The man who moved mountains

Enriching the lives of residents of Selwyn Segal

By Chandrea Serebro

Described by the Chevrah Kadisha a “the man who moved mountains”, Lionel Stein is a self-imposed patriarch of the residents of Selwyn Segal, a role which began out of an inability to say no and not a small amount of fear and trepidation over 45 years ago. “My personal involvement with the Selwyn Segal started by evolution. The late Jack Shapiro, who ran the Selwyn Segal, invited me to come and make Kiddush on a Friday night for the residents. I didn’t know how to say no to Jack, otherwise I certainly would have.

Jack persisted with his invitation until I consented to come, but, out of fear, asked him to meet me in the reception area so that we could enter the dining room together. When I finished making Kiddush, Jack turned to me and said that whenever he made Kiddush he would look into the eyes of the residents and he could see that they had the Shechina (Divine presence) of Shabbat in them.” At precisely that moment, Lionel was looking into the eyes of two brothers, the Nathanson brothers, who were wheel bed cases. And, in that very moment, every fear and prejudice that he had previously harboured just disappeared.”

Lionel had just turned 30 and, above his need to become involved in communal activities, he found himself with a deep affinity to the residents of the Selwyn Segal themselves. “It was exciting being with them. Whatever effort I put in was rewarded a hundred fold by them. I was the beneficiary of their love and, maybe more importantly, their honesty.” The world was a different place to the one we live in now, almost five decades later. This was the time when television was only first being introduced into South Africa, and so there was still time available for discussion and interpersonal interaction. Life was not as rushed and personal contact with family members of the residents, and the residents themselves, was pointed and meaningful. And there was an open place for personal mentors, and Jack Shapiro represented the epitome of this to Lionel.

“Jack was an ideas person. He was a dreamer and it was exciting seeing his dreams of the Kibbutz and Camp David become realities. I would spend many hours together with Jack, often being a sounding board for his ideas. His people skills taught me so much; his understanding of people and society; his experience of how to work within the framework of committees; he was inspiring.” And the inspiration rolled, with Lionel’s involvement at the Selwyn Segal increasing with every year he spent with the residents.

“Initially, I would go twice a month on a Friday night to make Kiddush. This would be at about 5:30 pm after which I would sit down with the residents and interact with them while they had their Friday night dinner before I would go onto shul, seeing them again in shul on a Shabbat morning, and often spending more time with the residents on a Sunday morning.” The big change in Lionel’s commitment began towards the end of 1978. “After making Kiddush one Friday night, I was sitting with Roland Harris, who was a young boy at the time, and asked him how he enjoyed Shabbat. I received a straight answer – he did not. Shabbat was boring. Those words left me desolate. I knew I had to do something, but didn’t know what.”

Lionel took the task to the board, and eventually it was Alan Zulberg who offered a solution: take the residents to different homes for the Kiddush after shul on Shabbat morning. This was the start, and, after Alan and his wife, Linda, hosted the first ‘brocha’ and got the ball rolling, Bernie and the late Glynnis Sher, followed by Monty and Sheila Nussbaum, and Brian and Melanie Jude quickly joined in. “For the next couple of years, these four families were the only participants. Henry and Yael Schwartz then joined our team and, slowly, the number of families participating increased, to the point that within a few years we could have had ‘brochas’ every Shabbat and still not have included all the families who wished to participate” – a sign of the success of Lionel’s wish to bring the Selwyn Segal residents into the hearts and homes of community members everywhere.

The next major development occurred in 1989. Nathan Mowszowski approached Lionel to bring the Selwyn Segal to Sandton, but, because it was too far to walk to on Shabbat, they decided that the residents would stay over with community members. Lionel was disappointed, however, when Nathan cancelled the Shabbaton at the eleventh hour because the Sandton members had gotten cold feet. “I told Nathan that there was no way that I could cancel. The residents had been packing their cases since Monday, and, if necessary, we would sleep in the corridors of the shul rather than disappoint them like that.”

The Shabbaton indeed took place, and it was the hosts who got more satisfaction out of it in the end than the residents themselves. It was the same year that marked the beginning of what was to become “a wonderful relationship” between Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, z”l, his wife, Anne, and the residents of the Selwyn Segal, which started off for Lionel on a “disastrous note”. “The Selwyn Segal hosted a tea garden party in honour of the Harrises at Kibbutz Lubner, where I invited him to join us for a Shabbat ‘brocha’. Sitting with leaders of the community, he gave a very direct and loud reply that he would not come.” The silence that followed, what Lionel construed as “a stinging reply”, seemed to last eternities – until the Chief Rabbi countered that he wouldn’t come until Lionel had brought the residents to spend a Shabbat with them. And it was that Shabbat that the Selwyn Segal and Lionel walked 15km there and back to spend Shabbat with Chief Rabbi Harris that cemented what would become a relationship that was to continue unabated until the Chief Rabbi’s retirement.

