Ashkelon celebrations

Sunday 15th December 2019 will be remembered by many as a very important historical celebration for the City of Ashkelon & our South African Jewish community. The event took place at the Congress hall of The Ashkelon Academic College. A crowd more than 150 filled the beautiful auditorium, which included a full bus load of participants from Netanya, Herzliya & Ra’anana, arranged by the Tiyul team.

Officially opened by Raphi Bloch, Telfed Ashkelon Regional committee chairman. Roy Scher welcomed all in particular honored guests who included Mayor Tomer Glam, keynote speaker Avraham Infeld, Dr. David Breakstone Vice Chairman of the Jewish Agency

In his opening statement Roy Scher, M.C for the event, pointed out that this week he celebrates his own Aliyah of  40 years, from a small farming village North of Cape Town and can clearly identify with the beginnings of a town such as Ashkelon, which has speedily developed into a large modern city. Today we are celebrating the city of Ashkelon as well as the South African Jewish community involvement, which we will learn more about this afternoon. It was exactly a year ago when David approached me to discuss today’s celebration, when we met at the opening of The Goldene Medina exhibition at the Hebrew university , an exhibition which tells the wonderful story of 175 years of the Jewish community  South Africa.

 In introducing David Zwebner, Roy made note that David initiated the idea of celebrating this unprecedented series of events, set into action by visionaries from South Africa, which in time, and against all odds, became the beautiful seaside city of Ashkelon.

David addressed the audience with much excitement, when he mentioned the book he produced for the occasion, summarizing the contribution of the South African Jewish community to Ashkelon during the years 1949 – 1959. He related how he originally discovered the city of Ashkelon while giving a soldier a lift, and how he became involved philanthropically with the city as an executive board member of Keren Ashkelon. David enrolled at The Ashkelon Academic College where he studied for his B.A. over a period of 3 years. During this time he came across names of the main streets of the city, Johannesburg street, Kaapstad Street & Drom Afrika street. Being intrigued as to the origin of these names, he asked permission from his professor to investigate the origins of the South African connection to the city. David’s book is a result of his research on the subject which led to today’s celebration. David has taken upon himself to raise financial support for the amazing Ethiopian students, now over 290 studying for their B.A’s at the college.

He said that he hopes that by bringing the South African connection to the fore, it will promote South African Aliya to this beautiful city which is more affordable than similar places in Israel.

Roy went on to offer sincere condolences to the Mirivs family who are sitting shiva in Israel, noting that Rabbi Efraim Mirvis Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew congregations  of the Commonwealth was an invited guest of honour for Shabbat, which was meant to officially open the celebrations, but regrettably had to cancelled at the last moment.

Dorron in his position of CEO of Telfed welcomed all, and then shared an idea from the weeks parasha, Vayishlach, about Ya’akov wrestling with The Angel. Dorron made the comparison of the S. African Jewish community wrestling with many difficult obstacles in the establishment of Ashkelon . He went on to mention more impressive achievements of S. A community, for example, the establishment of 28 cities, towns, moshavim & kibbutzim.  Dorron thanked the Mayor & blessed all those present.

Dr. David Breakstone, Vice Chairman of the World Zionist Organization in his address shared a few ideas about the uniqueness of the South African Jewish community and their special connection to Ashkelon, as well as the community’s great contribution to Israel. David mentioned prominent members of the community including Mendel Kaplan & Alan Hoffman. He went on to speak about Israel’s projects in South Africa, such as the Israel Center in Joburg, the many Shlichim who are active in the community. David pointed out the growing South African community in Beit Shemesh. He then spoke about the challenges of the future, fragmentation & the unfortunate growing alienation of forces between the S. African community and Israel, citing the Durban conference as an example.  On a statistical note David mentioned a new report prepared by the Kaplan Center in Cape Town that states the drop in size of S. A Jewish community to an all time low of less than 50 000. David conclude in saying that the Jewish Agency needs to serve the needs of our brethren in the diaspora

