This South African Jew made aliyah at the right time

“If I stayed, there would have been too many temptations, so we decided to come here. It has been a fantastic roller-coaster experience!”

 JONATHAN AND Terry in Alon Shvut, 2021. (photo credit: Sigal Krimolofsky)
JONATHAN AND Terry in Alon Shvut, 2021.
(photo credit: Sigal Krimolofsky)

When Jonathan Balkin traveled from South Africa to Israel in 1971 to participate in Hadracha, a course that included participants from Betar, Bnei Akiva and Habonim, he had no idea he would meet his future wife on the plane, make aliyah, spend his entire professional medical career at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and live in Alon Shvut, surrounded by supportive and loving community members.

On the plane from South Africa to Israel, Balkin became friends with Terri, a female Habonim participant from the town of Stellenbosch near Cape Town. After two years of writing letters (“There was no Zoom or even TV in South Africa, and calls were very expensive”), Balkin reports, “The friendship blossomed into a meaningful relationship.” Jonathan and Terri eventually married and made aliyah in January, 1977, the day after he “qualified” (completed his studies) in medicine. Despite coming from a prominent medical family where both his father and grandfather were doctors – and a likely promising career in South Africa – Balkin knew it was the right time to make aliyah. 

Balkin concedes, “In South Africa at that time, it was paradise if you were white. I personally came from a family where my grandfather was one of the premier physicians in Johannesburg and had taught all of my teachers. He was an active communal person, and was very involved in setting up and running the hevra kadisha [Jewish burial society], which was really the tzedakah of the community. I had a fantastic career open to me there but I wanted to come to Israel!”

Terri was less certain. “We had discussed coming to Israel in our letters, and sorted out a lot,” notes Balkin, acknowledging that Terri was less certain in those days about coming to Israel. “If you asked her in those days, she would say she didn’t want to come. But having come, she is eternally grateful.” 

Dr. Balkin adds thoughtfully, “If I stayed, there would have been too many temptations, so we decided to come here. It has been a fantastic roller-coaster experience!”

An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)An Israeli flag [Ilustrative] (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Balkin’s family of origin was always committed to Israel and Zionism. “I was encouraged to be a Zionist, probably almost from birth. My grandmother was a member of the Women’s Zionist League in South Africa, she was in WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and came to Palestine in 1935 as a WIZO delegate. She came by boat! It took about six weeks just to get to Palestine at that time, and back. So I was brought up with a very Zionistic influence.” 

Balkin was active in Bnei Akiva while growing up in Johannesburg. “I became religious as a result. The first Shabbat I ever kept was in Bnei Akiva. I realized that Shabbat can be kept in a modern world.” He adds, “Bnei Akiva had a tremendous influence upon me and upon my outlook, and I’d already decided during my studies that I wanted to make my life in Israel.” His wife was affiliated with Habonim growing up. 

Prior to coming to Israel and Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim in January 1977, the Balkins and others had set up a garin (small group) of professionals. “We called it ‘Garin Snoopy.’ We were naïve and innocent. They were a traditional kibbutz where you worked in the lul [chicken coop] or nagaria [carpentry shop]. They had no concept of what a professional is. After a year, we realized that, unfortunately, it was not for us.” Things might have worked out differently had they made aliyah years later. “Ten or 15 years later, kibbutzim woke up and realized they couldn’t survive without professionals.” 

After a year on Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, where their first child was born, the Balkins moved in 1978 to Alon Shvut and Balkin started his medical internship. “I was fortunate to do cardiology. My mentor was the late Prof. Monty Zion, also from South Africa.” Dr. Zion, who died in 2016 at age 91, was chief of cardiology at Shaare Zedek and a clinical professor at the Hebrew University. “He was an old-style cardiologist with a tremendous understanding of the physical examination as well as being open to new ideas which were happening at the time, especially in cardiology.” 

Balkin admired Zion’s commitment to traditional medical practices as well as his openness to new ideas. “When we started the department of cardiology in 1978 or ’79, there were lots of new things happening, and he was open to that, while at the same time, to continue teaching in a traditional fashion with an emphasis on hands-on, history and examination and understanding the patient.” 

Balkin has followed in his mentor’s footsteps and is now respected by others for his distinguished cardiology career. He served as director of Shaare Zedek’s Intensive Coronary Care Unit, which is responsible for accurate diagnosis and initial acute care of cardiac patients, and for actively working to prevent coronary damage in his patients.

Balkin has seen the hospital grow from being housed in its original 1904 building (“the physical conditions were awful until 1980”) to its current building. “It has been an unbelievable change, offering fantastic impetus for development.” 

He raves about his nurse colleagues and about working in a religious hospital. “The nurses really have dedication and love for caring for people.” He adds, “Coming to work in a religious hospital was a real change. The atmosphere at Shaare Zedek was totally different from anything I experienced before. The modesty and behavior were very different from what I experienced in South Africa. This was an amazing thing.” 

Balkin is similarly pleased with the caliber of doctors he works with – and with their extraordinary training. “It is amazing to see what has happened in Israel over the last 45 years – in medicine in general and in cardiology in particular. In the ’70s and ’80s, they were sending their best guys to the best places in the US for fellowships. Almost all heads of all departments are Israeli-born and spent time at the best institutions in the US. Israel is now at a world-class standard in almost all fields. It has been a wonderful experience to have been part of that. I’ve had a fantastic career here in Israel.”

BALKIN ACKNOWLEDGES that his family’s early years in Israel were “quite tough.” They had no close family in Israel to help with child care or with other situations requiring support – no easy task with his busy medical schedule and Terri working as a physiotherapist. He reports, “The Alon Shvut community is amazing,” and credits them with helping out in many crucial ways. “When my wife was on bed rest many years ago for two or three months, I came home from work and found food on the table, laundry done and the place cleaned – by people I had never met. That’s when I realized this community is wonderful and it is a real privilege to be part of it.” 

The Balkins are proud parents of four adult children who all live in Israel and are “all frum [observant], in very different ways.” One daughter, a biologist, lives nearby in Alon Shvut. One son is a teacher, one son is an actor and another is a teacher turned medical student. Balkin recounts the story of his soon-to-be-a-doctor-son with obvious pride, given this will make four generations of Balkins in medicine. “His wife said he should be a doctor, and he is almost done with his studies.” 

While the Balkins always spoke with their children in English – and are trying hard to make sure their grandchildren understand and speak English – they are proud of how hard they worked to master Hebrew. “I was determined to speak Hebrew. I broke my teeth and am still breaking my teeth 40 years later. People at work laugh but I was determined to write notes in Hebrew, speak to patients in Hebrew and make presentations in Hebrew. I still make mistakes but people appreciate the effort. You can’t really be part of life without Hebrew. It is part of being in Israel. I think it is a good thing for us.”

The Balkins truly love living in Israel and experiencing all that Israel has to offer. “Israel is a land of olim. And the people I’ve had the privileged to meet – Holocaust survivors, people from North African countries, the Soviet Union, people who have come with nothing and built a life for themselves – make this place such a great country. People just accept you.” 

Balkin acknowledges that many immigrants had difficulties mastering Hebrew and this prevented them from working in their fields – despite excellent educations in their home countries. “Then you see the second and third generation and how they have changed. It is just wonderful.”  ■

Jonathan BalkinFrom Johannesburg, South Africa to Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, 1977, to Alon Shvut, 1978