The two-year plan

When a couple of years turn into a life…

South Africa’s charms have a way of keeping people here longer than they ever intended to stay

By Chandrea Serebro


Emanuel and Tali Goldberg

Belgian Emanuel Goldberg didn’t choose South Africa, but, he says “it kind of chose me”. And like all good matches, it was a great fit. “I told my mother that I would only be going to South Africa for a month,” says Emanuel, when he got an opportunity to go and learn in a yeshiva in Johannesburg while he was learning in yeshiva in the UK. “The opportunity was too good to miss out on.” Twelve years later, Emanuel is still here and “I haven’t looked back”. Married to Tali with two daughters, Emanuel is still positively moved by the “unbelievable Jewish community” here, which he says is one of the reasons why he still lives here.

“It is really beautiful to see Jews who have such achdus (unity). It doesn’t matter whether you are charedi, mizrachi, chassidish, secular, religious, Ashkenazi, or Sefardi – everyone is Jewish, part of the family.” A family that Emanuel describes as “warm and friendly”. “It was actually such a big culture shock to me when I moved here initially. In Belgium when you greet someone, it is only appropriate to say ‘Hi, how are you?’ if you are friends with that person. Here, you would greet a total stranger like that. People are so welcoming.” When he thinks of how his life might be at home, he feels “blessed” to be in a place where there is little anti-Semitism, something he experienced “on the streets” in Antwerp quite often. “I am not saying this is the case of everyone who lives in Antwerp, but for me, it is amazing not to have to deal with it here.” And, of course, the sun in sunny South Africa is one of the best parts of it all. “I think the thought of the weather conditions at home alone make me feel depressed.”

Baila and Ari Arenstein

Baila and Ari Arenstein were both in New York when a few different people, on separate occasions, suggested that they meet. There must have been something special between these two young southern hemisphere adults in the Big Apple, because soon they found themselves down under getting married; he, a South African, and she, an Australian born-and-bred. After getting married, the Arensteins lived in Australia for three years, until ‘business opportunities’ that Ari wanted to explore here in South Africa brought them to live here.

“I didn’t think I would even last five years here,” says Baila, which was the original time frame that they gave themselves to make it work. “I was sure that I would have moved back to Australia before the 5 years were even up! I didn’t think I would be able to handle being away from my family, and I certainly didn’t anticipate how well I would adjust to living here.” Now, seven years on, Baila attributes “huge personal growth” to her living in South Africa and finding a family away from her family, a home away from home. “We had come a few times to visit prior to our move here and I felt that everyone was warm and welcoming. But, once we moved here, I made a point to become involved in our shul and community, and this forced me to get to know people and feel like I was an active member in the community, whereas back at home I would have just been a member.”

This gave Baila a framework to make “really good friends, who are like family to me”. Of course, there are times when South Africa feels like the Wild West to a civilised Ozzi, and Baila can feel “frustrated when things just don’t work here”. “I can feel a panic attack coming on just thinking about Home Affairs after all the disaster stories we’ve had there. As an Australian, I’m used to everyone going by the rules and institutions functioning as they should.”

Living here has its advantages, particularly from a space perspective. “We are fortunate to live in a beautiful, spacious house with gardens and swimming pools. In Australia, at least the part of Australia where my community was, we would not have been able to have that at this stage of our life.” And despite our differences, says Baila, at the end of the day, “the mentality of South Africans and Australians are more similar than other countries in the world”, which made it much easier to adjust to being here. “We are also affiliated to the same type of community here as I was in Australia, which feels like home, but because the community here is smaller, you feel more integral to the community and that is a great feeling.”

Ester and Yossi Unterslak

The old story of a girl marrying the guy who her brother brought home for Pesach in Australia almost rang true for Ester and Yossi Unterslak, despite it taking over a year to happen and only then after the guy rang up her mum with “a great idea for a match”. Only he wasn’t the one he had in mind for her, but his brother who was still back at home in South Africa. Thus began the relationship between Ester and Yossi, and at the same time Ester’s great love affair with South Africa as well. “Yossi was in third year medicine when we got married so there was no choice but to come and live here. However, the plan was always to move back to Sydney once his degree was finished. By the time he had completed his degree, I had fallen in love with the place. He asked me one day if he should write his Australian exams so that we could eventually go and start our lives there. I told him that if he planned to move to Australia, he would be doing so alone.” Ester has lived in South Africa for almost 15 years now, but, in some ways, she says, “it feels like I grew up here”. “My South African friends will often say to me ‘remember when this happened in school’, and I’ll have to remind them that I wasn’t actually in school with them.” South Africa – be it the people or the place – has formed Ester “definitely in a lot of the ways that count”. “I really feel like moving here and living here allowed me to grow as a person and really find myself and my path in life.”

Growing up in Sydney, Ester always knew a lot of South Africans, and she grew up hearing their version of South Africa. “It didn’t seem like a place that I wanted to visit, let alone live in. Coming here was a big eye opener for me. People always discussed the crime and the high walls and the electric fencing and the alarms. But they never mentioned the vibrant Jewish life here, or the warmth of the community, or the beautiful weather, or the incredible availability and variety of kosher food. Once you live here and experience these elements, they are what become the foundation and bedrock of your existence and, for me, I couldn’t imagine building a life anywhere else.”

