It left much to chew on!
By David E. Kaplan
As one neared the wooded deck of the cafeteria at Reichman University – formerly IDC, Herzliya – the alluring aroma of the “boerewors” (special South African sausage) directed this writer’s nostrils like a GPS. I was headed in the right direction and then the all too familiar South African accents assured me I was in the right place – a picturesque setting for the Hanukkah ‘braai’ (barbecue) for the over 100 South African students at the Raphael Recanati International School (RRIS).
If one needed any further affirmation of – right place, right time – this was provided by the displayed bottles of superlative Western Cape wines on each table shaded by Eucalyptus trees.
If it was the aroma of the ‘boerewors’ directing me, there were far more profound reasons ‘directing’ and an ever-increasing number of Jewish school-leavers to leave South Africa and chose to come study in Israel. It was also a case of “right place, right time” – for the majority of these young South African Jews who the vast majority are opting for Reichman University where there are over 2000 overseas students from over 90 countries. All studying together in English, one third of the student body is American, one third from countries across Europe, and the rest from Latin America, Africa, Israel and Asia.
For most the students this is largely the attraction – to be in a top global academic environment, interacting and networking with their peers, exploring the present, preparing for the future. Located in the midst of Israel’s ‘Silicon Wadi’ – with the highest number of hi-tech companies per capita of any region in the country – “the Reichman University enjoys a very strong connection with these companies,” says Jonathan Davis, head of RRIS and Vice President, Reichman University. “They provide cooperative hands-on education as well as offering internships.”
Cooperating with top universities in the US, notably the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, University of California, Berkley, Washington University in St. Louis, Syracuse University and Harvard, Reichman University – Israel’s first and only private, non-profit university – is ranked first of 66 Israeli academic institutions “in terms of student satisfaction” for four consecutive years.
As I arrived, I joined a group of students who were in deep animated conversation with Prof. Uriel Reichmann, the university’s founder and President. I thought to myself, at what university in the world, would undergraduate students – many of them first year – not only have the opportunity to meet but to socially interact with the President of a university. Casually attired in blue jeans, Prof. Reichman was engaging the students, enquiring:
“Where do you come from?”
“What are you studying?”
“How you managing, particularly during Covid?”
The students were doing most the talking, Reichman was listening attentively.
When Reichman formally addressed this lunch, he revealed in anecdotes and insights much about himself and the university – but all with the emphasis on the students. “When I conceived the idea of this private non-profit university based on the ivy-league universities of the US, people thought I was crazy. It cannot in Israel be done. Well, look who is crazy and look what has been done.” As he said these words, I looked out beyond and above the deck to a massive new construction going up – it will be the new ‘Building of Innovation’, sponsored by the Franco-Israeli businessman and telecommunications mogul Patrick Drahi, who also owns in Israel both HOT TV and i24NEWS.
If Israel today is so much about “INNOVATION” and aptly termed the “Start-Up Nation” for its outside-the-box entrepreneurship, then Reichman University feeds and fuels this national aspiration and direction. Reflecting on this trend, I noted that I had earlier parked my car outside the Adelson School of Entrepreneurship!
Continuing, Reichman emphasized the care and welfare of the students that does not end on graduation. “We ensure you find your right place in the labour market. We are there for you always.”
The writer too had the honour in addressing the group and recounted how over the years the number of South African students at Reichman University had grown from four to over 100 making it today the number one university in Israel with the most students from South Africa.
“Soon it will have a competitive rugby team,” I quipped!
So what makes Reichman University so appealing to South Africans?
Commenting on how well the South African students do academically, Davis’ praises the educational system of the Jewish Day Schools in South Africa. He sites as an example that “Twenty-seven students were accepted to our prestigious Computer Science programme of which nine are from SA. This is impressive.”
Davis was happy to go on record saying that “the South African Jewish Day School education, particularly its matric mathematics is of a much higher level than in the US.”
He further noted that the South African students “are rich in Zionist values and stand out, showing great leadership qualities.” Despite the negative perception that Zionism is not as strong as it once was in South Africa, “That flame has not been extinguished. Far from it. The SA students here are a testament to this!”
On this note, I set about to tear away some of the students from their boerewors and chicken kebabs to interview them.
First year Computer Science student Aaron Osrin from Cape Town, followed his sister who graduated the previous year in Communication. “I saw how much fun she had studying here and knew this is where I wanted to be.” Asked about the ‘uncomfortable’ atmosphere for Jews on South African campuses in recent years over anti-Israel activities, Aaron says, that “while thankfully I had never been exposed to it, many of my friends and cousins have; it’s scary and all it does is further force Jews in their bubble.” Here, on the other hand, “We are free but not in a bubble.”
I could not escape the though of how Ghettoization – the scourge once for the Jews of Europe – has found a nuanced presence on South African campuses!
In Israel only two months, Aaron has made friends from all over the world. “I have made connections that I would never have made had I studied in South Africa.”
Raising a glass of his Cape wine and toasting to his life in Israel and Reichman University, “It’s been a brilliant experience.”
Twenty-one year-old Melissa Moritz from Cape Town in her first year at the School of Psychology, first went to the Israeli army for two years.
