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Ella's Life

Nick Ryan meets Ella Danilowitz in Johannesburg, the woman who has pushed for so hard, and so long, to help South Africa's ageing Jewish community.


It is a busy day at the Soweto Hospice. A new plaque is being unveiled alongside the many other corporate signs which already adorn the visitors area. Away from the razzmatazz and cameras, however, children scamper and giggle outside, despite the fierce heat. They show little outward sign of being AIDS-orphans, abandoned by sick parents and now cared for by the charity of donors they've never met.

In fact there is a whole generation of kids here being raised by grandparents – a "Granny Generation" many have dubbed it – and it has been Ella Danilowitz's job, until recently chief fundraiser for the ground-breaking hospice, to ensure there are enough funds to support the school, beds and drugs the children (and other patients) need.

"It's a never-ending struggle," admits Danilowitz, part of a now-shrinking Jewish diaspora which has a long heritage in South Africa. Born in Johannesburg of Lithuanian and Polish parents, Danilowitz attended school and university in the city and has watched society change rapidly as she raised her four children (all of whom still live here). “You see this change particularly in Soweto, from the strife-torn apartheid era to one of optimism and hope, dampened somewhat by the AIDS pandemic,” says the grandmother of eleven.

Touring the spotless wards, Danilowitz explains that she became involved with the hospice movement 22 years ago, as part of the Hospice Association of the Witwatersrand (which runs both Soweto, a nearby orphanage and a parent site in the north of Johannesburg called Houghton): "My best friend died of breast cancer as a young mother. She was the first person of my age who had confronted such traumatic and painful days. After we contacted [the] Hospice, their support reduced her suffering and helped her children cope ... [after that] I realised the blessings and importance of every living moment."

It is has been her effort which has helped to raise some of the millions of Rand which keeps the Soweto Hospice afloat: helping the mainly poor in this once-infamous township get the 'palliative care' (pain relief and end-of-life care) they so desperately need. Many patients have AIDS. This is still a deeply conservative society where social stigma and, until recently, Government reluctance to admit the scale of the problem have meant many have lacked basic pain relief and care. In some cases the anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) which Danilowitz's efforts have helped provide prolong life for decades to come.

In recent years, though, it is her own Jewish community which has been suffering a lack of such dedicated care. "With so many young Jewish families emigrating, many of the elderly have been left without the traditional support of family in their hour of deepest need," Danilowitz says with a sigh. "Many of them do not have medical aid [insurance], or the financial resources to be admitted to frail care facilities. The Jewish community is wonderful at looking after their elderly, but cannot cope with the terminally ill."

Jews (who numbered 120,000 at the community's peak in 1980) have been leaving the country in ever greater numbers, driven by economic and political uncertainty, anti-Semitic attacks as well as a general fear of rising crime: in just one incident, prominent Johannesburg businessman and community member, Sheldon Cohen, was shot in his car last January (2008) whilst waiting for his son to finish soccer practice, one of several attacks that have hit the community hard. “The elderly, often left behind, are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with health crises and suffer when they reach the end of their medical benefits for the year,” says one of Danilowtiz’s colleagues, Melanie Beresford, who handles fundraising at Houghton Hospice. “Increasingly we are finding that the young families who have emigrated, leaving their parents in South Africa, are not able to assist financially as they are also under pressure due to the global financial crisis.”

In response Danilowitz championed the Nechamah Appeal [sic], which began in 2007 and has so far raised in excess of R300,000 for a long-term Jewish frail care unit at Houghton. The aim is to provide care to those with only three to 12 months to live, supporting an already-existing Nechamah (Yiddish: "comfort") Ward for Jewish patients. The Appeal takes its name from an original Nechamah room set up over a decade ago, which was set aside as a refuge for prayer and contemplation area within the hospice for Jewish patients and their families.

"The money we are raising now, is for the ongoing costs of maintenance of the wards and equipment, and towards the treatment costs of the patients that cannot afford to pay. We can provide palliative care, psychosocial counselling, and, where necessary, in- patient services," says Danilowitz with a smile, "allowing the individual to pass away peacefully and painlessly, and with the dignity befitting a Jew and a human being."

Facing a crisis in funding, however, the future is now uncertain. Recession has hit many corporate donors and whilst the world watches Soweto – once home to Nelson Mandela – and the rest of the country as it approaches the World Cup next year, there is little sign of the same focus on care for elderly South African Jews. Ella Danilowitz and her colleagues continue to hope, and pray, that the generosity of the past will continue into the future.

This story was commissioned for The Jewish Chronicle newspaper © 2009



Image ©Marc Shoul

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