“All of these things got me highly motivated, and I found myself part of a loving family that was only too happy to exude goodness and honesty. The more involved I became, the greater the satisfaction I received from my involvement. When I initially became involved, I was really like an assistant providing a service. As time progressed, I became part of a family and, at that, a very close family.”

More than close family, Lionel has even been lauded as a hero for his involvement – a hero, says the Chevrah Kadisha, not only because he has been a dedicated volunteer and dearly loved by the residents and appreciated by the community, but more because of his work “changing perceptions”. Through his association with the Selwyn Segal, which too began with a degree of fear of the unknown and of those different to him, Lionel has used his lifelong service and friendships with the resident of Selwyn Segal to take the unknown out of the equation, showing people by way of example that the residents of Selwyn Segal are as much a part of the Joburg Jewish community as everyone else.

“Instead of keeping them at home and separate, he broke through the fear and stigma, brought them to shul services, arranged Shabbatons, and organised for them to visit families in the area for meals on Shabbat and Yom Tov. It may have taken years to affect the shift in outlook, but their world has forever changed because Lionel, with consistent patience and effort, moved mountains for them. And he changed the community too, for as much as they have enriched the lives of residents, residents have enriched the lives of families in the community who have been awoken to their innocence, purity, courage, and tenacity.”

And for his personal evolution, Lionel too has grown from the process. “I have learned to listen a lot more carefully. People express themselves in different ways and I have learned to watch for body language in deciphering what is being said. I have learned that there are so many things in life that seem so important, but, in the grander scheme of things, often they have no relevance whatsoever. My relationship with the residents of Selwyn Segal has certainly made me sensitive to people with special needs, however small they might be. Being with these residents has certainly given me additional inner strength to deal with problems that do arise, particularly since I recently suffered a stroke. Based on my experience with the residents of Selwyn Segal, I try at all times to be understanding and accepting of my condition and grateful that it is not worse.”

And, at the same time, says Lionel, “I would like to believe that they see me as a friend who is there for them whenever they are in need of one.” Having been over the years to over 1 200 different Shabbat outings with the Selwyn Segal Residents, the most interesting thing for Lionel is that he comes out of it on “a new high” each time. “It is difficult to explain, but each outing is special in itself, something that I can only put down to the residents.” Lionel still believes in the need for people to get involved, not necessarily in the Shabbat Programme, nor necessarily with Selwyn Segal, but in the affairs of the broader community.

“There are so many different angles to special needs within the Jewish community that many different opportunities present themselves. It is a matter of being proactive and finding a niche within the community needs. One mustn’t be put off if one tries and doesn’t find what one is looking for. Try again, try something different, but most importantly, try.” Just one Shabbat can mean the start of the next 45 amazing years, as Lionel himself is testimony to.

Some of Lionel’s memories

“In the first ‘brocha’ we ever had, a resident stood up as we were preparing to leave and said that his parents had taught him to always say thank you for anything he received and he proceeded to thank the host and hostess for a wonderful ‘brocha’.”

“In our first round of ‘brochas’ that we had, our host came to me after shul and said that she was ready for us all to go to her home. I told her that we were only coming the following week. She said she would go home and freeze the food and added that she had specially arranged for her children to go out. Came the following Shabbat and I told her we were ready to go. She clapped her head, said she had forgotten, and ran home to take the food out the freezer. She obviously had not made arrangements for her children to go out. What a surprise she had when she saw her children handing out food to the residents and then playing soccer and cricket with them.”

“After starting the Shabbatons, there was one community that couldn’t come to terms with special needs people sleeping in their beds. It took a lot of explaining to prove the point that you couldn’t catch mental retardation. It was neither contagious nor infectious.”

“We had a resident who was a kleptomaniac. He would take magazines and books and hide them inside his shirt. Whenever we would leave a home, we would have to pat him on the stomach until he would acknowledge what he had taken.”

“Often there could be crisis situations with a resident collapsing or battling to breathe or some other serious ailment. Fortunately, Hatzolah is only one call away, but at the time it can be panicky. We can sometimes go for a few years without a problem or, as once happened, had to phone Hatzolah three times one Shabbat for different cases.”

“The greatest challenge that I faced over the years resulted in my wanting to call it a day. I felt that I had overstayed my welcome and that it was time to step down. Rabbi Tanzer was able to make me see reason and, many years later, I am still there.”

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