Taking a fresh look at Aliyah

By Chandrea Serebro

Exodus. The very word inspires images of an epic journey across deserts and through seas, of a liberated people on the cusp of nationhood. And it resonates particularly for us South Africans, who relive it each year at the Pesach seder along with Jews everywhere, but who perhaps toy with the idea a bit more often than most others who reside outside that most holy of places. Making Aliyah obviously comes with great sacrifice, giving up the great South African legacy of warmth and love, the incredibly unique and united South African Jewish community, but it probably also comes with the knowledge that the roots being put down are more permanent, living in the age old land of our people. A recent article from Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation in Israel, an organisation which seeks to engage Southern Africans in Israel to contribute to their communities and to Israeli society, predicts a spike in Aliyah from South Africa this year. And, truth be told, that’s not exactly surprising given the current state of things here, what with the declining value of the Rand, the escalating cost of living, the frustrating crime situation, the rising anti-Semitism, and the steadily declining infrastructure. It’s obviously a topic on everyone’s mind, so it’s worth hearing a bit from those who’ve left behind their land and their families here in SA, as well as those who are there to help us once we’ve made the journey.

[Riz: Maybe we should put the three people below who offer their opinions in three separate boxes – not sure if that would work practically]

Dorron Kline, CEO of Telfed, paints an inspiring picture of life in Israel, generally, and for South African Olim in particular. The gist of Israel’s appeal is that Israel is the only country in the world, says Kline, that welcomes all Jews with arms open wide and says, “Welcome home”. It’s a country that is booming, despite what its enemies, and sometimes what the world, wants us to think. “Israel is still the centre of our universe. It is still the realisation of the dream.” The economy is strong, the shekel is worth something, there is a low unemployment rate (5.5%) with great opportunities for employment and, of course, entrepreneurship, and it’s the international hub of all things hi-tech and the top Torah thinkers today. Apart from these very real, everyday living factors, there is also the fact that for us Jews, in Israel everything just feels, well, different. Whether religious or not, reiterates Kline, Jews all over feel it. The Jewish chaggim are national holidays in Israel, the whole country stops on Yom Kippur, 97% of Israelis have a Pesach Seder. It’s also, at one and the same time, depending on your perspective, the fulfilment of the ancient and modern Zionist dream – a place where you can be whoever you are, comfortably, happily, and easily. We discussed the push factors, which would be the reasons to leave this place at the tip of Africa we all know and love so much. And we discussed the pull factors, which would be the reasons to choose Israel in particular as a new home. Kline spouted tons of statistics to boggle the brain, but the overriding plus about Israel is that the quality of life that it gives you is worth all the sacrifices of high standards of living elsewhere. The number of people making enquiries into Aliyah at the SA Israel Centre has doubled since last year, which means this is the hot topic around so many tables.

Sarah Sassoon, who blogs about her Aliyah experience and Israel in general, paints a very real picture about how it’s going for her and her family during their first year of Aliyah:

After being in Israel for eight months now, I often get asked the question, ’How is your Aliyah going?’ My answer depends on the day that I’m asked. Experiences fluctuate in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, like the weather, between extreme summer heat and freezing Ugg boot winter days. You get the pilpel (hot chilli) Israelis who are very direct, abrasive, and don’t seem to care about you as a person, like the shouting taxi drivers, school teachers who don’t get back to you, rude and pushy Israeli kids at the soccer park. Then you get the Israelis who gently correct your Hebrew mistakes, tell you about the other item that you should buy because it’s on sale, the taxi drivers who philosophise about peace and go the extra mile for you, the teachers who are available all hours of the day and night for you (here you can call teachers late at night), Israeli children who help old people get off the bus, carrying their heavy bags down for them, the whole bus patiently waiting. You can’t generalise about anything or anyone in Israel.

So our Aliyah as a family, with four young boys and my husband, has been up and down. It’s no simple matter learning Hebrew, going to new schools (which are in Hebrew), making new friends, and finding our groove of belonging. Jerusalem is an eclectic, colourful city, metropolitan and international as well as provincial and deeply traditional. There’s space for everyone here and yet, as a family, I’ve learned we also need to create our own place. No one is waiting for you; everyone is busy running their own lives, working hard as people do in Israel, with more than one job. Hence, we have developed skills. We don’t wait to be invited for Shabbat meals, but rather take the initiative with people and families we like and invite them into our home. We invest in friendships because this is our new community and support group. It’s hard to be without family and the comforts of Johannesburg’s easy living, yet our new relationships and the positives of living in Jerusalem help make up for having to wash our own dishes and clothes.

People are open to new Olim in Israel; they admire them and want to help them. I’ve learned that we Olim in kind need to be open and positive, in order to see and make the most of the abundant blessings and opportunities that Israel offers.

Visit sarahsassoon.com to read more of Sarah’s experiences.

Eitan Aronowitz, a shwarma-munching ex-pat who recently married the love of his life in Israel, tells us how he got there and about life with spongy, fresh pita bread:

Growing up in a religious family deep in the heart of Sandton, being part of a wonderful Jewish community, my involvement in Bnei Akiva youth movement, as well as having had the privilege of attending great Jewish schools, namely King David Sandton and Yeshiva College, all had an impact on my inevitable Aliyah. After High School I was lucky to experience MTA with Bnei Akiva, a year spent together with Australians and South Africans in a Yeshiva, spent learning mixed with some volunteering and other fantastic adventures. I went to Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, which is situated in Jerusalem. This was a wonderful experience, and it was about halfway through that year that I decided to take the plunge – to do the army and stay in Israel for the long term. Despite my convictions, as they say, you make plans and G-d laughs, and at the end of MTA I was convinced to come back to Johannesburg to start a degree until I got my Bcomm. The irony is that during this time, my parents and siblings made Aliyah, and I stayed in Joburg in order to finish my studies, and then two years after them, at age 23, I made the move to join them. Leaving South Africa was not the easiest of things, getting on a plane and arriving in a new country, with new people, a new language, different shwarma meats, and of course a very different culture. Many of my close friends and family are still living in South Africa today, and sometimes I just want to get on a plane and go visit. And I still do miss South Africa a lot; it is a beautiful country with a great Jewish community, but I am here now, in Israel, with all my heart. A year ago I was lucky enough to marry my lovely wife from London, whom I met in Jerusalem, and she made Aliyah about two years after me so that we could make our life together happen. So here we are, building a home in our homeland, with arguably the best shwarma on tap. Is Israel the promised land? Every place has its ups and downs. But as a Jewish people, we are so lucky to have a place that we can call our homeland, a place we call Israel. In a way, I think each of us, no matter where we are, lives with a part of us in Israel. But here I am, at 27, lucky to be eating my shwarma in a fresh, spongy, non-crumbling pita, in the home of the shwarma.

[if boxing, end of box material]

While there are other distant lands that offer exciting opportunities for those South Africans who are ready to leave these sunny and familiar shores, at the end of the day, Israel will always be there for us – always be our home and, if all else fails, will surely be there waiting for us to come.

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