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Man called Israel wins hearts in Africa



Israel Gotora doesn’t believe his meeting with Rabbi Ramon Widmonte, the dean of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, in an Uber from OR Tambo International Airport earlier this year was a fluke. “I don’t believe it was an accident,” he told the SA Jewish Report.

Being named ‘Israel’ had led him to a life-long focus and interest in the Jewish homeland and its people. Since he was a child, growing up in Harare, Zimbabwe, people would mockingly call Israel Gotora names like “Palestine” or “Egypt”. This made him curious about the history and origins of his birth name.

“I ended up going to a library, a school, and studying more and more about Israel,” he said, “and I kept reading the Bible, where they talk about the children of Israel. I studied Jewish and Israeli history, such as the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and the War of Independence. I went through the encyclopaedia, and read more and more and suddenly, I began to know so much about Israel.”

He decided he wanted to visit Israel one day. “I tried to raise money to go to Israel and people would ask me why I wanted to go, whether it was for a course or university or something, and I would say, ‘No, I just want to be there.’”

“There’s something special about that place,” said Gotora. When his father passed away, he used the money he had inherited to organise a trip to Israel. He travelled to Israel for the first time in 1996, and continued to go there every year from 1996 until the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When I was there, I said to myself, “This place looks so beautiful. It’s got so much biblical history. I wonder why many more of us aren’t coming here?”, Gotora said. He began to promote trips to Israel and when the Israeli embassy opened in Zimbabwe, he became one of the friends of the embassy.

To date, he has organised 126 trips to Israel and given several interviews on radio, TV, and in newspapers about Israel.

About 10 years ago, Gotora began learning Hebrew. “We got involved with a Jewish school in Harare,” he said. “We began to learn Hebrew, which started becoming useful on my trips to Israel. I then became a tour guide in Israel.”

He began organising tours from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, and Swaziland, before trying to organise tours from South Africa. Gotora then met a woman from El Al who suggested that he get involved with Uber as a “side hustle”. He would regularly transport people from the airport, meeting people from around the world, including those who had flown in from Israel.

After learning about the Jewish faith, one of the practices that became ingrained in him was to bless any Jewish person he came across. “When I saw anybody who spoke with a Hebrew accent or looked Jewish, I would just say something like, ‘G-d bless you, and all the Jewish people’ in Hebrew.”

On one of his Uber trips from OR Tambo he met Widmonte, who was returning from a symposium for Jewish and Hebrew in education in Cape Town.

Gotora blessed Widmonte in Hebrew. The rabbi was so impressed by the encounter, he recorded some of the conversations and posted it on Facebook, with the caption, “What an astounding encounter.”

This year, Gotora started an organisation called “Israel’s Friends in Africa” which aims to keep members updated with accurate information on current events in Israel and the Jewish community. “We’re happy to be in South Africa where we have a vibrant Jewish community. We want the Jewish community to feel blessed and know that they have a lot of friends here in Africa. It’s not just me here. It’s a whole lot of us,” he said.

In light of recent events in Israel, Gotora said, “On behalf of Israel’s Friends in Africa, I would like to give a message of solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people all over the world to say that G-d is a G-d of covenant who keeps his promises. Israel is here to stay. The world will marvel at what Israel will achieve at the end of this war as they marvelled after Israel’s War of Independence, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and all the wars after that.”

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