From South Africa to Israel: A tale of two lives

Born in Johannesburg, Jason, the youngest of three children, was drawn to the hospitality industry at an early age.

 Jason Kornblum (photo credit: COURTESY JASON KORNBLUM)
Jason Kornblum
(photo credit: COURTESY JASON KORNBLUM)

The colorful names of the towns in England and South Africa where Jason Kornblum spent years of his life – Sabi, Limpley Stoke, Plettenberg Bay and Bath – conjure visions of exotic adventure, green valleys and winding country lanes. Jason has a fascinating life story and a career that’s worthy of the colorful places where he lived. 

Yet there is much more to this account than pretty names.

Born in Johannesburg, Jason, the youngest of three children, was drawn to the hospitality industry at an early age. “My dad owned a restaurant when I was 12, and I’ve been in the hospitality field since then,” he recalls. 

After finishing high school, Jason spent six months in Israel visiting friends and family in Haifa and Beersheba before moving to England, where he lived for five years. “England was offering work visas for youngsters to travel the world,” he says. Jason had a two-year work visa, which he extended for three years. 

He started work as a restaurant manager in a hotel in the aforementioned Limpley Stoke, just outside of Bath, and eventually became hotel manager. After five years in the UK, Jason returned to South Africa and became the manager of a private game resort outside Durban before managing a hotel in Sabi, located near the world-famous Kruger National Park, one of Africa’s largest game reserves. 

South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. (credit: Courtesy)South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. (credit: Courtesy)

It was there that he met his future wife, and the two eventually moved to Plettenberg Bay before he moved yet again to the Southern Sun Waterfront hotel in Cape Town, where the hotel manager changed the trajectory of Jason’s life with one simple directive.

“I was responsible for procurement for the hotel,” says Jason. The Southern Sun Waterfront was the largest hotel in South Africa, with 567 rooms. “The hotel would compact all its waste and have it picked up once a week. We were throwing away 20,000 kilos of waste per month.”

The hotel’s general manager asked Jason to develop a solution for recycling and reusing the hotel’s garbage. Jason, who had no previous experience in waste management, willingly took on the task.

“We removed the compactor and put in recycling bins and a sorting table, and hired staff,” he says. “After two years, I was recycling 97% of the hotel’s waste.” 

Jason took two bathtubs from the hotel and turned them into worm baths. When worms consume eggshells, egg cartons, banana peels, tea bags, and coffee grounds, they create leachate, a natural insecticide and fertilizer used for composting. 

Jason was sent to other hotel properties in the hotel’s group to institute the program that he had established. He worked at other five-star hotels and received an award for his waste management skills. 

At this point in most interviews, the interviewee explains the deep feelings they have had for the Land of Israel since childhood, which propelled them to the Promised Land. The storyline in this case, however, is a bit different. For most of his life, Jason was not the slightest bit interested in Judaism or living in Israel.

“I didn’t grow up in a religious home,” says Jason. “For me, Passover was matzah on the table and bread in the kitchen. I went to a Jewish day school, but I knew nothing about religion whatsoever. My parents didn’t enforce it, and there was nothing happening at home.” 

Jason’s wife was not Jewish, and he recalls, “I didn’t worry, and it didn’t bother me at all.” After their first child was born, Jason’s wife wanted to convert to Judaism, but Jason was not interested in having her convert. “I made her wait for 10 years. I used to come home from work on a Friday night, and she would have a Shabbat table set, and all I knew was ‘Borei pri hagafen’ (the blessing recited before drinking wine). I knew nothing else.” 

Jason’s wife tried everything to pique his interest in Judaism, buying him a tallit and a shofar, but to no avail. “I had no interest in being religious at all,” he says.

IN EARLY 2014, Jason became seriously ill but recovered from his illness. In late October of that year, he decided to participate in the Shabbat Project. Created by South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Shabbat Project designates one Shabbat during the year when Jews around the world – regardless of their background – celebrate and observe Shabbat together. Jason spent that Shabbat with his older son at the home of his Shabbat-observant sister in Johannesburg. 

For Jason, it was a life-changing experience. “It made me realize that there’s more to life than being busy seven days of the week. To switch off and just connect with family, friends, with God, made a huge impact in my life.” 

Jason says that disconnecting from his cellphone was a revelation. “It was great being with family,” he continues. “Today, with everybody on their mobiles, you’re constantly busy. Just to switch off and to have that break for 25 hours was unbelievable. It was a real eye-opener.”

When Jason returned from spending Shabbat with his sister’s family, he was ready to live a more active Jewish life, and he gave his wife the go-ahead to begin studying for conversion. 

By the end of that month, they had signed up for conversion classes with their three children. By December, they moved to a Jewish neighborhood, and in January, their children began attending Jewish day school. Looking back, Jason wishes he had listened to his wife earlier when she first wanted to convert. 

“At one stage, we were considering getting a divorce because I had no interest in being religious,” he says. “Now I look back and think, ‘Jeez, was I dumb.’ I should have listened to her then.”

Jason’s wife and oldest daughter were converted by the beit din in South Africa (his other children were minors at the time), and they were officially married under Jewish law almost five years ago. In December 2018, Jason and his wife Rivkah made aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh. 

“We came with our last paychecks and a bit of savings, but we started from scratch and have made some wonderful friends.”

WHEN JASON and his family arrived in Israel, he found that his lack of Hebrew proficiency prevented him from being hired by hotels. He cleaned houses and managed apartments and decided to return to his area of expertise – recycling and composting. 

Jason started a new company called Source One Eco Friendly (sourceoneeco.com) in Ramat Beit Shemesh, selling biodegradable and compostable products, including cups, cutlery, paper straws, bowls and plates, food service boxes, and compost bins for home use. 

Coupled with the fact that the government has recently introduced a tax on single-use, disposable plastic plates, bowls, cups and straws, Jason’s initiative seems to have benefited from fortuitous timing. 

While he has not yet begun a recycling service, Jason says that he wants to educate businesses, hotels, and restaurants to recycle products, reuse items, and dispense them properly, without adding to the landfill. 

“If we carry on putting things into landfills for the next 20 or 30 years like we are doing at the moment,” he cautions, “we’re not going to have any space to live.” 

Jason says that there are not enough waste management companies in Israel and adds that he would like to become involved here. Although Israel is becoming more conscious about recycling, he adds, it is five to eight years behind other countries. 

He says that it is important to emphasize the importance of recycling in society. “We need to make people aware of what not recycling is going to do to the country, what single-use plastics are going to do – not only to our country but to the rest of the world. One of the things I’d like to start in the near future is to make a video for schools to implement in all the schools. 

“We need to start from the bottom. Children can show their parents that if we don’t start managing things better, we will have a problem. We are set in our ways; children have to start saying to the parents ‘it is our future and our country and our earth.’”

Despite the work that needs to be done to make Israelis recycle, Jason is thrilled to be living in Israel. “I love it here,” he says. “While the complexities of the Israeli lifestyle are difficult and have their challenges, my kids are free here. They can go on a bus and go to friends. 

“In South Africa, we lived in a nice home with a six-foot-high wall, an electric fence, two dogs, and locked gates, and we didn’t go out at night. My children have freedom here.” ■