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Big house benefits – Israelis list the pros of living in South Africa

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GILLIAN KLAWANSKY

For Sharone and Amit Lev and their two kids, aged four and two, moving to South Africa temporarily offered a chance for adventure. In the country for four years for Amit’s job, they’ve been here for a year. “We moved from a small apartment in Modiin to a beautiful big house in Sandton,” says Sharone.

“We’re trying to enjoy South Africa’s facilities, and to travel as much as possible.” Amit works as trade commissioner for the Israeli embassy, while Sharone is a programmer at a hi-tech company.

Though the family worried about safety before coming, they’ve adjusted to life behind high walls. “I don’t feel like I’m in danger,” says Sharone. “I walk around freely with the kids in our complex, and we walk to shul on Shabbos.

Sharone loves the diversity of South African Jewish life. “The community here is amazing – everyone’s welcome. In Israel, it’s much more ‘black and white’. You’re either religious or secular. You have to announce that you keep Shabbat, and fit into some category.

“The Shabbos Project challah bake was inspiring. It’s an amazing example of what goes on here. I can’t see that happening in Israel – with such different women.”

Comparing South African and Israeli lifestyles, Sharone says it all comes down to their gogo (grandmother). “Having someone to help with the kids and chores is what every Israeli dreams of!

“The lifestyle here is so relaxed. In Israel, it’s intense and exhausting. That’s why South Africa is a great destination for Israelis.

“Before, my kids saw their parents together only on the weekends. Here, we always have dinner together. In Israel, if your child is sick, you miss work. Here, there’s always someone at home.”

Yet for Sharone, Israel remains her home. “I belong there. We’re all in the ‘intense-ship’ together, helping each other along the way. The safety issues in South Africa, the bureaucracy, and how far behind it is in some fields leave me no room for doubt. We’ll enjoy this country while we can, but we want our kids to grow up in a more independent, advanced, and warm environment.”

When Shira Gewer first travelled to Johannesburg in 2008 from her home in Petah Tikva, it was supposed to be for just three months.

“I came to do training for a friend who’d opened a cosmetics company. Then I met my husband Dean. He’s South African, and I had no choice but to stay,” she laughs. While crime is a major concern for the Gewers, who often debate making aliyah, they love the South African lifestyle.

With six-year-old twins and a one-year-old, having a domestic and big house is a huge bonus, she says. “Life here with small kids is very comfortable. Having someone to clean also gives us four extra hours a week to spend with them.

“It’s easier if you struggle in South Africa than if you struggle in Israel. The houses are bigger, the lifestyle is better, there are two days off a week versus one. It’s a lot calmer.”

The Gewers run a business that exports grapes to Israel, so Shira flies there three times a year, taking the kids with her. “My family sees them often, and we’re also close to my husband’s parents in South Africa,” she says.

As a result of working for themselves, the Gewers are relatively independent, giving them more time with their kids. “That counts,” says Shira. “By contrast, my younger sister works two jobs in Israel to keep up with everything.

“Even a rich Israeli businessman [who] we sell grapes to works six full days, and has to spend hours cleaning his house. We’re fortunate in that sense.”

Asked what she misses most about Israel, Shira says, “The people. And the freedom – not having to look over your shoulder. Without that, life in South Africa would be a lot easier.”

Elan Avinir, a Tel Aviv native who has been living in South Africa for more than 40 years, offers a longer-term perspective. “When I came to South Africa in 1974, I was about 21,” he says. “My army buddy had parents in South Africa, and he told me about the country.” The two made a pact to meet in South Africa at the end of their army service.

“I always had a fascination with animals and Africa, but I didn’t really know what South Africa was all about. I came before my friend, and stayed with his parents at the Clovelly Hotel – a beehive of immigrants in those days.” Avinir didn’t plan to live in South Africa, but life happened. “I got involved, I met a girl here, and I stayed.”

In the 1970s, Avinir says, many Israelis were coming to South Africa. “In those days, Israel wasn’t in a good economic situation. When I left, there was 270%-280% inflation a year. After the ‘73 war there were petrol shortages everywhere. That was before the period of high-tech in Israel, which changed its whole makeup.

“In terms of South Africa, we weren’t sure what apartheid was about. It was just one of those countries that could offer you more. A lot of Israelis were coming to the country. I think South Africa was more popular than Australia.

“As time passed, I got married twice and had five children. You start building your life in the new place,” says Avinir. “Today, I’ve been here much longer than I’ve been in Israel.” While he’s staying put, Avinir is encouraging his children – all Zionists – to consider a future in Israel. His daughter and her family made aliyah four years ago, and some of his sons plan to follow her.

“They don’t see much of a future here. I’d have thought more seriously about moving there myself if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s four times more expensive there than it is here.”

“At my age, you can’t go and compete, you have to come with money. It’s quite easy to get on there if you’re young and have something to offer though, especially in IT or one of the more lucrative professions.”

Avinir doesn’t have any regrets, though. “South Africa has always been an unpredictable, unstable place. First it was because of apartheid, and today [it is] because of the ANC. People living here, especially Jews, have always had one foot somewhere else. Nobody feels too confident. But I’ve had a good life here.

“Economically, most of my family and friends in Israel today are better off than I am here – internationally speaking. But Israel didn’t become affluent overnight. I can’t say that if I had stayed, things would have been better for me.

“There’s a lot of things in Israel now that disturb me – how religion is not separated from the state, like we’re used to in South Africa. I don’t support the religious influence in Israel, especially from a democratic perspective.”

Pictured: Shira and Dean Gewer

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