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SA

When it comes to building bridges, Israel Centre’s director is a natural

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PETA KROST MAUNDER

This is a huge asset in her job, which carries responsibility for enhancing and building the relationship between South Africans and Israel, helping with aliyah, and looking after the Jewish community so that its members can live a comfortable Jewish life here.

While she has given her all to this task in her first nine months here, she has broader social plans afoot. “I’m always asking myself, how I can make change, and how I can react differently to people around me,” Arran says.

Arran, an organisational and social psychologist who was a professor for 16 years at different academic institutions in Israel, quickly found her way into the hearts of the local Jewish community. She makes it her business to reach out to all sectors, from the ultra-Orthodox to the secular far left. And she does it without judgement.

She is thoroughly enjoying being here, not least because of the huge challenges she sets herself. This is in spite of the fact that her children don’t have the freedom they had back in Israel. “I love the core values of this country. There is much disparity here, but a desire to improve things,” she says. She sees the dichotomy between the haves and have nots, as well as between the community and so-called invisible people. “I feel the need to continually ask what I’m going to do to make a difference here,” she says.

She believes “people really wish for change here – and it’s felt across the board. We can’t wait for someone else to make a change. We need to do it, and I see so many Jewish people involved in change here.”

Having almost passed up the position in South Africa after being discouraged from coming because of the dangers of being here, she says, “It’s much safer than I thought. It’s crazy that my kids can’t go outside the house on their own, but we have adapted.” Arran and her husband, Biko, have four sons aged between 11 and 2. They came to South Africa in January from Eliav, a communal settlement in the north of Israel.

“It’s very important for us to live within the Jewish community. It’s the reason we chose to come here. We want to enhance this community’s relationship with Israel, and the Jewish world,” she says.

“My role isn’t to convince the community to make aliyah. That would have been my goal if I came 20 years ago. Now, if people want to make aliyah, I do everything I can to help them, but Israel needs the diaspora communities to survive.

“I do what I can to enable the South African community to live comfortably and happily as Jews here in South Africa. At the same time, I enable the best connection to Israel.

“The community in South Africa worries about being divided, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s a strong, bonded community, one that is connected to religion and its identity as Jews. Its members are very supportive of one another. Look at Facebook group Joburg Jewish Mommies – mothers from all walks of life help each other. You all come together for Yom Ha’atzmaut, and any other opportunity. You might not all agree with the leadership, but you still come together as Jewish people.”

Arran is trying to be more accessible to the wider community, and to visit schools and shuls from different sectors. “I want to be relevant and related to all Jews in South Africa,” she says.

Since she has been here, she has moved the document-gathering stage of the aliyah process online to a global centre which gives interested parties all they need to know. It frees up her office to be available to help people before they embark on the process and after.

“For those interested in aliyah, I ask them to do their own research – perhaps even go to Israel to see for themselves. Everyone is different, and their expectations and needs are specific to them. You need to pick schools, and where you want to live. I can give support, and help track what you need.

“I don’t push anyone to make aliyah. It’s a big, tough transition, and Israel isn’t waiting for anyone. Eventually you have to walk your own journey, and clean your own house. You need to ask the questions relevant to you. I need to put that reality to you.”

Thereafter, if people have made up their mind, Arran’s team does what it can to enable the smoothest integration. She even has a member of her team assist with employment options, and put potential olim in touch with potential employers, if possible.

While she enables Masa (heavily subsidised youth trips to Israel), Naale (a diaspora Jewish teenagers’ high school in Israel), Israeli education at Jewish schools, and other South Africa-Israel relationship building, she wants to make more of a difference here.

She recently brought out a group of Jewish and Arab Israeli women to South Africa to talk about their relationship and issues they deal with. “Many people who heard them speak said they had never met an Arab Israeli before. This kind of relationship building and dialogue creation is vital to me. I would love to do work like that here, bridging the divide between all sorts of communities. This is what I was teaching at university. It’s what makes me tick.”

Arran is also determined to make the local community as strong as it can be, not least in how it responds to blanket anti-Israel sentiment in South Africa. While she tries to introduce South Africans to an Israel they aren’t familiar with, she also doesn’t shy away from the tough questions about the Jewish state. “It’s important for the community to know the answers, and to be able to respond to people when they throw those difficult questions at them.”

She also says it’s essential to ensure that South African Jews “feel hope, and are safe in South Africa” and that they recognise what they have here, which is “wonderful”. “The local community brings so much to this country with its values, history, Bible, and traditions,” she says. “It’s an asset to this country.”

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