Jewish Agency emissaries (shlichim) in South Africa see themselves as agents of both aliya and social change. Not only do they aim to help strengthen the country’s Jewish community (which numbers an estimated 70,000 in a country of over 50 million) and boost their connection with Israel, they also seek to contribute to the welfare of the local non-Jewish community, especially those most in need.
“We absolutely consider ourselves agents of change, and not only because of the Project TEN Center we just opened in Durban, but because of the impact that the Jewish Agency delegation has in South Africa as a whole,” says emissary Aviad Sela, who heads the Johannesburg-based Israel Center.
“Project TEN is an opportunity to connect Israeli and Jews around the world, learn to understand each other and the practice of Tikkun Olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world.”
Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky officially opened the Project TEN Center in Durban last week, although it has been operating since November 1, 2016. Project TEN, dubbed “the Jewish Peace Corps,” brings together young Jews from Israel and the Diaspora to volunteer in underprivileged areas around the world. Its new centers in Durban and Namulanda, Uganda (which Sharansky visited on his way to South Africa) join existing ones in Winneba in Ghana, Oaxaca in Mexico and Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel.
“Project TEN Centers are operated by The Jewish Agency in the most underprivileged areas in the world,” says Sela. “They are run by Israelis and members of the Jewish community and local volunteers.
First and foremost, we are engaged with local NGOs and volunteers to provide a range of services to poor and needy people in Durban and the whole KwaZulu-Natal area.”
Sela says the center in Durban is itself unique, compared to other centers around the world.
“We operate it in partnership with the South African Zionist Federation and with the support of the local Jewish community,” he says.
“Every morning the volunteers go out to townships in the area to help out.”
Together with local NGOs – the Denis Hurley Center, the Victor Daitz Foundation, the Domino Foundation and I Care – the volunteers have already started working on several projects in the fields of formal and informal education, youth empowerment, public health and sustainable agriculture.
Sela has been the Jewish Agency’s top emissary in South Africa since August 2014 and expects to stay in the job until 2018. He is married to Naomi, who works at the Israeli Embassy, and they have two daughters, one in 12th grade at a Jewish school in Johannesburg and the other studying at IDC Herzliya.
“My shlichut [mission] has been an opportunity for me to understand that Israel is not the whole story,” he says. “There are Jews and Jewish communities around the world with needs and challenges. I feel fortunate to have been chosen to go to South Africa, and we feel that we are in the right place, in Johannesburg, at the moment. We also have a branch in Cape Town, and now of course in Durban too.”
Sela says the Jewish Agency operates on three levels.
“The first level is strengthening the local Jewish community. Our shlichim take part in a range of programs in Jewish organizations, schools, youth movements, etcetera,” he says. “We also work to better connect the community to Israel in terms of their Zionist beliefs and Jewish identity, and encourage those interested to make aliya. The third level of changing in the Jewish Agency is introducing members of the community to Israel in the most meaningful way.”
“Rather than leaving Israel as an abstract idea, we try to bring as many young people as possible to visit Israel and spend meaningful time in Israel in a range of projects,” he adds. “For example, we run a project called Israel Encounter in which every year around 170 to 200 11th-grade students visit Israel.
They are given the opportunity to see and connect, but at the same time, they go to university campuses to see the opportunities that Israel can give them during a gap year or as students.”
Sela notes that there has been a marked rise in enrollment in a range of programs under the umbrella of Masa and P2G (Partnership2gether) to introduce young South Africans to Israel, together with a rise in aliya.
“We have seen an increase in young Jews doing their gap year in Israel and going on Masa programs to Israel, students who study in Israel, and many young families interested in information about Israel,” he says. “We have also seen an increase in the number of olim [immigrants] from South Africa by about 50%. In total numbers, it doesn’t sound like a lot, from 170 in 2014 to 272 in 2016, but it is significant.”
Sela is concerned about rising antisemitism and BDS in South Africa.
“Part of the new face of antisemitism is the BDS groups on campuses and on social networks. It’s very, very worrying. There were two recent occasions in which people affiliated to ISIS were arrested, with plans to attack Jewish facilities in South Africa. The Jewish Agency is doing all we can to better understand this phenomenon and ways to safeguard the community and its facilities,” he says.
As a result of perceptions of rising crime and corruption, Sela expects aliya from South Africa to increase in the future.
