Divine nature

Ilana Stein, kosher safari coordinator, sees no conflict between her two passions: her faith and African conservationism

Cape Town, South Africa 390 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Cape Town, South Africa 390
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Ilana Stein sits on a couch, studying the book of Joshua. An Orthodox woman who spent years studying Torah at premier seminaries in Israel, Stein serves as Educational Director at the Emunah Women’s Beit Midrash, one of Johannesburg’s premier Torah study programs for women. She is an impressive person to be sure, but on the face of it there is nothing out of the ordinary about listening to a teacher prepare Torah classes.
Nothing out of the ordinary, that is, except for the fact that the 45-year-old Stein is wearing her Wilderness Safaris field jacket and is preparing the lecture on a boardwalk overlooking the Luvuvhu River, deep in the heart of Africa. It is the middle of the afternoon siesta at Pafuri Camp, located in South Africa’s Kruger National Park near the country’s tri-national border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and Stein is here as the coordinator of a kosher safari, part of her duties as a marketing writer for Wilderness, one of the country’s largest eco-tourism operators.
The scene neatly encapsulates the duality that is Stein: passionate Zionist and Orthodox Jew on the one hand, and African conservationist and naturalist on the other.
Stein says she sees no conflict between the two interests, but admits that they do pull her soul in widely disparate directions.
“On the most fundamental level, there is no question in my mind that we should all strive to be living in Israel,” Stein tells The Jerusalem Report. “There is no way to overstate my belief in Zionist theory and practice – I believe the State of Israel is the first spark of the ultimate Redemption, and I believe 100 percent that all Jews should make aliya if they possibly can. God gave us the Land of Israel as a sacred trust, where by living there we can come closest to Him.
“But my soul is fulfilled out here in the bush in a way that it just isn’t anywhere else. My soul is totally in tune not only with nature, but specifically with the animal and tree sounds, smells and sights of Africa that are the media via which I most fully connect with God, where I feel closest to Him or Her,” she adds.
Growing up, there was little to distinguish the Stein family from most of their neighbors in Glenhazel, a strongly Jewish section of Johannesburg. In most ways, the family was a typical South African Orthodox family: strongly supportive of Israel, which featured as a regular topic of conversation at the dinner table. Stein was active in the local Bnei Akiva youth group, and the history lessons she received there and at the local Yeshiva College included doses of Theodor Herzl, David Ben- Gurion, Menachem Begin and Israel’s wars and accomplishments.
The result was predictable. A year in Israel after high school, extended periods of study at the Orot women’s seminary in Elkanah on the West Bank and the Nishmat Center in Jerusalem, followed by aliya in her mid-20s.
From 1990 to 1998 she lived in Jerusalem, teaching Bible to South African teens on post-high school programs in Israel and eventually finding work as a writer at a hightech company.
It should have been idyllic and in many ways it was. The capital’s Katamon neighborhood is a hub for religious singles of all persuasions (the same way central Tel Aviv attracts a large community of non-observant, post-university aged immigrants), and the newcomers banded together to form a community that often spawned lifelong friendships, not to mention more than a few marriages.
Stein says she was “inspired” by how normal the Zionist dream felt on a day-to-day basis, and that she never lost the thrill of carrying out the mundane tasks of everyday life in the land that God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was the only time in my life when I felt completely at one with the education I received and with the Zionist values I was brought up with,” she relates.
And yet, something was missing. While Jerusalem may feature a more vibrant Orthodoxy and more options for Orthodox Jews than any other city, there is also an element of life in the Holy City that failed to satisfy another side of Stein’s soul: the African one. With a full work schedule, her occasional hikes to Wadi Kelt, Ein Gedi and the Golan Heights failed to satisfy her appetite for the outdoors. It is an experience that is difficult for Stein to describe, or even to understand.
“In theory, hiking through Wadi Kelt should definitely have fulfilled my love of nature,” she says with more than a hint of frustration.
“It’s the perfect combination of beautiful scenery, some interesting and varied wild and plant life, and a strong element of Jewish history to go with it.
