top of page
  • michianajewishhist

From South Africa to South Bend

Image provided by Ian Wulfsohn

If you meet a Wulfsohn in the wild, it’s likely their branches stem from the same family tree. The unique spelling of the surname has German-Jewish roots, and their mark has been made all around the world...from South Africa to South Bend.

For the Wulfsohn family in Maidstone, South Africa, keeping a Jewish lifestyle was a challenge. They were the only Jewish family for miles around, and had to travel many hours to nearby Durban to attend weekly Hebrew lessons and Shabbat services. Jesmond "Tookie" and Lesley Wulfsohn raised a family of three girls and a boy, a young lad named Ian who showed potential playing the contact sport of rugby in clubs at an early age. The family made their living owning and running a hotel in Maidstone, where they also took up residence. Though the dictates of life made it a challenge, Lesley Wulfsohn encouraged all of her children to complete their Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Durban.

In 1987, Ian Wulfsohn was 28 and playing rugby at a professional skill level, even though the sport was considered amateur and athletes could not be paid. Ian traveled to the United States to play in Dallas and Chicago, before heading back to South Africa after six months.

In February 1988, a car accident changed the course of Ian’s life. Serious injuries crushed his potential to play rugby at a higher level, but the friends he made in the US from his previous expedition gave Ian a new lease on life; he was offered a coaching position in Atlanta but was hesitant to return. “My parents told me to go back to the States,” Ian says. “They said I could always come back home. This was an opportunity of a lifetime and I had to seize it.”

Ian immigrated to Dallas, TX in 1991 to coach and eventually made his way to Chicago on the advice of a friend and ended up coaching a team in Lincoln Park. Success wasn’t far behind; Ian coached his team to the nationals in his second year.

Rugby was still considered amateur, even in the United States. Ian would have to work many odd jobs in order to keep a roof over his head and food on his plate. “I was a bartender, a bouncer, a gardner, a name it, I’ve done it,” Ian says. “It was a struggle, but it made me who I am today.” Ian stayed in a studio apartment in Lincoln Park with one small suitcase of belongings to his name, sleeping on the floor and eventually upgrading to a mattress and nightstand someone had given away.

Months later, Ian decided to attend services at a nearby synagogue and, as fate would have it, caught wind of a rabbi living in Chicago from South Africa. Excited to meet someone from home, Ian got in touch with Rabbi Yochanan Nathan and introduced himself. Immediately, Rabbi Nathan invited him over for Shabbat dinner, offering to pick up Ian and encouraging him to pack a bag.

“He insisted I stay the night, because he did not want me travelling back home on Shabbat,” Ian says. Rabbi Nathan was sympathetic to his struggle and offered Ian a place to live. “I learned so much from him. I had never wrapped tefillin until I met him,” says Ian.

After a month, Ian decided it was time again to move out on his own, but not before receiving a special birthday gift. “My birthday was coming up and Rabbi asked what day and what year.” Much to Ian’s surprise, Rabbi Nathan presented him with tzitzit a few days before his birthday, in honor of his Hebrew birthdate.

Ian eventually found success working for, and later running, a consignment furniture store in Lincoln Park. Under his leadership, sales at the shop tripled in just under a year. A successful career in sales meant stability, which let Ian focus on socializing with friends and being young in a big city.

Many years later, fate stepped in again for Ian when he met the love of his life on Christmas Eve 1995. A friend invited him to the Matzah Ball, an annual party for Chicago’s Jewish young adults. It was there he met a student from South Bend, Aviva Piser...and the rest, as they say, is history. Ian and Aviva fell in love, moved back to Indiana, married at Temple Beth-El and started a family of their own. Today, Ian, Aviva, Liora and Eliana are members of Sinai Synagogue and active in all aspects of Jewish life in Michiana.


How did your family get here? Let us know if you'd like to share your story! Give us a call (574-233-1164) or email We'll be sharing more community photographs and stories from our archives this month on our Facebook page.

bottom of page