“It was unbelievable; it was tough in the beginning; I did not really know Hebrew when I came to Israel; so firstly serving in the IDF gave me the confidence to be a leader; I now have the tools and feel prepared.”
Her parents back in Cape Town are extremely proud. “It was their dream as well and still is and will happen within the next few years.”
Melissa feels that by coming to Israel and “going to the army and then studying here, offered me a sense of challenge which was not the case if I stayed in South Africa where the pathway is predicable ….. coming to Israel threw a spanner in the works; made things more challenging but for the better. Also, there is a lot of meaning being here and doing what I am as a Jewish woman.”
Melissa then introduces me to her brother Dan Moritz, who says he was sold on the idea of studying at Reichman University when he visited the campus with his parents at the age of sixteen. “We were on holiday from Cape Town and we toured the campus. My Mom and Dad were already looking ahead for our education, and when I saw the Communications School, I was sold and here I am in my second year specialising in an intensive interactive track – designing websites and applications.” This reminded me of my tour around the School of Communication some years earlier when our guide told us of a student who had designed an app for a class project. A few months later an Israeli hi-tech company bought his app for a whopping $2 million!
Not bad – better than the usual student waiter jobs!
Yaron Eisenberg made Aliyah six years ago also from Cape Town, has also served in the Israeli army and is a second year psychology student. Raised within a very Zionistic family, in 2017, Yaron volunteered for Tzanchanim (parachute brigade), finishing his service in 2019. “I don’t regret a single second.” He says living in the campus dorms during corona was an eye-opener about the nature of Israeli society. “The way people genuinely care for you. People would come during quarantine an offer food and ask what they could do for us. It showed how Israel is like one big family. When the chips are down, people are there for you.”
Yaron presents his perspective on his Jewish peers in South Africa. On his return visits to Cape Town representing Reichman University, he has addressed pupils at Herzlia High School and students at the University of Cape Town (UCT), speaking about life in Israel.
“Today, the Jewish community in SA is increasingly diverse. There is an alternate Jewish community who think differently to that their peers of 10-15 years ago. I have Jewish friends who subscribe to the BDS narrative and there are others who are looking forward and seeing South Africa is no more a place for Jews and view Israel as an option.” Affirming this trend, Yaron’s twin sister has since made Aliyah and his younger brother is following, starting soon his service in the IDF. His parents are destined to follow.
“I planted the flag.”
Even from the small towns in South Africa where there is hardly any Jewish life, young Jews are finding their way to Israel and Reichman University.
Josh Buchalter is from Knysna, a coastal resort town in South Africa’s famous Garden Route. Apart from Josh’s parents, “there may be another three Jewish families” living in this town of some 76,000 residents. In 2013, as a teenage student, Josh came on the Encounter programme that planted the seed.
After school, life’s journey took him to Miami where he worked for a number of years on cruise ships until the corona pandemic closed down the industry. Returning to Knysna to reassess “my future”, Josh thought back to his “ENCOUNTER” and decided to apply to Reichman University. The rest is history and the future. “For someone like me, who did not grow up in a Jewish community, I could not think of a more lifechanging trip than Encounter; it really was lifechanging. If I had not come on that 2013 trip I would not have the friends I have today at Reichman and I would not have had such a strong connection to Israel.”
Imagining the different direction of his life had he instead gone to a South African university, Josh believes:
“I have gained diversity – the ceiling is a lot higher; maybe there is no ceiling here – the sky is the limit.”
Chucking, Josh concludes:
“I think getting on a plane with a one-way ticket to anywhere, the concept means you have booked a passage for opportunity, excitement, growth, learning and uncapped experiences. I believe I have gained this all here.”
Even though Tel Aviv was recently ranked as the most expensive city in the world, it does not deter the likes of Josh. “For someone in their 20s and 30s, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be. And if it’s so pricey, does that not indicate that everyone wants to be here?”
21-year-old Yaron Peretz from Johannesburg has a fascinating pedigree that includes Moroccan, Israeli, Greek, South African and Lithuania lineage. “This is what I love about being Jewish,” says Yaron. “It is not just one nationality. It does not matter where you come from in the world, you are Jewish…. And you are part of the Jewish nation and so I look forward to contributing to this society in spreading Israeli creativity.”
The official photographer at today’s lunch, Yaron is a visual communications student and is “into movie-making to scriptwriting and all that stuff….I am loving it so much.”
Yaron, who recently made Aliyah, says:
“I was sold on studying here since I first visited the campus in 2016 on Habonim’s three weeks ‘Shorashim’ (”roots”) tour and then what clinched it, was listening to a student address us at King David School, Victory Park. What appealed to me was the idea of being together with students from so many different countries and the potential for networking.”
“it’ was a leap of faith but one that paid off. I feel a sense of belonging. This is where my heart feels at home.”
I had a sense that this sentiment was shared by all the South African students I met who although were far from home geographically, felt at home spiritually. The boerewors and Cape wines were fine – it represented the pleasant past.
Far more exciting they now had a taste for the future full of opportunity and adventure in Israel.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).