'Israel to me is the safest place in the world'

96 S. African olim arrive Monday in 1st group aliya from from country set up by the Jewish Agency.

south africa aliya 224  (photo credit: Ilan Ossendriver)
south africa aliya 224
(photo credit: Ilan Ossendriver)
Ninety-six South Africans will arrive in Israel on Monday night from Johannesburg, in the first-ever group aliya from the African nation organized by the Jewish Agency. That approach has been dominated by the Nefesh B'Nefesh aliya organization. "This is completely different. It is a service-oriented aliya," says the Jewish Agency's Johannesburg emissary, Ofer Dahan, who has been working day and night for more than three months on the group aliya. "We have thought of everything from A to Z. Representatives from the various bureaucracies will be meeting the olim and they will get started on the paperwork immediately. I and part of my aliya team will be personally escorting the olim to Israel and will remain with them until they leave to their respective homes, kibbutzim or student housing." More than 300 additional olim are expected to leave South Africa for Israel in 2008, bringing the total number of new immigrants to over 450, up from 178 in 2007 and 157 in 2006. The 96 olim on Monday's flight, half of them professionals in their 20s, are set to stay at the capital's Shalom Hotel for the first four days; representatives from the Interior and Immigrant Absorption ministries and the four health funds will be on hand to answer questions and provide the services. A welcoming ceremony will take place on Tuesday afternoon at the Western Wall and is due to be attended by Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski and newly-appointed Immigrant Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is also scheduled to make an appearance. In cooperation with Telfed-The SA Zionist Federation in Israel, the Jewish Agency has organized "adoptive families" for each oleh or olah. "Every oleh has been assigned a contact family who will meet with the olim, provide them with a small welcome gift, and help them find their feet in their new neighborhood, by providing the necessary information and contacts needed in order to settle in smoothly in that area," says Doron Kline, director of project development at Telfed and a former Jewish Agency emissary in Johannesburg. "We consider this an aliya revolution," says Bielski, who visited Johannesburg to attend the olim's farewell ceremony on Wednesday evening at the Beyachad Building, which houses the Jewish Agency's branch office, the South African Zionist Federation, the Aliya Centre and many other Jewish organizations. "There was a high level of investment, planning and preparation that went into this project. Many more such aliyas are expected in the future," he says. South African Jewry has seen its numbers decrease from more than 120,000 in the 1970s to fewer than 75,000 in the 21st century. The political instability in South Africa, the surge in violent crime that has affected more than 60 percent of the Jewish population as well as rising xenophobia and random power cuts are cited as the main reasons for the exodus. "The quality of life has been reduced significantly in South Africa," says Isla Feldman, director of the South African Zionist Federation. "It is not what it used to be. People live behind walls; women get into the habit of walking around without purses, without their jewelry." It is like living in a golden cage, say sources from the Jewish Agency. The big houses, vast gardens, fancy cars and live-in help have long been a part of life in South Africa. But people have started careful weighing the value of such luxuries at the expense of freedom and opportunity. "There is a whole generation missing here. People in their 20s leave South Africa because there is no future for them here," says David Levy, 22, who will be on the flight to Israel on Monday morning. "When I go to shul Fridays, I see people from my grandparents' and parents' generation, kids and young teenagers. As soon as young people get the chance, they leave." The South African Jewish community is one of the most tight-knit and most organized communities in the world, as well very Zionist. From their own ambulance service - Hatzolah - the Community Security Organization, which operates patrol cars in Jewish neighborhoods, and elderly and welfare services, it seems South African Jewry looks carefully after its own. "It will be hard to leave the community behind - the warmth and closeness of the community is well known around the world," says David Mazabow, who is making aliya on Monday with his wife and three children aged four, two and 10 months. "But we have hit a dead end. There is no future here for my children. Israel to me is the safest place in the world and it is the only place I want to raise them." Joining the South Africans on the flight are three olim from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, whose small and mainly elderly Jewish community has shown growing interest in Israel because of the problems there. Many more olim from Bulawayo and Harare are expected in the future.