In the course of his work, historical researcher Dr. David Fachler is reviewing hundreds of scanned documents sent to him by Israel’s State Archive, when he notices a letter with a familiar name. He sends a copy to acquaintance Steven Flax who is related to the letter’s author and from there the letter is forwarded far and wide.
The emergence just the other day, of this letter written 45 years ago, has stirred the memories and stoked embers of nostalgia especially for graduates of Bnei Akiva South Africa. Hand-written by the late Jonathan (“Jonny” to all) Sandler to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the document shines a soft light on a time that is long gone yet remembered with great fondness. It is also a testament to its author.
In the late 1970s, we were a large, homogeneous group of “haverim” in our twenties, many completing professional studies, dancing at each other’s weddings and preparing for Aliya.
At the same time, in Israel Moshe Moshkowitz had a dream of building a city in the Etzion Bloc south of Jerusalem, later to be named Efrat for the proximity to its Biblical predecessor. The location resonated strongly as two of our venerated movement graduates had fallen in the final battle of Kfar Etzion in 1948 so that when we got word of the Efrat initiative we embraced it enthusiastically as a collective. Jonny who had been appointed coordinator of the group, was frustrated by the lack of response to requests for detailed information, so he did what very few people would think of doing. He wrote to the Prime Minister of Israel, asking for information as to when building operations would commence. Unsurprisingly there is no record of a reply.
While he undoubtedly encouraged the project, Menachem Begin was probably a little preoccupied at the time. In addition to the staggering duties associated with his position in an unusually frenetic country, he was presiding over the historic peace process with Sadat’s Egypt for which he was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also orchestrating a seminal shift in the socioeconomic fabric of the country. The letter was forwarded to the department dealing with settlements where it was probably buried in a file.
I am sure that Jonny knew that the chance of receiving a meaningful reply were low, yet as always, he acted out of deep ideological commitment, and an innate awareness of responsibility to his friends. He was also a forward thinking person with a quiet charisma and sense of mission. Morris Rubin who was involved in the developmental stages of the project has copies of other letters that Jonny wrote to ministers in Begin’s government.
The discovery of the letter reminded me of Jonny’s role in the moment of creation of the first nucleus (garin) that was ultimately to culminate in the large presence of South Africans in Efrat. There is a photograph made in November 1976 by Jonty Maresky. We were at a lodge, overnight, climbing Mont-aux-Sauces, the highest mountain in South Africa. Six young men in a double bed, cracking up in one of those set-the-timer-click-run-back-and-jump-in-the-bed-flash shots, it is one of our favorite images of all of our times.
From left, Julian Patz, Jonny z”l, Ivan Rendel, Jonty, myself and Jacki Glassman. We were all twenty-one-year-old Bnei Akiva madrichim and students at Wits University, three doctors, two dentists and a hypochondriac accountant (that would be this writer.) For the photo we lay in a line, but really, we were a circle, no ends or beginnings. We knew each other like brothers, cared as much and still do. There were others in that circle, including Michael Samuels z”l dentist too, who had fallen asleep in an adjoining room, as well as a number who did not participate on this particular trek. And later, our wives too were to become the closest of friends.
That night on the way to one of the peaks in our lives, we spoke about building our lives together in Israel. I am sure I remember that Jonny made the initial suggestion. He had vision and a calm, dependable quality of leadership that we trusted instinctively. Memorably, he had been “Rosh” Seminar at Camp Jonathan, 1975, which was Bnei Akiva’s seminal leadership event of the 1970’s and he is on the honor roll of national chairpersons of the movement.
Jonny must have been the last to wake up the next morning. He always did. Despite two 50-rung chain ladders hanging freely off a cliff face and my then acute fear of heights, we all reached the summit. I still recall Jonny’s words of encouragement at the base of the cliff, and my fellow travelers climbing the ladder directly behind me, rung by rung. We returned to Johannesburg tired but elated, formed “Garin Shavei-Tzion” (no relation) and began to meet regularly.
More haverim joined the group, and then we heard about the Efrat project and changed the name of the garin accordingly. At the time we spelled the name, “Ephrat,” possibly because we looked it up in the Soncino and other chumashim which we were reading at the time. There it was spelled “Ephrath” but I guess the extra “h” was just too much! Other circles were forming. There were haverim from Cape Town as well as “Garin Snoopy” whose original destination was Rosh Tzurim. Later they changed direction from kibbutz to urban lifestyle, crossing Route 60 from West to East. The circle expanded and we moved full steam ahead.
Jonny’s letter and especially its appended list of garin members testifies to the important role that South Africans played in the formation of the town. The names of the boys on the mountain are printed together, one after the other, numbered 16-23, including my wife Cheryl.
Garin meeting Johannesburg, 1978, from left: Jonny z”l, Ivan, Hilly Cohen, Michael Samuels z”l, Danny Berelowitz, Cheryl, Jacki, myself (top), Jonty (bottom), Julian
On a fine day in 1981 tractors drove to the crest of a barren hill and began to dig the bedrock of the fulfillment of Moshkowitz’s vision and our dreams. To my knowledge, the first purchase contracts signed with the company which developed Efrat are dated 29.3.1981. In order to declare that sales had commenced, the company agreed to sell the bare outer shell of apartments to three young South African couples whose enthusiasm way outstripped their financial resources. The rest we built by schlepping “balatot” and baths in the trunks and tops of private cars (which we did not have- thank you Pakters and Sulskis!)
The vast majority of the people on Jonny’s list made Aliya. Many, as well as haverim who do not appear on the list, settled in Efrat. And many of them were among the founding families (including ten of the first fifty,) who shaped the ethos and atmosphere of this special community.
For personal and professional reasons not all in the group settled in Efrat. After years of blessed living there, we now live in Jerusalem. Yet the families remain close to this day and we see ourselves as a havurah. Surveying the list, it is my impression that the combined achievement and contribution of its members to Israeli society goes way beyond its number.
Just like his father, Jonny Sandler, a revered and beloved family doctor, died suddenly of a heart attack aged 49, leaving his Durban born wife Debbie and four young children. He was only 6 days older than me, but he was wise beyond his years, with a maturity and an art of connecting with people through a quiet authority, a sincere smile and a heart of gold. Debbie recently married Herbie Jackson, who is also “one of the boys.”
At Debbie and Herbie’s wedding, 2022: From left: Myself, Dr Ivan Rendel, Prof. Hilton Dwolatsky, Dr Jonty Maresky, Dr Julian Patz, Dr. Danny Berelowitz, Dr. Jacki Glassman
None of us in our early adulthood would contemplate the thought, but this year Efrat is celebrating 40 years of development, growth and excellence, its solid foundations rooted in the determination and commitment of its pioneers, many of whom emanated from a far-flung outpost of World Jewry. And among Efrat’s residents today, are grandchildren of haverim who were on Jonny’s hopeful list compiled in April 1978.
Photos by the writer, Jonty Maresky and by courtesy of the Sandler family.