Service with a smile

A backstage look at those who facilitated the group immigration of almost 100 South Africans.

sa aliya 88 224 (photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)
sa aliya 88 224
(photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)
The Johannesburg Aliya Center is abuzz with activity on Friday morning - final interviews are conducted, questions answered, meetings held and last-minute details attended to. This is the last workday before 96 olim are to set out on the first group aliya from South Africa scheduled for Monday morning and efforts to tie up loose ends are under way. And there are many. The group is not just flying to Israel. The olim would spend three days at the Shalom Hotel in Jerusalem where representatives from the Interior and Immigrant Absorption ministries, officials from the four health funds and various banks would be on hand to answer questions and provide the required services. In cooperation with Telfed - the South African Zionist Federation in Israel - the Jewish Agency also organized adoptive families for the olim whom they would meet after spending the first three days in Jerusalem and with whom they will be in contact through the integration process. On the last working day before the flight, the Aliya Center staff still needs to remind all the olim that they cannot exceed the baggage limit of 60 kg. each mandated by El Al, to verify that everyone has paid the hotel, to make sure everyone's papers are in order and to attend to two specific cases where final approval has yet to be granted. One involves a woman who wants to bring her two cats, which El Al refuses to let aboard the plane, and the other concerns a returning young Israeli whose case still has to be assessed by a special committee, leaving them both unsure if they will be making aliya with the group. Because of Shabbat, time is of the essence, and a short meeting to lay out a plan of action for the day is called by Ofer Dahan, the shaliah (emissary) in Johannesburg. Dahan delegates the tasks quickly and efficiently and within minutes everyone has dispersed. For the weekend leading up to the flight, UpFront was privy to a behind-the-scenes look at the group's aliya process. From Friday morning's office activity and Friday night's prayers at a prominent synagogue to Sunday's frantic phone calls and Monday's hurried check-in lines, we were there for every call, for every meeting and for every concern that could be expected when a big decision such as making aliya is reached. THE GROUP immigration was the brainchild of Dahan, who is beginning his third year in Johannesburg. "This is a service-oriented aliya," he says. "We have thought of everything from A to Z. I and part of my aliya team will personally be escorting them to Israel and we will remain with them until the moment they leave to their respective homes, absorption centers, kibbutzim and student housing." The planning and organizing of the operation took three months in which reinforcements were called in to help with the workload. Two junior shlihim from Cape Town, Omer Rabin, 22, and Noa Fartuk, 23, flew in the week before the flight to help with the interview process and the logistics, while senior aliya consultant Maurice Singer arrived from Israel to pick up where Dahan would leave off when accompanying the group to Israel. "The pressure was getting to be too much to handle. We had so much work that I had to ask for help. I spoke to Zeev Bielski [chairman of the Jewish Agency] and within a few days, help was making its way over," Dahan says. "It is also good experience for them. I like to surround myself with young, energetic people." Rabin, who will also be escorting the group, has taken up temporary residency in Dahan's guest bedroom, while Fartuk is staying with friends. They and Singer spend most of their time together and inevitably the conversation turns to the details of the upcoming aliya. Questions and comments such as "Did you sort the cat issue out with El Al?" "Where are the flags for the flight?" and "How are we getting to the airport?" fly around the table. The high level of preparation that went into planning this group aliya is apparent in the customer satisfaction expressed by the olim. "I find that this is a more meaningful way to make aliya. We get to do everything together and besides, I didn't want to deal with so much bureaucracy on my own," says Eden Brandwein, 28, "It's a great support system to have." Brandwein came to Johannesburg almost two years ago via New York City as part of a United Nations Development Program working project to aid the nation's growth and economy. Last Succot, after spending a month in Israel, she decided the time had come to move there. "I was tired of dreaming. I wanted to make it come true. I also didn't want to work so hard for Africa anymore; I wanted to work hard for Israel." When she walked into the Aliya Center, Dahan first suggested she take part of a Masa program to spend more time in Israel and then decide. She took his suggestion and was grateful for it. "They've helped me so much. I'd become more attached to the Aliya Center than to New York City or even Johannesburg itself," she says laughingly. "If this is my legacy, I will be happy," says Dahan. "Olim should be treated as VIPs for giving so much to the country. Having everything arranged for them took a lot of work. The system is not built in this way; it is made for individual aliya. But it was worth every moment." South African Jewry has seen its numbers dwindle from more than 120,000 in the 1970s to just over 75,000 in 2006. The surge of violent crime, political instability, failing infrastructure and rising xenophobia have pushed people to reconsider their options. Sixty percent to 70% of the Jewish population has experienced some form of attack, according to Dahan, whether armed robbery or carjacking or even murder, referring to the incident earlier this year when a prominent member of the community, Sheldon Cohen, was shot dead while waiting for his son to finish soccer practice. The attackers had just robbed a woman on the street when they spotted Cohen in his car speaking on his cellphone. Thinking