Tamara Kahn moved with her family from Johannesburg to Texas when she was very young. She lost her accent, “but maintained a slight sense of estrangement due to different traditions or the pronunciation of words”.
She later moved to San Diego, where she says, “I was surprised to hear even more South African accents than I could have imagined. It made me feel at home, but it was the good fortune of stumbling upon Sajac that made me start feeling part of the community.”
Sajac helps South African Jews integrate into American society while maintaining strong connections to each other and their roots.
The organisation was founded by Leah Levin in 1987. “The South African Jewish community was the fastest growing group in San Diego county, but newcomers weren’t integrating into the general community,” she remembers. “With this in mind, I called a meeting at my house which included concerned members of the South African community. After much discussion, it was agreed that human contact wouldn’t only speed up the absorption process, but a community group like Sajac would be a platform for dialogue and integration with all Americans.
“At our inaugural meeting, we were overwhelmed by 300 attendees, and our first braai attracted 450 people. We all believe in the richness, vibrancy, and spirit of our South African heritage and all it could offer to the community that has become our home,” says Levin.
Sajac offers numerous events, gatherings, and resources to its members, even a fund to help South African Jewish expats in financial difficulty by providing interest-free loans. It has a magazine, babysitting services, a business directory, access to a genealogy database, an annual gala dinner, and meetings with South African performers like comedian Barry Hilton and the late Johnny Clegg.
The organisation’s current president, Pamela Nathan, says it has become her passion. “Our heritage is a very important part of who we are today. My long-term goal is to have a cyberspace resource where future generations will be able to access to information about our community including where we came from.”
As soon as a South African Jewish family emigrates to San Diego, Sajac is there. “We deliver welcome baskets and have a newcomer’s brunch to introduce new members to each other and those who have lived in San Diego for a longer time. The newcomer’s basket contains our directory so that they are able to identify anyone they may know. We also call them to find out what their needs are.
“Everyone joins Sajac for different reasons – a sense of community, feeling of belonging, or wanting to stay in touch with others who came from the same place. Thirty-two years ago people were a lot more reliant on Sajac for social integration. Now, there are lots of people who have family and friends in the community,” says Nathan. “Transition is different for each person. It depends on their personal circumstances, their feelings about leaving, their responsibilities for kids and parents, the extent to which they have left family in South Africa, and how quickly they make friends in San Diego.”
The organisation exists only in San Diego. “We’ve changed the bylaws of our non-profit status to permit nationwide membership, and we have a few members from other cities,” she says.
“At the moment, we are interested in documenting the genealogy of our members. We are investigating software that uses geographical information as the basis of connection among members. Many of the families originated in Lithuania, so it’s a unique triangle: Eastern Europe to South African to Southern California.”
Dr David Cline, a history professor at San Diego State University, is conducting an oral history research project on the emigration of South African Jews to Southern California. “He has interviewed many of us, and will continue to do so in 2020. He is fascinated by our history,” she says.
While some may think that an organisation like this makes South African Jews feel separate, Nathan emphasises that its aim is integration. “Sajac’s mission statement includes helping our members to integrate. That’s our intention. At the same time, we do have a very unique history and certainly an upbringing in South Africa that contributes to who we are today.
“South African Jews living in San Diego are especially noteworthy because of the large numbers who are involved in all aspects of Judaism in the community,” she says. “They are involved in schools, shuls, many different Jewish organisations. You name it, and you’ll be sure to find an expat on a board or who will volunteer their time. They have also spearheaded certain organisations, and many expats have ties to a variety of African organisations. We’re proud of our heritage, and welcome being in touch with the South African Jewish community,” says Nathan.
“Like most people, I feel like less of a misfit when I’m around those that share some experience, background, values, even humour. I’m proud to be South African born and assisting in holding onto my heritage while appreciating and contributing to all the United States has to offer, says Kahn. “I hope to share this with my children so they, too, know where they came from, and why they have a granny and a gogo.”