How Do You Keep Shabbat if You’re Running After Elephants?

Ilana Stein was the world’s first Orthodox, female safari ranger, combining her two big passions: Judaism and nature

Ilana Stein, right, on a mokoro (canoe) safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana
Dana Allen / Wilderness Safaris

JOHANNESBURG — She teaches a popular class called “From Rhinos to Ramban.” She has developed a six-part course — so successful it’s now taught outside of South Africa — called “Ethics of Eden.” And she is affectionately known in her close-knit Jewish community as “the woman who chases elephants.”

Meet Ilana Stein, the first Orthodox woman in the world to be gainfully employed as a game ranger.

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Inside the BDS heartland | Special project 
■ Jews are leaving South Africa once again — but don’t blame BDS 

■ On the road with Africa’s only traveling rabbi 
■ These South African Jews hate the occupation as much as they hate BDS 
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 How do you keep Shabbat if you’re running after elephants?

It is not an obvious career path for women in general, let alone those who keep Shabbat and kashrut. But if the trail was going to be blazed anywhere, this country rich in game reserves and Jewish inhabitants was a likely place.

Stein’s days of leading groups on animal-sighting tours through the African bush are behind her now, but that doesn’t mean she has lost her passion for the wild. She has just found other outlets that let her combine the two big loves of her life: Judaism and nature.

Ilana Stein. “If you’re supposed to be guiding a group from Thursday through Sunday, you can’t exactly tell them on Friday afternoon, ‘Hey guys, I’m taking off. Cheers!’”
Dana Allen / Wilderness Safaris

The courses Stein has developed and taught in recent years explore ancient Jewish texts to find answers to questions that concern the relationship between people and the planet in the modern era: For example, does the Torah support recycling? What, if anything, does it have to say about animal rights (or pollution for that matter)? Does it condone the eating of meat? And, back to the Ramban (aka Nachmanides), what can we learn from this medieval scholar’s teachings about our obligations to animals facing extinction today?

Stein, 51 and single, was raised in an Orthodox home and attended Yeshiva College, which is among the more religious Jewish day schools in Johannesburg.

Elephants wading in a river on a Wilderness Safaris tour.
Wilderness Safaris Photographer

Growing up, she and her family frequently visited Kruger National Park — one of Africa’s largest game reserves and about a four-hour drive away from their home — where her love for animals and nature was kindled.

“I decided quite early on that I wanted to become a game ranger when I grew up,” she relays over dinner in a kosher restaurant (she’s opting for the vegetarian menu, obviously). “But I was also religious, so I didn’t how I could do it. I mean, how do you keep Shabbat if you’re running after elephants? And if you’re supposed to be guiding a group from Thursday through Sunday, you can’t exactly tell them on Friday afternoon, ‘Hey guys, I’m taking off. Cheers!’”

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Kosher safaris

It took quite a few years until she was able to figure out how to make it happen. While attending a gap year program in Israel, sponsored by the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement, she fell in love with the country and decided to stay on. After pursuing a degree in English, she found a job in high-tech (“as one does in Israel”), but didn’t feel professionally satisfied.

“There was something that kept pulling me back to Africa,” recalls Stein. And so, while living in Israel, she began a long-distance degree program in nature conservation, which eventually required her to return to South Africa to complete her practicals.

“We’d go out into the middle of nowhere and track animals by looking for their footprints and dung. We’d learn how to navigate using termite mounds and we’d learn how to identify all sorts of trees,” she recounts. “I absolutely loved it and kept thinking that I’ve got to do more of this.”

What was supposed to be a six-month trip back to South Africa ended becoming a permanent move. “I would have loved to stay in Israel,” Stein says, “but I felt that I couldn’t actualize myself there.”

The first job setting her on her path was with a South African company that used Webcams to show animals in their natural environment. Soon afterward, Stein connected with a male friend, also Orthodox, with a similar passion and dream. Together, in 2001, they founded a company that offered kosher safaris around Africa — geared toward clients with the same special requirements on the road as theirs.

Ilana Stein standing between two baobabs at Kruger National Park in South Africa.
Wilderness Safaris Photographer

“We had groups from the United States, England and Israel, and a big draw was our ‘Shabbat in the bush’ package,” she says. “And, trust me, there is nothing like a Shabbat in the bush.

“We wanted this to be more than just a safari, though, so whenever relevant we’d try to look at things we were seeing out in the wild from a Jewish perspective,” she continues. “If we saw a lion, for example, we’d talk about why lions are mentioned so frequently in the Bible.”

Her business partner moved to London after a few years, and Stein decided against continuing the venture on her own.

For the past 15 years, she’s been working as a marketing executive at a high-end safari tour company where her main focus is on content writing. Whenever there are requests for kosher tours, however, she jumps at the chance to get out and spend time in the bush.

It was at Limmud — the international Jewish-learning movement — that she first began spreading her message of Jewish responsibility for maintaining the planet. Seven years ago, she was appointed faculty director at the Johannesburg-based Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, an Orthodox institution that caters to adult learners. It provided her with yet another forum for getting out the word.

Ilana Stein greeting someone at Kafue National Park in Zambia.
Wilderness Safaris Photographers

Stein was the first but by now not the only Orthodox woman in the world to become a safari guide. Over the years, she relays, various “lovely youngsters” have come to consult with her about their plans to embark on a similar path. She does not know how many of these young women ended up realizing their dream, but assumes there were a few.

And she is happy that she was able to serve as a role model.

“I always wanted to prove to myself that just because one is Jewish and religious, one should still be able to achieve one’s dream, as unusual as it might be,” she says. “I think I proved that.”

Take a deep dive into 'the BDS heartland', with Haaretz's special project on South Africa's Jewish community:

■ Jews are leaving South Africa once again — but don’t blame BDS 
■ On the road with Africa’s only traveling rabbi 
■ These South African Jews hate the occupation as much as they hate BDS 
■ From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Drawing new lessons from the Holocaust in South Africa
■ This South African synagogue caters to Jews of all colors 
■ The Jews working to leave their mark on Rainbow Nation
 How do you keep Shabbat if you’re running after elephants?