Johannesburg Jewry looks abroad

Jewish Agency sees huge rise in aliya applications as two new murders deepen dismay.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Sheldon Cohen was sitting in his car outside a Johannesburg sports stadium last week waiting for his son Noah to finish soccer practice. Sheldon, 47, was talking to his father, Jack, on his cellphone when three young men ran past and shot him in the neck. Jack, realizing something terrible had happened, sped to the stadium. The killers, who had moments before tried unsuccessfully to snatch a cellular phone from a woman parked nearby who was also waiting for her son, had seen Sheldon on the phone and thought he was calling the police. So they killed him. Jack arrived shortly after to see his son's body slumped in his car, with grandson Noah standing watch. A week earlier, a Jewish man walking to synagogue in Johannesburg was stopped by several men in a passing car. One man got out of the car and demanded that the Jewish man hand over his tallit bag, thinking it contained valuables. The Jew refused, and was shot to death. Searching through his victim's bag, the attacker found nothing of value to himself and left it on the sidewalk. According to South African press reports, police recorded 126,000 armed robberies in the 2006-2007 fiscal year. Exactly a decade ago, that figure stood at 70,000. While Johannesburg's Jews have been affected by the country's rampant violent crime no more or no less than the rest of the population, these two recent killings have plunged the Jews of Johannesburg into despair. Increasingly, many in the community are weighing their love for the country against their fear for their families' safety - and are often coming down in favor of the latter. Living behind increasingly tall, barbed-wired walls (more and more Johannesburg Jews are residing in secure compounds), and having to be escorted into and out of their residences by private, armed security companies, members of the community, especially the young, are looking at options abroad. Some look to Israel, which has a strong and vibrant expatriate community in centers such as Ra'anana, Modi'in and Beit Shemesh. In a first for the Jewish Agency, it is bringing a full planeload of South African olim in July. Others look to Australia, the United States or Canada. According to the agency, of the Jews who leave Johannesburg, about a third go to Australia, and two-thirds to Israel and other places. Ofer Dahan, the Jewish Agency's emissary in South Africa, says there has been a dramatic increase in applications for aliya over the past two months. Dahan says there is a 100-percent increase in interest in aliya from last year, and a 300% increase in those opening aliya files over the past two months. In 2007, 240 South African Jews and former Israelis made aliya, an increase from 143 in 2006 and 98 in 2005. Dahan says his staff are working round the clock, and have even had to hire outside staff to help cope with the demand. Most of those looking to move to Israel are young singles and young families with one or two children. Dahan says there has been a 10% drop in registration at the two Johannesburg King David schools this year - an indication, he says, of a quickening pace of emigration. The increasing signs of a possible Jewish exodus have even led to an attempt by Sydney's Jewish community to help Jews move to Australia - an initiative unceremoniously rejected by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. The Jewish population of South Africa has dropped from about 120,000 in 1970 to an estimated 75,000 today. In the 1980s some South African Jews left because they couldn't live under apartheid. Just before apartheid ended, in the early '90s, more Jews left due to uncertainty over the country's immediate future. Now, some are leaving and many more are thinking about leaving because of a combination of factors, including crime, corruption, non-supply of services and the weak currency, the rand, which is back to being one of the world's worst-performing currencies in 2008. Adding to the sense of dismay are the country's persistent electricity outages which are affecting every corner of South Africa, resulting in up to three hours per day of power stoppages in many areas. The government simply cannot supply the country's electricity needs - even though it is, outrageously according to some, selling electricity to neighboring states. While Jews throughout the rest of the country are affected by the power outages, it is really only those living in the greater Johannesburg area that are affected by frequent violent crime. Most of South Africa's Jews, between 50,000 to 60,000, live in the greater Johannesburg area, while between 12,000-15,000 thousand live in the greater Cape Town area. On top of the violent crime and electricity crises, there is a growing sense of government corruption and ineptitude, with the return of Jacob Zuma to the helm of the ruling ANC party after a rape trial and the demise of police chief Jackie Selebi on charges of corruption and obstruction of justice. One of Johannesburg's important rabbis, serving in one of the city's major synagogues, was recently asked by a congregant whether Johannesburg's Jews should stay or seek out a better, safer life elsewhere. The rabbi answered that he could not make that decision for any of the congregants and that each person would have to decide on their own. While that answer was a neutral one, observers point out that the rabbi didn't tell the congregants to stay in Johannesburg, as followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe tell their congregants. (It is known that the rebbe said that Jews should stay in South Africa because the country would be stable and prosper). While acknowledging the general sentiment of dismay, anger and creeping negativity about the country and its future among the Jewish population, Geoff Sifrin, editor of the South African Jewish Report, says there is still a lot going for the country, and that even if things sometimes feel like they're falling apart, "South Africa is definitely not falling apart." Speaking to The Jerusalem Post by phone from his editorial offices in Johannesburg, Sifrin says the electricity outages have made putting out his weekly paper more of a challenge than usual, with his team frantically looking over final proofs and sending them to the printer before the electricity cuts out. The power crisis "says a lot about where this country is headed," Sifrin says. But electricity shortages and government ineptitude, no matter how frustrating, are things people can live with and work around. The feeling of a lack of personal safety is much harder to live with. "Questions about staying or leaving are more prevalent in people's minds now, especially when there is a combination of negative events like the Sheldon Cohen killing and the power cuts," Sifrin says. Sifrin points out that many of the successful companies having a positive effect on the South African economy were started by, and are run by, young Jewish businessmen, and that on the whole, the community is doing very well. There is even talk that South Africa may lose its hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup if the country cannot get its crime problem down and increase its electricity production. For many, this scenario would signal that South Africa has not lived up to the promise it held after the fall of apartheid, and that it has, officially, taken a turn for the worse.