds at black hospitals but black students were not allowed at white hospitals. 

He and his wife, Debbie Cohen, who is also a physician, left South Africa with twin 1-year-old sons a few months after Mandela was elected. Cohen said they were nervous about the violence and crime that would likely occur. But they still  took part in the first post-apartheid elections. “Some people waited for two days there to vote,” Cohen said. “They could have been 100 years old — it ­didn’t matter — they were going to vote. It was the most incredible thing to be there.”

About a year before that, Stein, who is an oncologist, was working a night shift in the intensive care unit of a private hospital in Johannesburg when he looked up and saw Mandela flanked by security guards.

He was visiting the wife of former Zambian president Kenneth D. Kaunda. It was late at night, but within a few minutes, word had spread and the staff had filled the corridors, softly singing a traditional ululation. It took Mandela more than an hour to leave as he stopped and greeted many of the people.

“The biggest lesson this guy taught the entire planet, which is almost impossible to follow,” Stein said, “is that love is more powerful than hate as a force in terms of getting things done.”

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