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Zionist Fed director makes aliyah

  • NicciRaz2
When Nicci Raz agreed to lend her marketing skills to the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) in 2015, she anticipated a short stint involving only a few hours of her time.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 08, 2019

Today, she is stepping down from her role as national director of the organisation, having committed herself to fighting for the Zionist cause and promoting Israel for the past four years.

“I was floored. Why would I want to get involved in community work?” she says, chuckling. “Marketing was my field. But after speaking to my husband, I saw that if one has an opportunity to do something positive for Israel, there’s an obligation to do it. That was that.”

After four years of serving the community, the 39-year-old Zionist is fulfilling the Jewish dream of making aliyah on 19 August with her Israeli husband, David, and three teenage daughters, Edden, Noa, and Ora.

Her departure is the culmination of a challenging but rewarding journey of Israel advocacy and community leadership.

Raz reflected on her journey, and how she became involved with the SAZF in 2015, succeeding Isla Feldman after her 35-year period of service.

Raz had spent years contributing to the successes of ORT JET and ORT SA, and wanted to return to the corporate environment in which she began her career. A chance encounter with outgoing SAZF chairperson Ben Swartz while running the Jerusalem Marathon changed that, altering her trajectory considerably.

“Ben and I were friends. We decided to get Bruce Fordyce involved in a run that would be geared towards promoting Israel. It seemed simple enough.”

As soon as the project was announced, however, Raz had an encounter with the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) that made her realise just how controversial support for Israel could be. “I attended Yeshiva College, had been involved in Bnei Akiva, and had always supported Israel,” she says. “But when BDS hit us, I realised that I had been wearing rose-tinted glasses when it came to how South Africa sees Israel. My eyes were opened, but I refused to allow Bruce to bail out, and BDS to win.”

Raz and Swartz gave Fordyce the support needed to ride the BDS wave, ensuring that the marathon went ahead as planned. Raz returned to the corporate world for a year, and though she learned a lot, she says she felt a lack of energy in her work, and had to find meaning in her career.

“I had been bitten by the community bug,” she says. “The corporate space lets you champion something, but it’s usually a brand or product. I wanted to champion the community and Israel.”

She got this opportunity by way of a short-term offer from the SAZF, inviting her to assist with marketing. Her intended short stay was arranged by Swartz, who played a strategic role in getting Raz on board full-time.

“People thought I was crazy to accept a position. ‘Why do you want to go into that building?’ they’d ask. ‘It’s a minefield of politics, arguing, and stress.’ Still, there was a job to do, and I wanted to see it done.”

Raz says she found others less progressive and openminded than she had expected. “People were very possessive of their territory, “she says. “No one co-operated, because people had preconceived ideas about what others were capable of, and were sticklers for their mandates. I suppose I was disruptive, challenging protocol limits respectfully so that I could get things done.”

Her vision was to create a brand for Israel advocacy in South Africa, enabling community members to associate the SAZF automatically with Israel even if they weren’t familiar with the organisation itself. Even with her flair for marketing, Raz encountered several obstacles along the way, including emotional hurdles, maintaining a vibrant and efficient team, and working with a shrinking budget as time passed.

Raz accomplished much over the years, learning how to delegate roles effectively, and creating a hands-on team of leaders willing to go the distance on behalf of Israel and the local community. She is also proud of her part in fostering the SAZF’s relations with other Jewish organisation such as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Agency, and Israeli embassy in South Africa.

Raz stresses there is still much to be done by supporters of Israel in South Africa. “When people hear that I’m leaving, they are fearful because they think I see no hope here,” she says. “I’m going to Israel as part of my own personal journey, and will continue to fight from there, but those who stay here still have a role to play.”

She concludes that there is a perception that Israel’s status today means it needs no help, but the Jewish state needs support from the diaspora perhaps more than ever.

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