Sweet olim

After enduring a rough aliyah, Shirley Milner and family found a business opportunity and it seems they're now here to stay.

Shirley Milner 311 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Shirley Milner 311
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Every morning except Shabbat, Shirley Milner gets up when her alarm goes off at 5 a.m., dresses, does her hair and makeup and sets off on the journey from Haifa to Kfar Saba, where she presides over Chocolata, a sweets and chocolate emporium on the town’s main street. If her husband, Eric, has no project going in his own leather furniture cleaning business, he joins her in the shop.
They take three buses to work and three to get home, arriving back at 10:30 in the evening.
“That’s when we eat our supper,” says the smiling new immigrant, who left Johannesburg two years ago with her extended family of nine to begin a new life in Israel. The shop has been going for six months now and Shirley, who runs it mainly with daughter Janine, sometimes with Eric and often with one of her two sons, is getting used to it and doing her best to deal with the customers in her less-than-perfect Hebrew.
There’s nothing like safety in numbers, so everyone in the family had each other to lean on if they encountered obstacles early in the aliya adventure. With Shirley and Eric came Janine, her husband Robin and their three children, and the two sons, Craig and Greg.
“South Africa is not a good place to be anymore,” says Shirley, explaining the family’s decision to move to Israel en masse. “You can be murdered for a cell phone. People live behind high walls with electric barbed wire on them. I can’t live like that, being caged in, even with the beautiful gardens, the cars and the swimming pools.”
Still, the move to Israel did not go at all smoothly in the beginning and, as Shirley tells it, the first six months were very difficult.
“We were taken straight to Haifa from the airport and dumped in two apartments which the Jewish Agency chose for us,” she recalls. “In South Africa we’d been to an aliya exhibition and decided we wanted to live in Modi’in, but we chose Haifa because the rents were cheaper.”
Studying in ulpan and living in an apartment where the toilets were always getting blocked up was not a great beginning, and of all the extended family, Shirley found it the hardest.
“I pined for my home and couldn’t get a grip on myself,” she says. “We talked about going back, then said we must get our priorities right and remind ourselves why we were here in the first place.”
Once the ulpan was over, Eric had no problem knowing what he was going to do. He opened up the same business he had in South Africa, called 4 Ever Leather, and Janine helped with the marketing.
“He’d done work for Nelson Mandela and that looked good on his resumé,” says Janine with a smile.
Eric found the jobs rolling in. His company cleaned all the seats in the Knesset as well as in several five-star hotels in the center of the country, and as far as Eilat. In South Africa there had been no shortage of workers; here the boys help him.
BUT WHAT were Shirley and Janine going to do to make a living? They’d both had good jobs in Johannesburg in established companies. Here, with their freshly learned Hebrew and not much knowledge of the country, they had no idea.
They had both spent a few morning hours helping out in Chocolata in Haifa, and when they heard that the company was opening up in Kfar Saba they realized what a great opportunity it would be for them. They decided to buy the franchise and go into the candy business.
The store had been a computer shop and had to be gutted. With only a year or so experience living in Israel, they had to deal with architects and designers, glass fitters and carpenters, accountants and municipal officials. Once the store was ready they were in constant contact with chocolate importers and candy suppliers.
“We didn’t speak the language well – still don’t – but we had to embrace the challenges,” says Shirley.
Fortunately business is good and the attractive displays of goodies ensure a steady stream of people coming in to buy their beautifully presented gift packages as well as favorite things for personal consumption.
“Before Rosh Hashana you couldn’t move in the shop,” says Shirley with obvious satisfaction.
They have become quite expert at giftwrapping and are amused to discover that the average Israeli loves miles of garish sparkly ribbon on presents, in colors that the mother-daughter team would once never have considered using. Most of the customers are pleasant and more than tolerant of the shaky Hebrew, and many use the opportunity to practice their English.
The shop also sells some novelty kitchenware, which can be filled with chocolate as a gift. And soft music plays in the background – usually “golden oldies,” which are Shirley’s choice.
What about the problem of getting fat from sampling the stock all day? Shirley says it’s fine.
“Once you work with things, you don’t want to eat them,” she explains.