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Leichter and Lions

Michal Eisikowitz

Frum women are steadily been entering an increasing number of professions. Today, you’ll find frum engineers, actuaries, and scientists. But Ilana Stein may just be one of kind. After all, how many frum game rangers do you know?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

lionWhat’s a nice Jewish girl doing deep in the African veld?

Enjoying every minute, that’s what.

Meet Ilana Stein, native South African, committed frum woman, weekly lecturer at the local women’s shiur — and licensed game ranger. Ilana has followed the call of her heart: the call of the wild.

While most of her current working day is spent in the staid walls of a safari company’s office, the adventurous, high-spirited guide is still immersed in the work she loves: cherishing, guarding, and respecting the wildlife.


From Jerusalem to the Bush

Born and bred in bustlingJohannesburg, Ilana’s childhood was prototypical for many South African Jews: middle-class home, Jewish day school education, and strong Bnei Akiva leanings, including a deep-seated affiliation withIsrael.

In this seemingly textbook pattern, was there a hint to her eventual nonconventional career choice? “I come from a family that loves the bush,” Ilana explains, using the local term for the vast, wide-open savannah that comprises much ofSouth Africa,Botswana,Zambia, andZimbabwe. “From the time I was only five years old, we’d make a trip out to theKrugerNational Parkevery year. The weakness-for-the-bush gene runs in the clan, and I think I just got an oversized chunk of it.”

Upon high school graduation, Ilana set off for the Holy Land, studying first in a seminary in Elkanah, and later in Jerusalem-based Nishmat, all the while developing an authentic attachment to the country of her people. At 22 years old, the independent-thinking student actualized that connection: she made aliyah — and hoped to stay for good.

But something was missing.

“The bush is in my blood, and I missed it,” she says. “My childhood game-ranger dream wasn’t realized, and there was this insatiable yearning.”

With a potpourri of passion and emotion tugging at her heart, a sad but convinced Ilana packed her bags and leftJerusalemto return to Jo’burg.

Having already begun her studies in Israel through a long distance learning program of Technikon South Africa’s, the ambitious young woman pushed forward on a journey into academia that would last five years — including three sessions of in-the-trenches practicum — and eventually confer her with a hard-earned degree in conservation.

“It was an adjustment,” remembers Ilana. “I went from full-time Torah study inIsraelto living out in the bush with mostly non-Jewish people.”

For those who assume the scope of a game ranger’s skills begins and ends at knowing how to feed and tame elephants (“Ha!” Ilana laughs. “No such thing.”), Ilana quickly dispels the notion, rattling off a formidable list of subjects she had to master:  zoology, soil science, botany, statistics, and geography, to name a few.

During the practical sessions, she spent one year on botany (“we spent a week in the mountains analyzing different plants,”), one year on wildlife, and one year on conservation management.

And following her arduous, but enjoyable, training, Ilana joined a friend in creating one of the first kosher safari business, taking groups of kosher tourists out to the bush for extended stays.

“He was qualified to walk groups, and I was qualified to game drive [in a jeep],” she describes. “We had such fun.”


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