Christmas cheer at the YMCA

That’s a sunny message to get across, which should resonate in the season of goodwill. Ho ho ho…

YULETIDE VIBES: Christmas season at the YMCA attracts crowds from all over the country. (photo credit: Courtesy)
YULETIDE VIBES: Christmas season at the YMCA attracts crowds from all over the country.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Those of us who hail from Western countries where Christmas is a big thing – with all the razzamatazz of towering Christmas trees in the town square, fairy lights strung across lampposts, trees and houses, and the ubiquitous eminently jolly Santa Claus characters dotted here and there – may actually miss the “seasonal spirit” of over yonder. If that strikes a chord, you should get yourself over to the YMCA in the coming few weeks.
It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that, here we are, in the part of the world where Jesus lived and made his name – and came to a painful untimely end – and only a small minority of the inhabitants adhere to the religion that actively celebrates Christmas.
But, of course, as Jesus was born here and walked the pathways of this ancient land, we are left with a clutch of locations that are important to Christianity, including in Jerusalem. The local YMCA has, for some years now, pulled out as many stops as it possibly can to mark the birth of the man they regard as their messiah.
Earlier this week, the institution held the curtain-raiser to a monthlong program of thematic activities when the on switch was pulled and a Christmas tree near the façade of the magnificent 86-year-old eclectic style edifice burst into polychromic life.
This is the fifth edition of the current festivities format, and there’s a host of goodies lined up for the members of the public, of all ages and from all walks of life, to enjoy. The Christmas Market has become something of an institution and follows in the footsteps of the outdoor seasonal stall-based events that take place in towns and cities all over Europe and the US at this time of the year. The YMCA market will be up and running December 5 to December 8, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, with a bunch of spacious tents going up around the building forecourt. Some will house live shows, there will be kiddie-tailored stuff at the Christmas for Kids spot, and victuals aplenty, including roasted chestnuts, warm wine, Christmas cocktails, cheeses, traditional pastries and Christmas cookies.
One of the tents will accommodate stalls loaded with handicraft items, with handmade Christmas artifacts made by artisans from east Jerusalem, miniature Christmas trees, Santa Claus hats, candles, olive oil-based soaps and more. Of course, no Christmas event is complete without a “bona fide” Santa – or two – and a bunch of actors, decked out in the traditional red and white garb, will do the rounds of the market with cries of “Ho ho ho” and even dispensing gifts to all the “good little children.” And in the likelihood that the elements don’t do their thing, an artificial snow machine will adorn the holiday backdrop with some requisite flakey-looking trimmings.
Christmas is also a musical time of year, carols and all, and the seasonal proceedings will include a gala Christmas Eve concert (December 24, 7:30 p.m.), with 80 vocalists singing holiday songs together, in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Micah Hendler will be on hand to conduct the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, together with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and instrumentalists from the Jerusalem Street Orchestra.
The seasonal offerings are being overseen by YMCA CEO Rana Fahoum, who recently stepped into the hot seat. Not that she is exactly a newcomer to her workday surroundings, having previously served on the management for three years, and took a hands-on role in the educational, sports and cultural side of things.
“I was also on the Programs Committee, so I was involved in everything happening here,” she notes. “I connected with this place quite a while ago. I think this is an amazing place.”
THE YMCA certainly has a lot going for it. With more than 80 years of sterling service, through umpteen regional political upheavals, with its sumptuous architecture and décor, its location overlooking the Old City, and the cross-ethnic, multi-denominational consumers it serves, the institution has the street cred and rich experience to deliver the goods. I noted that even a glimpse of the furniture and interior design of the building give off a sense of accrued nous that can be imparted for the common good.
“The history of the place and the message it tries to convey,” says Fahoum, “that it is very important.”
As the new incumbent honcho, what message is she trying to get across? The CEO does not go for the PR-oriented declarations of politicians across the globe.
“Whenever a new CEO comes in, they are always asked: ‘What is your vision for this place?’” Fahoum posits. “Then there is a sort of obligation to bring in something new.”