And yet, the Israeli nature experience couldn’t settle her longing for the baobab trees, wildlife and open spaces of the African veld. Eventually, she signed up for a remote learning course in Nature Conservation Studies at a South African University. The fiveyear course included three on-site sessions of practical courses in botany, soil science and conservation management. Thinking that actually being in the bush for a week at a time would “get it out of her system,” Stein left Israel for six months. But one bush experience followed another, and she eventually delayed her return to Israel “for a year” to accept an editing job at AfriCam.com, an interactive online safari. That was in 1998.
Talking to Stein as a troop of wild baboons walk unfettered around Pafuri Camp, the conversation about Judaism and conservation feels like one integrated topic. She quotes Genesis 2:15, God’s commandment to Adam and Eve to “work and protect” the nascent world, and longs for her far too infrequent Shabbat in the bush. “Shabbat out here is incredible,” she says. “The peacefulness of Shabbat coupled with the peacefulness of the ecosystem is phenomenal; the serenity is tangible.”
But Stein also says she loses sleep over the human impact on the African ecosystem.
She believes eco-tourism is one of the few ways remaining to conserve the continent’s richness and diversity.
“Governments obviously have an important role to play in preventing poaching and encouraging tourists to treat our nature reserves properly,” she says, “but their ability to affect real change is limited. Local communities can be much more effective in protecting the environment, but we have to ensure it is worth their while to do so.”
In order to accomplish that goal, Stein says, Wilderness Safaris employs nearly 2,000 people at its camps and lodges in nine countries around Africa. In addition, she explains that one of the first things the company does when coming into an area is to create profit-sharing agreements and programs with local communities, such as the Makuleke tribe that own Pafuri.
“Local communities are the most natural protectors of natural areas; when the sense of ownership of their heritage is evoked, they can buy into the concept of protecting their own land and the wildlife that exists on it. At the same time, however, they are often under real pressure from developers to sell out in exchange for badly needed economic benefit, with ‘get rich quick’ promises – for example hunting or mining. Our goal is to work with the traditional residents of the land to make sure they understand that conservation is not only the right thing to do, but is also economically rewarding, even if the financial benefits of eco-tourism may be slightly longer in coming to fruition.”
Back in her Johannesburg apartment, it is clear that while Stein may consider urban living a poor substitute for the bush, it is also clear that she is totally committed to traditional Judaism, to the 70,000-strong Jewish community here, and to the country she says is “part of her DNA.”
Mostly, her strong commitment to halakha does not bring her into conflict – at least not with her colleagues at Wilderness Safaris. She says she does occasionally get frustrated by some of Johannesburg Jewry’s customs and norms – she doesn’t like wearing ankle-length skirts every day, but she feels that it would be difficult for some members of the community to take her Torah classes seriously if she wore trousers – but on the whole she feels that the community is warm and welcoming, and serious about Torah learning and mitzva observance, both of which are key for her.
Even on her bi-annual escapes to Wilderness lodges around Africa, Stein says she does not feel she is called to compromise on her standards of Orthodoxy. On the contrary – she says that her experiences in Pafuri, Zambia, Malawi and other African countries have given her a terrific opportunity to educate people about Judaism and to contribute to cross-cultural understanding.
“Of course, situations arise where I have to stand up for myself. I was asked to join a group at one of our lodges in the Congo rain forest, but I didn’t know if we would get there before Shabbat, so I had to say no.
“Most of all, however, I find that people are respectful when you are honest about your beliefs. When I lead a religious Jewish group, our staff has always been happy to make the effort to make sure not only that we get kosher food, but that the quality and presentation are equal to the other meals they are preparing. It’s all about education, really.
Once you talk to people with respect and explain what you need, you find that most people are eager to return the respect and to work hard to make sure your needs are met,” she said.
Asked whether she envisions ever returning to Israel on a permanent basis, Stein sighs and shrugs. She says that after 10 years at Wilderness and 15 years in South Africa, she finds her thoughts of Israel becoming stronger, especially as she spends 90 percent of her time in the office in Johannesburg, a sprawling urban jungle many miles from the bush. But she also knows that her internal tug-of-war is unlikely to end anytime soon.
“I think my real problem is that the African element of me is no less potent than the Jewish element,” Stein said. “I look at the majesty of a herd of elephant, or the silhouette of a baobab tree against the African sky and all I can think of is God. But when I think more about that, and especially when I learn Bible, I know that God really wants me to be in Israel. It’s a dilemma that I don’t have a resolution for – yet.”