he was calling the police, they shot him. "My own house has been broken into. Twice in one week!" says Dahan. "The first time, they cleaned it out; they took everything. The second time, I guess they thought that I'd replaced all the appliances and TVs, but I hadn't had time, so there was nothing there." Life in South Africa is like existing in a golden cage, maintain sources in the Jewish Agency. The big houses, vast gardens, live-in help and luxury cars remain part of a very private sphere. "People in Jo'burg lead a very chaperoned lifestyle," says Josh Weinstein, 23, "You don't even realize how bad it is because you get so used to being taken places and always being surrounded by people. Always guarded." FRIDAY NIGHT at the Mizrahi Shul in Johannesburg, services are already under way when Dahan and Rabin slip in. The cantor gets up to welcome the shlihim and to introduce the guest speaker, Adi Sultani, a former emissary in Johannesburg. Sultani launches into a speech about Israel and hasbara, after which he mentions the upcoming aliya and how meaningful it is for South African Jewry. "While Lebanon is proclaiming victory over the release of a vicious murderer," he says referring to the Hizbullah-Israel exchange of July 16 in which Israel released Samir Kuntar and four Hizbullah operatives for the bodies of captured soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, "these olim are leaving everything behind and moving to Israel. This is the real victory. Aliya is victory for Israel!" "You know, this is quite a big deal," Rabin says after the services. "Just a few years ago, aliya was considered something very private and rarely talked about. To have it mentioned in a shul with such a big congregation is very significant." The South African Jewish community is one of the most tight-knit and organized in the world. It is also one of the most Zionist. It runs its own security and ambulance services as well as welfare and elderly care programs. To make aliya years ago would have been considered an abandonment of the community and would have been looked upon negatively, Dahan says. "I came and changed all that. There is nothing to hide here. Aliya should be talked about, discussed, considered. Why the shu-shu?" The energetic and enthusiastic shaliah sought to bring Israel into every home. And his strategy was to start young. "We wouldn't wait for them to come to us, we would go to them." It has become a supply-and-demand atmosphere and there is much competition, he says, referring to the No. 1 destination for South African Jews so far: Australia. Lectures and educational programs to be given at the Jewish schools were hatched, Israel events, aliya expos, group pilot tours to Israel and "Zionist Caravans," in which a group of young shlihim set out in a van to seek out more isolated Jewish communities across South Africa and the surrounding countries to bring more awareness about Israel and aliya, were all planned. Facebook networking campaigns were founded including the group Aliya from South Africa, which now has over 200 members. Many contact Dahan on Facebook with specific eligibility questions and general inquiries about making aliya. In fact, these approaches have worked so well with the younger audience that 50% of the olim on the group aliya are professionals in their 20s and early 30s. Dahan and his young staff work hard, distributing Israel-themed T-shirts, pens, notepads and even ties to the community, putting up posters for events near Jewish schools and generally putting the word out about aliya. Their names are well known and talking about aliya is no longer considered taboo. In the two years Dahan has been shaliah, Israel has become the No. 2 destination for South African emigrants, beating Britain and Canada and growing fast as a popular and desirable country to immigrate to. MONDAY MORNING at the airport, Dahan and Rabin are moving through the long El Al security lines hugging sobbing relatives, cracking jokes to lighten the mood and posing for pictures with the olim. An early check-in was organized with El Al but the line remains long even two hours before the flight. The counters are a flurry of activity, weighing baggage, packing and repacking, issuing boarding passes. The shlihim move from person to person, asking if everything is OK and attending to problematic boarding issues. Some, inevitably, have overpacked and will not be let on board until they meet the weight requirements. Of the two cats, only one will be let aboard the plane and El Al suggests placing the other in cargo. Their owner bursts into tears, not wanting to separate them from each other or herself. Dahan tries to intervene but El Al is adamant. The atmosphere is teeming with excitement and a tinge of fear. People are changing into comfortable clothes and shoes, soothing babies and chasing children, speaking with other olim about the future and preparing to leave South Africa behind to start anew. The flight goes by smoothly; the shlihim's presence seems to have a calming effect. "I love their enthusiasm. It's infectious. I love that they are on the flight with us and that they will be with us for the first few days. I think it's great," says Andrea Gordon, who is making aliya with her husband, Evan, their three children and her mother-in-law. "Here is a wonderful example of an exceptional aliya. Three generations are moving to Israel to live their new lives," says Dahan. Dahan, Rabin and the other aliya staff break into song upon entering Israeli airspace and hand out Israeli flags to raise morale and snap people out of their sluggish state after the long flight. After passport control, the olim are all taken to Terminal 1 where Immigrant Absorption Ministry staff awaits. Receiving immigration papers is an exciting affair and many wave theirs proudly, enthusiastically and very sleepily. Both cats survive the ordeal and their owner smiles tiredly as she makes her way out of the airport and onto the bus to Jerusalem. Dahan and Rabin are met by their supervisors and congratulated on a job well done. After all, aliya is not just about opening files and going through the procedure; it is about people and their future.