Shades of the “change” trope of politicians.
“There is no need to upgrade or change the vision of this place,” she states. “We have to reinforce the very strong elements here, to work on achieving better management, and to consider how we can do ‘scaling up’ of the message we bring to the world.”
Fahoum goes for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach.
“The vision of this place is wonderful, and has been ever since it first opened in 1933.”
She believes the rest of us could learn a thing or two from the institution in her charge.
“When I am asked what my dream for Jerusalem is, I always say that I wish that Jerusalem should be like the YMCA. This place is open to everyone, safe for everyone, and a place that accommodates everyone.”
That may sound a little on the rose-colored specs side of the life philosophy standpoint, but Fahoum appears to be maintaining a sober view of reality.
“We don’t have to agree on everything, and we don’t have to love each other, we simply have to accept the fact that we live in a shared domain. We all have a mutual responsibility and responsibility for the domain in which we live. That’s life at the YMCA. That’s what the YMCA brings.”
In this part of the world, that inclusive stance generally means stepping deftly along a fine line, where anyone and everyone can interpret, or misinterpret, your actions as being politically motivated on some level or other. Fahoum is savvy to that particular minefield.
“I always say that being non-political is the hardest work there is. We are not a political institution, we are not a religious organization,” Fahoum continues. “
It does not make for an easy life.
“It is simply inevitable that there will be people at the edges, at the extremities, who won’t want us, regardless of what we do. There are people who feel we contradict their beliefs. It doesn’t make any difference what activities we put on, or what programs we provide. For some we will always be objectionable.”
The feeling is mutual.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t want that kind of person here,” Fahoum declares. “The only condition we set, for participating in our activities, is that you accept that you are in a shared domain.”
That, says the CEO, still leaves plenty of room for maneuver. She is also keen to dispel the idea of programmatic rigidity.
“We don’t force anyone to talk to anyone else here. There are programs that are designed to promote dialogue among different groups, not just between Arabs and Jews – people always refer to that. We have many different groups that come here – there are people with special needs, youngsters, older people, children, Ashkenazim, Mizrachim, secular and religious. It’s the same for the Palestinian sector. There are secular and religious Palestinians, people who are for normalization and people who oppose normalization.”
She says she has no control over people’s views of what the YMCA does and, basically, doesn’t care too much about that, either.
“We host Kids for Peace [NGO that works with Israeli and Palestinian youth] here, and someone may interpret that [in some way]. The Kids for Peace activities are so welcome. It promotes dialogue among youth within Jerusalem, and we host them. That is part of our mandate.”
The apolitical-political balancing act is a tricky business.
“People from the outside can impose on that some political baggage,” Fahoum observes. “It is a political statement in itself, that we live in a shared domain. We say that as if it is obvious, trivial. But that is a very important factor. That’s just it. If you really believe that we are all here to stay, that reflects your ideology.”
If that’s not the way you see things Fahoum would rather you steered clear of the YMCA building.
“Those who try to ignore others or to do away with them, have no place at the YMCA.”

THE ORGANIZATION and the building that houses it are indeed special. You only have to catch a glimpse of the façade, with its multicultural architectural ornamentation, as you drive, cycle or stroll along King David Road, to get the uniqueness of the institution and its location in the veteran plush heart of west Jerusalem. While Fahoum appreciates the aesthetic and outlook added value of the place, she doesn’t want it to set the YMCA apart from its cultural and social milieu
.
“That’s exactly our challenge,” she exclaims. “Our challenge is to bring this special thing to the whole of Jerusalem. It doesn’t matter what political solution comes up – if that, in fact, ever happens – I think that there is one thing we all agree on, that Jerusalem must be an open and safe city. That’s the beauty and magic of Jerusalem, and we have to preserve that. That’s what we try to do here, on all fronts. We walk the talk.”
That’s a sunny message to get across, which should resonate in the season of goodwill.
Ho ho ho…
For tickets for the Christmas Eve concert: *6991 and www.goshow.co.il/, and ymca.org.il/