Ben, our legal eagle

Dr Leon Geffen with Esther and Ben-Zion Surdut at the Honorary Life Members luncheon earlier this year. (Photo: Yolanda Kretzmer-Keys)

Mathilde Myburgh interviewed Ben-Zion Surdut, long-time supporter of Highlands House and Honorary Life Member as of 2022

“Thank G-d for Highlands House.” People don’t appreciate it. 

I know what it means for even younger people. I know that payment is sometimes an issue. If you can’t pay, you don’t pay. I know there are a lot of people pretending that they cannot pay, and that has always been my bugbear. The children say, “Oh, the house is our inheritance!” Or the kids have gone overseas and left their mother here. Those who can afford it, tend to go to the facilities on the Atlantic Seaboard and in Century City. Yet, this space is Jewish, it is ours, and it deserves to be looked after, it deserves to be your first choice. I tell people, “Thank G-d for Highlands House”. 

I’ve been very involved in Jewish affairs I was the first chairman of the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, I served on the Cape SAJBD, where my portfolio was Youth & Students, and where I befriended the wonderful Gwynne Robins. I was chairman of the Cape Jewish Chronicle for 24 years. I don’t know how long exactly I’ve been involved with Highlands House. Primarily, I’ve been a legal advisor and involved in matters to do with the constitution. I’ve also helped residents to sort out their testaments, although this wasn’t primarily my task. I worked closely with Pam Kopman, the previous administrator. Some years ago, I was a trustee for the Leiserowitz Trust, and with the late Ivor Schneider, created the Leiserowitz Wing. I’ve always been involved as a trustee with the Board of Guardians (now Jewish Community Services). Again, thank G-d for the Board of Guardians. 

“I’ve been an attorney for nearly 60 years I’m probably the oldest Jewish attorney in Cape Town. It all began well over 40 years ago, after I got married. The Board of Deputies held an Open Day where different organisations presented introductory sessions. I got involved in the Board of Guardians, attending weekly Relief Committee meetings. Sylvia Gottlieb got me involved — she knew everything about everybody. Then there was Eliot Osrin. If not for him, I don’t know if there would be a Highlands House. He attracted funding. I don’t have to tell you what it costs to run Highlands House — and people still try to cheat the system. 

Working with legal affairs, deceased estates and financial requirements

The question is, have these families, who expect to be subsidised, ever contributed to the community?

The children want Highlands House to look after their parents while they protect their inheritance. For example, if an elderly person owns property, we’ll recommend that it be sold in order that they might afford Highlands House services and sundries. The family won’t let them sell — but also don’t want to pay fees.

In a few of these cases, I worked with Pam to successfully recover funds by registering security bonds over that property, in favour of Highlands House. When the person died, there was a secure estate claim in place.

One of the nastier cases I dealt with  was a wealthy son who refused to help his mother. So we sued well, we started proceedings against the son on behalf of his mother. Can you believe it? He didn’t want to finance her. Of course, when it came to court time, as I anticipated, the mother didn’t want to take it further. So the case was dropped, and I’m not sure what happened after that. 

The girl at the station, and our children

I was born in Zimbabwe and went to boarding school in Cape Town from age 15, matriculating in 1958. I’ve been here since then. Esther, my wife, comes from Paarl. She worked for South African Airways and wore her uniform well. I discovered that this girl I saw at the railway station every morning was Jewish and that she was going to Israel with her family, to a kibbutz called Dafna. It turned out that her aunt and my aunt were neighbours on this kibbutz…

Esther is an artist. After many years of working for the airlines, she went back to university, aged 70, to get her BA Fine Arts degree. Now she teaches history of art and painting. She was nearly 50 when we had our laatlammetjie.

When the children were little, I went back to university and did a SocSci honours degree, and then a Masters in Public Administration. It hasn’t helped me one iota, but it was wonderful. I ended up lecturing at UCT for a while. 

We lived in Constantia for 42 years and raised our children there. Three years ago, we moved back to the same Sea Point building that we lived in when we first got married fifty years earlier. I have no plans to move.

We, the Capetonian Jews, are not following our children when they move overseas. I haven’t seen my daughter for four years. She is a Paediatric Social Worker at a children’s hospital in Sydney, where she is  part of a trauma team working with abused children. In Cape Town, she worked at Valkenberg Hospital for a while, and then as a social worker at Herzlia. According to her, Valkenberg ‘was a pussycat’ compared to Herzlia’s parents. 

All my children are in medicine, in one form or another. My son in Melbourne is a nutritionist and volunteers for Hatzolah, which works like our CSO but is more medically focused. My son in Manchester is a dentist. My other son works in infectious diseases at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth (Gqeberha), and no doubt he will in due course move overseas. We will encourage him. 

The pandemic changed my working hours

Highlands House had a very difficult time at the beginning of COVID-19. We were worried about staff and contractors being carriers. That’s why I still don’t see my staff. When I leave in the morning, they haven’t arrived yet. At 4.30am, I’m ready to get into the car. It’s prime time — the phone doesn’t ring, and I can do all my dictation. I can really think, and if I have something difficult, I bring that home and sit with it quietly. It usually turns out to be not that difficult. I open a file, zone in on it, and focus.

“Highlands House has to carry on”

Highlands House has to carry on. I think we have a big challenge ahead of us, maintaining a connection to Highlands House and achieving financial sustainability. The Leiserowitz Wing is an example of well-applied funds from the Trust to construct this luxury wing. There are big strategies for where to next.

How do we get younger people involved once more? Come and give classes at the Home, help with groceries, give residents an outing… there’s so much you can do. I don’t know why I got involved back then. I think Highlands House Foundation is ‘up there’ with the fundraisers and the foundations it’s not a relatable entity to the general community. If you have a skillset that the professional staff don’t have, volunteer your time and help solve problems. That’s what I did, and that’s what I encourage when it comes to community work.

Highlands House

• Published in the December 2022/January 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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