“I think in the short- and medium- term, we will see increasing challenges in South Africa that will affect the Jewish community,” he says. “The situation brings many people to my office with sentences like, ‘We don’t see a future here,’ or ‘We don’t see hope for our kids in South Africa and we want to explore the options for them in Israel.’” Hagai Dagan, who serves as the Jewish Agency emissary to Cape Town together with his wife, Anne, and three young children, is particularly concerned about anti-Israel activities on university campuses, which climax in the so-called Israel Apartheid Week in March.
“It’s a very aggressive week on campuses. The Palestine Solidarity Forum basically bashes Israel in a very vicious way,” he says. “Their members are perceived as human rights activists who fight for freedom, democracy and justice, which unfortunately they aren’t.”
Dagan came up with an idea to counteract the phenomenon.
“We realized that most people don’t know the facts, and it’s very hard to interact with students on campus, even Jewish students, and tell them our side of the story,” he says. “So we created a new three-stage platform, where we invited people to engage and hold a dialogue about Israel.”
In the first stage, with guidance from the Jewish Agency’s educational arm, Makom, Dagan conducted five evening workshops in private homes for 13 student leaders to discuss the situation in Israel.
In the second phase, he invited seven of them to travel to Israel and learn about it first-hand.
“Their tour wasn’t about riding camels or floating on the Dead Sea or hiking on the Golan,” he says. “They went and met with interesting people who live in Israel, people who deal with social change and work for a variety of NGOs, as well as visiting our partnership region in Mateh Yehuda. Through all this, they were exposed to the complexities and challenges of Israeli society. At the same time, they were exposed to passionate people who care about Israel and do something about it. So it was very informative and inspiring at the same time.”
Upon their return to South Africa, they began the third phase, in which each of them conducted workshops at homes, schools and universities.
“They engaged in a dialogue with a variety of people about Israel, talking to them about their experience and exposing them to the real Israel, and that went very well. We got really good responses, and people wanted to engage and wanted to hear and learn about the real situation. Students at the university invited their non-Jewish friends, Christians and Muslims, and we thought that this was a very healthy platform to speak about Israel.”
Today, Dagan is organizing the second year of the program, which he has called “Israel in 4D.”
“I think we need to create more platforms for discussion about Israel,” he says. “Sometimes Jewish people around the world are very cautious to ask tough questions, or criticize or express their opinions across the board. I think this is not a healthy thing. People who care about Israel need to engage, and in many cases, I compare it to a family.
You love your family, you care about the family, you are part of the family, but you also have issues and problems, and the best way to solve these is to talk about them.”
While young adults are a very important part of this dialogue, Dagan believes the older generation should be involved as well.
“I think one of the challenges in South Africa is to engage the older generation, because there is a gap between what the older generation – the parents and grandparents – thinks, or would like their kids or grandchildren to think, and the younger generation, which sometimes has a completely different opinion. We need to create this intergenerational dialogue, and speak about Israel in an open way.
At the end of the day, I think people still find Israel fascinating and inspiring, and they want to hear more and connect to the country. I say, let’s do more of that.”
Like Sela, Dagan has witnessed “an increasing interest in Israel” among the local Jewish community.
“The numbers aren’t very high, but the trend is clear,” he says.
“More and more people are making aliya, more and more people are interested in studying in Israel and looking for opportunities and investments in Israel.”
Dagan sees his task as a shaliach in South Africa as multi-faceted.
“As someone working for the Jewish Agency, I think we are doing a lot of good stuff,” he says.
“I think we need to expose Jews to the opportunities in Israel, and encourage whoever is keen to make aliya, and at the same time, to strengthen the local community and its institutions. It’s not either or, it’s both.”
He says that the Jewish community in South Africa is extremely supportive of Israel while being concerned about their own future.
“South Africa is a complicated country. We have seen everything from riots at the universities to water shortages, and people are thinking about their future, and considering the idea of moving to Israel,” he says. “When people sit in my office and I ask them, ‘Why do you want to make aliya?” many tell me, ‘I want to go home. I have lived all my life in South Africa, but I still don’t really feel that I belong here.’ Some of them who visit Israel come back saying they feel they belong there. So there is a very strong connection, which works both ways.”
Back in Johannesburg after accompanying Sharansky to Durban, Sela comes to the same conclusion.
“This is the time for us to be prepared for people who are looking for a fresh future, and give them the opportunity to move to Israel,” he says. “The Jewish community is very dedicated to Jewish values, very warm and very Zionist. For most of them, Israel is and should be their future home.”This article was written in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel.