Jerusalem is a city of politics and history, diversity and conflict, religion and beauty. But a student haven? Nightlife? Entertainment? Tel Aviv is only a bus ride away, goes the common refrain. But not everyone agrees.

A group of Jerusalem students has spent the last seven years trying to debunk what it describes as, simply put, a myth.

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“It’s a complete lie,” says Bar Peled, a Hebrew University student who volunteers with New Spirit, a nonprofit organization that was established in 2003 to revitalize Jerusalem’s student population.

“Tel Aviv is in your face. But Jerusalem, you just need to learn how to reach [out to it],” she says. “When you fall in love with her, there’s no way out.”

That’s what Peled and her coworkers tried to explain to an elite gathering of Jerusalem’s English-speaking community last Wednesday evening, which included Mayor Nir Barkat and former Intel CEO Alexander Kornhouser.

“New Spirit is very well known among young people,” says Elisheva Mazya, director of New Spirit, which is run predominantly by students and recent graduates. “But older people usually don’t know about us.”

So at an upscale cocktail party in Talpiot that had blazer and jeans intermingling with suit and tie, New Spirit representatives asked the adults for support – financial and otherwise. In particular, the students promoted the organization’s internship program, uniting students with unpaid part-time work opportunities that offer job mentoring and necessary work experience.

While internship is a common route for American students to take, the concept is relatively foreign to Israel. But for six years, New Spirit has spearheaded a project to match students with institutions in their respective fields, having already found positions for 1,500 students. Last week’s gathering was an opportunity to raise funds for the program, while also encouraging the industry leaders among the group to open their companies to the idea of internships.

Ya’acov Lozowick, who attended last week’s event, is starting up a software company in Jerusalem, his hometown since 1967 when he arrived as a 10-year-old. He says he can identify strongly with New Spirit’s mission, as most of his childhood friends have left Jerusalem. “This city was not attracting people their age, and New Spirit went about fixing it,” he says, offering praise for the organization while still uncertain whether he will have an internship opportunity available.

Mayor Barkat threw in his support for the organization as a long-time advocate of revitalizing the student community in Jerusalem.

Less than a decade ago, student life in Jerusalem was on its way out, says New Spirit spokesperson Daniel Greenberg. The second intifada – and a deadly explosion at the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus – was the final straw, eradicating any sense of security. “People were not keen on being here,” Greenberg says. “Students would pick up and leave for home on Thursday.”

But in 2003, a group of Hebrew University students – some Jerusalem locals mixed with kibbutz kids and other new arrivals – joined up with financiers to revamp student life in Jerusalem. Today, with 20,000 members and a staff of 18, New Spirit reaches out to Jerusalem’s enormous student community. More than 42,000 students study in the capital, including half of Israel’s art students.
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