The audience was the entertained by the local חבורת הזמר “חוף ימים” choir who volunteered in honor of the event. We were honored to screen 2 videos by Selwyn Lurie & Jack Schneider especially recorded for the celebration. Selwyn who is 97 presented a clear & detailed outline of events leading up to the establishment of Ashkelon. Click here to watch Selwyn Lurie’s address. To read full transcript of video click here. We were then addressed by the Mayor, Mr Tomer Glum, who thanked us for celebrating the establishment of Ashkelon. He said that the Zionist dream of building a city such as Ashkelon will continue despite the security challenges facing his city and it’s inhabitants.

Our 3 honorees were then presented certificates of recognition by Dorron Kline CEO  Telfed, David Zwebner & Mayor Tomer Glam.

Michael accepted the certificate in the name of his father Selwyn Lurie who was the CEO of both Afridar and Afrihon in 1956 and handed over the newly established city of Ashkelon to the Government of Israel in December 1959. The Master Plan provided for five neighborhood units, Afridar being the first to be constructed as a model for the others. The plan also provided for a downtown city center, hospital, and antiquities area, and a large development along the foreshore. Selwyn was then appointed to head the third and last phase, from 1955 to 1958, to rectify the financial crisis.  

Jack Shneider who in his position as the water engineer of Ashkelon was responsible for successfully dealing with the mosquito problem in the town in addition to overseeing installation of the city sewerage system

Ruth Ben Amar -Saretzky is a sweet passionate lady, in the early days of her Aliya to Ashkelon she was a nurse, a legendary educator & English teacher had a tremendous positive impact on the youth of the city. In the process of honoring Ruth ben Amar we inadvertently omitted to mention the many attributes of her late husband Teddy. As the first City engineer he was involved in designing the Master plan including the City National park. He designed a number of public projects including the football stadium and converting the old British army camp into an Army vacation and recreation village.

A short video greeting by Chief Rabbi Goldstein was then screened in which The Rabbi complimented the organizers of the event. Particular mention was made of Mayor Tomer Glam for his leadership in running the city of Ashkelon with clear reference to resilience required when facing serious security threats from Gaza.

Our keynote speaker was Mr Avraham Infeld, one of the most unique and compelling teachers and leaders in the Jewish world today. Based in Jerusalem but a tireless traveler to all parts of the globe, Avraham has dedicated his long and distinguished career to helping Jews find meaning and joy in their Jewish identities. Avraham in his unique way kept the audience listening with great interest when he shared personal anecdotes  and historical facts. With passion he noted the following day, December 16th would be exactly 60 years when he accompanied his late father Zvi Infeld, as Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, at a ceremony in Ashkelon to hand back the keys of the city to the Government of Israel. Accounting the facts that led up to this, Avraham explains how a community 7000 miles away took upon themselves the task of building a city in Israel. He mentions names which he heard while growing up in his Joburg home, names such as Afridar, Afrihon, Selwyn Lurie, Louis Pinkas & Dr, Sonnanbend. Avraham talks about the Jewishness & Chutzpah of the unique South African community and the going into a partnership with the Israeli Government. Crazy, but they did it!!

Avraham continues with stating historical facts that no other community is like this: South African Jewish community was the 1st large English speaking after Zionism began

We came to a country of ethnic distinction & racial immorality

We’re a people who assume responsibility.

No great leaders from the USA came on Aliya, whereas S. African Jews had a different & unique agenda which was built into their DNA some 250 years earlier.

Avraham concluded with an idea from the Torah readings of this period, like our biblical forefathers & mothers, we are a family a people!

After a short break Dave Kaplan gave a brilliant introduction to the cold facts in a fascinating documentary about South African born Sylvia Raphael -Mossad Agent. May her memory be blessed.

The celebration of 70 years of Ashkelon & South African Jewish community concluded with the singing of Hatikva

Click here for the full video of the celebration.

To read (and watch) media coverage of the event from The Media Line, click here.