Of course, admits Ester, it is never easy entering and integrating into a new community. “You have to make an effort and really put yourself out there. For me, the community in Johannesburg is unparalleled with any other community in the world. It is warm and accepting and giving, not just on an individual level, but on a larger scale as well. The amount of chesed organisations that exist here is mind blowing. No need goes unanswered. It’s almost like a nature of giving is imbued into the very character of South Africans.” And living without her family “is never going to get any easier”, she says, and she misses seeing them on a daily basis and always will. “Not having beaches down the road was also a major adjustment and something I will always dream of. But I feel very strongly that moving here allowed me to find my purpose in life and raise my family in an environment of unity, purpose, and warmth, which I will always be grateful for.”

Jennifer and Simcha Diskin

Jennifer met Simcha Diskin while on a month-long seminary programme in Israel after a friend introduced them and they immediately hit it off. “However, we were both certain that the distance between Phoenix, Arizona, where I come from, and Johannesburg, South Africa, where Simcha comes from, was just too far, and we regretfully said our farewells at the end of the month.” Hashem had other plans for them it seems, when several months later they met in London, and there decided to give long-distance dating a shot. “After countless phone conversations and a few 20+ hour plane rides to see each other, we mutually decided I should take the daunting leap of moving to South Africa, and a year later he proposed. And the rest, as they say, is history, and here I still am.”

When Jennifer wonders why they chose South Africa to live rather than her hometown, she attributes it to Simcha’s “excellent job showing me the beauty of Africa. We took elephant rides in Cape Town, enjoyed the Mother City, and my future mother-in-law’s gourmet cooking was certainly appealing too.” Simcha wasn’t too eager to live in the Arizona desert and had already established a business in Johannesburg. Jennifer had just completed her college degree and was accustomed to moving countries – having been born in America, but spent her childhood in Glasgow, Scotland. So, for the Diskins, the logical decision was for Jennifer to move to South Africa. Eight years on, the Diskins are still happy with their life here, and while this was always the plan, moving to Israel was also on the cards, “and hopefully one day we will take the leap”, says Jennifer.

“I found South Africans very friendly, welcoming, and eager to share their culture from the start, but right from the get-go I was nervous about safety and took measures to be careful. Now, as a mother, I am even more cautious. Unfortunately, that unease has yet to settle.” But despite the nerves of living in these conditions, Jennifer was immediately “blown away” by the chesed of “this beautiful South African Jewish community”. “Our shul welcomed me with Shabbos invites and offers of true friendship. We also found a beautiful school for our children and I have felt very welcomed among the mostly South African parents.”

The Jewish community in Phoenix, Arizona, although very dear to her heart, contrasts greatly to Johannesburg, says Jennifer. “When I left Arizona, we had a handful of kosher restaurants and shops that don’t compare to the variety here, and there wasn’t such a vast selection of schools, particularly Jewish high schools. Although I am certain that we could have been happy in Arizona, living in such an established community as this one has been beneficial for our family.” Although Jennifer’s family was already dispersed between the UK and Israel, leaving behind loved ones in Arizona was difficult, and the nine-hour time difference hasn’t made it any easier. “But, in the age of email, Facebook, and WhatsApp, we don’t miss much!” If they had chosen to remain in America, Jennifer may have had more work opportunities, she says, “but at this stage, my children are very little and my priority is to be at home with them regardless,” so for now this isn’t an issue for them.

Living in South Africa, with all its ups and downs, is for Jennifer and Simcha the right decision. “Hashem sent me my bashert (soul mate) in a very topsy-turvy way. Our locations made us an unlikely match, but, nonetheless, we prevailed and have a beautiful family to show for it. I have immense gratitude to Hashem for sending me on this unexpected journey that has brought me my greatest joy – my husband and children.”

Chaim and Dina Schneider

As part of the Chabad Yeshiva system, the young men spend a year aboard as a Shaliach (emissary) at another Chabad Yeshiva or high school around the world to assist with learning programmes for the local youth as well as community members. Chaim Schneider happened to be sent to South Africa, a destination he had no control over, but which now, twelve years later, he is so grateful for. “’A mensch tracht und G-tt tracht andresh’ – a man plans and G-d has his own plans. As things go, it was ‘bashert’, and I met my wonderful wife Dina here.”

Dina and Chaim lived in New York for some time after they first got married, but as the family was growing, they then decided that it would be best to move to Johannesburg. “We chose to move here because there is a great Jewish community to be part of here, as well as family and friends, chinuch (education) for our children, and of course a wonderful domestic support team. And who doesn’t prefer a South African winter to a New York one?” Chaim arrived to find a “lovely country and warm and friendly people”, but he did not expect to find anything less of the South Africans. That said, Chaim is still unable to get used to the “excuse” of ‘This is Africa’ “when things don’t run properly in the country”. “At times I miss a first world country and New York-style people, when they can tell you the way it is.”

“I have travelled to quite a few Jewish communities in the States and around the world, and by far South Africa has a very unique Jewish community, where there really is a sense of one unified community who look after and support each other in every way possible.” Chaim misses being around his family on a regular basis and he does try and travel there once a year to be with them and catch up. “Thank G-d for social media, as it allows me to be in touch with my family in the States on a daily basis.” It is not the same as being with them in person, but Chaim is a firm believer in Hashem’s great plan and the imperative of living in the present, and he knows that South Africa is where Hashem wants them to be right now.

Thank you to Rabbi Shmuel Bloch for this story idea.

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