“They promised me heat!” Asher Abraham blurted out at the conclusion of last night’s launch event for Yossi Klein Halevi’s new book “Like Dreamers.”
Abraham’s Highlight Foundation had produced the evening at Jerusalem’s First Station shopping and restaurant complex. But looking at the three story tall tee-pee like metal skeleton, punctuated by billowing sheets of plastic, enclosing much of what in summer is an expansive outdoor plaza but which now appeared for all the world like some low rent version of Biosphere 2, it’s hard to imagine that the First Station’s “solution” for continuing its cultural programming during the frigid Jerusalem winter weather could ever be heated sufficiently, certainly not for the Anglo crowd of nearly 200 who eagerly shivered in hoodies and gloves while Klein Halevi and “Startup Nation” author Saul Singer genially bantered on stage.
Good thing the price of admission also included two cups of hot soup.
Saul Singer and Yossi Klein Halevi at Jerusalem''s First Station - wrapped in plastic
Perhaps the fact we could see our breath was a metaphor for the breadth of Klein Halevi’s book, which tells the history of Israel from 1967 until today through the stories of seven remarkable paratroopers who were the first to arrive at the Western Wall during the Six Day War. The book just took the top prize in the 2013 national Jewish Book Awards and has received rave reviews.
Or maybe a different metaphor was in play: one of the tenaciousness of Jerusalemites to brave adversity in search of cultural stimulation. This was actually the fourth time I’ve come out to this freezing cold tent with no heat at night in the last month alone. Previously, we donned our ski caps and gloves to see an Ecuadorian dance troupe, a women’s threesome singing Andrews Sisters-inspired 1940s pop standards, and just the night before, a rock and roll Havdalah service led by the Nava Tehila community to conclude Shabbat.
Promoting cultural activities is one of the goals of the Jerusalem Highlight Foundation, which sponsored the Klein Halevi book launch and was founded just a few months ago to produce “content-driven social events that support worthy causes.” The recipient of ticket sales for this evening was Jerusalem Village, a three-year-old grassroots community project that aims to give young new immigrants to Israel’s capital a reason to stick around.
Jerusalem Village head and PR marketing whiz Lisa Barkan cites survey data showing that, of the 1,000 new immigrants who arrive in Jerusalem every year, 60 percent move out – to other cities or leave Israel entirely – after just six months. In 2010, Barkan sponsored a pluralistic community Friday night dinner for 150 young adults. “We had an unbelievable response and realized that there was a whole market not being served – namely, newcomers to the city looking for more than classes at a yeshiva or a beer at Mike’s Place,” Barkan told me.
Jerusalem Village now sponsors a variety of activities, from wine tastings and photography classes to its arguably most successful endeavor, a more intimate Shabbat dinner gathering which Barkan calls “Shalom al Lechem.” It’s a play on the traditional welcoming song for the Shabbat “angels” recited upon returning from synagogue and the Hebrew word lechem for bread. “Shalom al Lechem” pairs four new immigrants with four Sabras (native born Israelis). They get to know each other while cooking a full Shabbat dinner together on one of Jerusalem Village’s “traveling kosher kitchens” under the supervision of a professional caterer. A theme is picked for each meal; food and conversation flows. Jerusalem Village picks up most of the tab for the meal.
“We want to help adult newcomers in their 20s and 30 build roots in the city by providing access to resources and networks that already exist in the young Israeli community,” Barkan says. Another one of the group’s large scale Shabbat is coming up on the last weekend of January. Based on its popular programming to date, in 2013, Jerusalem Village scored a grant from the Leichtag Foundation to develop a five-year strategic plan. Some 2,500 people eagerly await the group’s weekly emails with upcoming events.
Making connections and promoting pluralism has always been Barkan’s game – in her personal as well as her professional life. Ultimately, Barkan wants to see a rebuilt Jerusalem that’s less extreme than the one depicted in the news. In that respect, the match between her Jerusalem Village and the message of Klein Halevi’s book are very much in sync.
Klein Halevi explained to a small VIP group before the main event that he sees an Israel that has been “broken” by the crash of the often messianic dreams of both the right and the left, but that today is healing by moving towards the center and choosing realism as its raison d’etre. For the first time in many years, Klein Halevi says he feels optimistic about where Israel is heading and that even the current government, dysfunctional as it may sometimes be, is the best we’ve had in years, with the opportunity to make dramatic changes across multiple cultural, religious and political spheres.
If Barkan’s Jerusalem Village can convince more pluralistic new immigrants to stay in the city, and if the country’s surprising center continues to hold as Klein Halevi foresees, then Jerusalem’s First Station can expect many more successful events catering to a culture-seeking Anglos and Israelis alike.
But, seriously, a little heat wouldn’t hurt.