The emotions were palpable as some 60 adults from all over the country gathered in Kibbutz Sdot Yam late last week to celebrate the centennial of Arcadia, the South African Jewish Orphanage, where each one had at some point lived.
Many of them were seeing old friends for the first time in decades. "There's someone I haven't seen in 68 years!" exclaimed Alec Saul, one of the older participants in the reunion and a friend of many of the other "Arcs," as those who have lived at Arcadia call themselves. Saul lived in Arcadia from 1933 to 1941 and is now nearly 82 years old.
The reunion was organized by David Sandler, himself an "Arc" from age three to 17 back in 1956-1969. Now a resident of Australia, Sandler decided to organize a reunion for all of the "Arcs" who had immigrated to Israel over the years.
"I haven't seen some of these people for 40-45 years. It's amazing. I just want to hug all of them," Sandler beamed.
Arcadia, established in 1906 in Johannesburg, South Africa, has served as a home for over 3,000 Jewish children between the ages of two and 17 over the last 100 years. Much of its funding came from the surrounding Jewish community. "Approximately 50 percent of the South African Jewish families have financially supported Arcadia," Sandler said.
Despite the tough experience of growing up in an orphanage, most of the "Arcs" have positive memories of living there.
"It's the most wonderful place in the world," said Ruth Rabinowitz, 82, who was in Arcadia from 1928 to 1932. Rabinowitz was brought to the orphanage after her nine-month-old sister was seriously hurt in a tragic household accident and her mother could no longer take care of her.
When asked what was so "wonderful" about Arcadia, she described how she had received a fantastic Jewish education there, and how "they encouraged everyone's individual talents."
Rabinowitz made aliya in 1991. "It's been my dream to make aliya my whole life. I'm so happy here," she said.
Sandler, too, has fond memories of Arcadia. "It was an adventure world for a kid. The estate was huge, and we had a swimming pool, tennis courts, cows walking around, a synagogue and even a hospital," he said.
Sandler, like many of the Arcadian children, was taken to the orphanage when his mother died and his father found it difficult to take care of him alone.
"Back then, as soon as one parent died, people would put pressure on the other parent to put the children into an orphanage," he recalled. "Now, however, the philosophy has changed, and it was determined that the best thing for the children is to help the family financially and otherwise so that they can continue living at home. Now, only in the most severe cases are children taken out of their houses and placed in Arcadia."
Those children who did end up in Arcadia usually considered their friends their family. "It's like a brotherhood," Rabinowitz said. "These are all my brothers and sisters. Even if we were not living in Arcadia at the same time, we are all siblings."
During the reunion, fellow "Arcs" reminisced about the past, sharing stories from their childhoods and updating friends on what they've been up to recently. Many also reviewed a 500-page hardcover book put together by Sandler called 100 Years of Arc Memories, which contains not only history about Arcadia, but also personal stories, memories and experiences written by over 130 "Arcs."
The once-Arcadian children who contributed to the book currently live all over the world and have taken many different paths in life. All of the proceeds of the book, which can be purchased on-line at www.arcadia.ca.com.au, go to benefit the orphanage.
"I wanted to preserve these memories so that they're not forgotten," Sandler said. "It's also a way of giving back. We took a lot from the Jewish community growing up, and now we want to give back. Our goal is to raise one million South African rand for Arcadia."