The final few weeks before boarding an aliyah flight are hectic ones for all olim. But for Kerri and Gavin Sacks, they were far more frenzied than usual. Getting here took decades of preparation and a few days of frantic packing.
Kerri grew up in a home that celebrated Shabbat with kiddush and challa. She went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with her mother; her father was not interested in religion at all.
She ended up visiting Israel serendipitously; her planned trip to India to work in a homeopathic hospital was canceled due to India’s monsoon season.
That first visit, which lasted three months, was primarily spent visiting cousins, yet it left an indelible imprint.
“Something changed, even though there was no religious content [on] the trip. I started keeping Shabbat a few months later,” Kerri recounted.
A second trip to Israel was more intentional. In 2003, she studied Judaism for a month at Neve Yerushalayim in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood.
“After that, I came back to Johannesburg and became quite religious,” she said.
Kerri met Gavin in 2004, shortly after returning from Israel.
Gavin’s family was more traditional. Friday nights included attendance at synagogue and a festive Shabbat meal with cousins and grandparents. Although his father died from an aggressive brain tumor when Gavin was just 12, his father had been studying with the well-known outreach rabbi Akiva Tatz and was considering keeping kosher.
His father’s sudden death raised questions for young Gavin, but he had nowhere to pose them. That is, until Aish HaTorah came to South Africa in 1997.
“I didn’t know anything about Israel. I’d had questions inside of me for many years. When Aish HaTorah came, I was invited to a shiur [Torah lecture],” he recounted.
The friend who invited him said the rabbi teaching was young, down-to-earth and didn’t have a beard. It was likely the whiskey she was serving that convinced Gavin and his friends to attend.
“We went and we loved the shiur. We ended up staying an extra hour and a half, asking questions.”
Gavin quickly became part of Aish in South Africa, a relationship that lasted for 22 years, until they made aliyah.
It was an Aish HaTorah trip in 1998 that first gave Gavin the Israel bug. The original trip was scheduled for four weeks, but he canceled the rest of his summer plans and stayed at Aish, studying Torah for six months. He went back to South Africa to earn money with the intention of supporting himself for another year in yeshiva.
In 2003, he made aliyah. He returned to South Africa to attend two weddings, met Kerri and ended up staying in Johannesburg.
“I always wanted to come back to Israel. It was just easier to get married in South Africa,” Gavin said.
“It was always in the back of our minds,” Kerri concurred. “We always wanted to be in Israel, but it faded.”
The couple married, had three children and settled into life in Johannesburg. That is, until Kerri went on an Israel trip in 2016 with Momentum, formerly known as the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. That trip “sparked the passion to live in Israel again for me,” Kerri explained.
The next few years were spent tentatively exploring the idea of making aliyah. They agreed to wait until their daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah.
And then, while on vacation last summer, the aliyah bug hit Kerri again and would not let her go.
“I was not happy with our lifestyle in South Africa, and things were getting hard for Gavin at work,” she elaborated.
They agreed to put their house on the market after that vacation, but it took months to find a buyer. During this period, the couple juggled a lot of uncertainty about their aliyah plans. By early March, things began to fall into place. They had secured an aliyah date of April 18.
Then the coronavirus hit, and flights were being canceled. All flights to Israel had been canceled except for one last flight, scheduled for Monday evening, March 23.
Not many things had yet been packed, and not many things had yet been sold. Kerri booked her family on that last outgoing flight, weeks ahead of schedule.
“You had to have a lot of faith,” she related.
Since they were coming ahead of schedule, the apartment they had rented in Modi’in was not yet ready. They were under pressure to find a place to land, and to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
Fellow South African and real estate broker Kim Bash helped them find a place to stay in Jerusalem.
“Such hashgaha [Divine providence]!” said Gavin.
Bash found them an available apartment that was fully prepared to rent as a B and B.
“It was amazing to be in Jerusalem for Passover,” Gavin affirmed.
The decision to take the last flight out was made on Friday, March 20. Hard-core packing ensued. Each family member was limited to three bags weighing 23 kilos each. Kerri told her children to put all their clothes in one bag and their toys in another.
Everyone reacts to that kind of stress differently. Gavin was temporarily paralyzed by the uncertainty of coming during the coronavirus, getting on a plane with 300 people and not having sale of their house go through.
“From the [moment] we decided, until the Monday we left, I felt like something possessed me. I didn’t sleep,” Kerri recounted. “I felt the fear, but we had to just get here. A friend said, ‘Do whatever you have to do to get your husband on that plane Monday night.’”
Kerri explained that they had to leave most of their belongings behind.
“All kitchenware, appliances, personal stuff and furniture was left behind. Because of corona in South Africa, there was a 21-day shutdown right after we left,” she said.
Much of their last full day in South Africa was spent taking care of logistics involved in making aliyah with Talula, the teacup Pekingese to which their oldest daughter is intensely bonded.
“We basically came with the clothes on our backs,” Gavin further explained. “We had a little money from the sale of our car and some toys.”
As soon as they arrived, the South African rand conversion rate plummeted, making what little cash they had worth significantly less. In addition, the sale of their house still hasn’t been finalized yet, because government offices have been closed.
DESPITE THEIR chaotic exit from South Africa, the Sacks family is now settling into their new home in the center of Modi’in. Generous neighbors have lent and donated many of the things they left behind.
“Things are coming together,” Kerri reported.
“We’re here where we want to be. We believe it’s a good choice, especially for the kids. They have a future,” Gavin said. “Once things go back to normal when shul reopens, we can meet more people and get into a sense of community. The way I feel now, it’s a total blessing. It was the right choice. I feel totally happy, and it’s a gift.”
Kerri shares Gavin’s optimism. “I feel we’ve made the best decision and everything will be okay. Though we’re still trying to find our place, I would not go back if someone paid me. I literally felt as if God personally picked us up and placed us in this Holy Land.
“What a roller coaster, but each new day brings amazing miracles!” said Kerri, who prefers to call every obstacle they face “a challenge, not a struggle.”
“We grow through the challenges,” Gavin affirmed.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, June 11, 2020. Republished with permission.