Meetings with Shai Doron, president of the Jerusalem Foundation, usually involve tours of gleaming construction projects, outings to leafy green gardens and visits to modern school buildings to learn about the foundation’s latest educational and cultural projects in the city. But today’s get-together is decidedly different. Sitting with Doron in a sparsely furnished conference room in the community center of Beit Hanina, the Arab neighborhood in east Jerusalem, the atmosphere is nowhere near as glamorous or relaxed.
The distance from Jerusalem’s city center to Beit Hanina is only eight kilometers, but it is a world away. Here, the water offered is Jericho natural mineral water – not Neviot – and the catcalls and cries of Yahud Ma’afan (Lousy Jew) from a group of teens standing across the street when we arrived made me realize that I was no longer in Kansas.
Doron invited me to meet the board members of the Beit Hanina Community Center and learn about the community sports center that the Jerusalem Foundation is building in east Jerusalem together with the Jerusalem municipality. The sports center, which will be completed in the next two to three years, will consist of a half-Olympic size indoor pool, a toddler pool, an instruction pool, exercise rooms and areas for various activities.
Since 1967, he explains, the Jerusalem Municipality has built eighteen public community sports centers, many in conjunction with the Jerusalem Foundation. Yet not a single one has been built in the eastern part of the city.
"We believe,” says Doron, “that coexistence in Jerusalem doesn’t mean that everyone must live together. But the opportunities to narrow the gaps in services provided must be narrowed between the populations in the east and west of the city. We have an ethical obligation to make every effort so that everything that is offered in the western part of the city is available in the eastern part of Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion is an enthusiastic participant in the Beit Hanina initiative, saying that “this is a significant breakthrough in strengthening society in Jerusalem, and this is just the beginning of reducing the gaps between different parts of the city.”
The Jerusalem Foundation raised the necessary funds for the construction of the sports center, with a significant portion coming from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation. “We are pleased to join the initiative of the mayor and the Jerusalem Foundation in establishing the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Community Sports Center in east Jerusalem,” foundation president Jehuda Reinharz said. “The Mandel Foundation has established its permanent home in the capital city, which expresses its long-standing commitment to activities for Jerusalem as well as to activities for all residents of Israel.”
Doron adds the fact that the leadership of the Beit Hanina Community Center assuming responsibility for the functioning and operation of the building after it is completed is critical.
“We have found partners who can take responsibility to operate the place after we finish the building,” says Doron. “The community center of Beit Hanina and Shuafat has proven over the years that it can carry out projects for the community’s needs. They don’t deal with politics here. We will raise the funds and build it, and we have someone to give it over to in two or three years when it is done.”
Doron does not paper over the political issues and difficulties inherent in the project but says the communal strength that is present in the community center can carry the day and enable its leaders to maintain and manage the project. “The physical aspect of this $20 million project is significant, but the communal part is the most important component,” he says.
The initiative for the community sports center, explains Doron, came from both sides. “For many years, they have been asking for a pool. When I took office in October 2018, I didn’t know any of these people. As president of the Jerusalem Foundation, I said that I would not rest until there were two sports centers with pools in east Jerusalem. This has been a top priority, but there was no money for it at the time.”
Sitting in the conference room along with Doron and other Jerusalem Foundation staff members is Waseem Elhaj, the young and articulate head of the community center, along with three volunteer members of the board. Elhaj translates Doron’s remarks into Arabic as he speaks for the benefit of the board members. After Doron’s opening remarks, Waseem speaks.
Introducing the activities of the community center, Elhaj speaks fluent Hebrew. The Beit Hanina Community Center was officially established in 1994. It serves the neighborhoods of Shuafat and Beit Hanina – whose combined population is close to 80,000 – and provides a variety of services for residents, including daycare centers for infants, activities for primary and secondary school students, and programs for senior adults.
“For the past two years,” Elhaj notes, “we have had discussions with donors and meetings. It has been a real experience. We enjoyed every moment: to speak and meet with people who wanted to do good, with no preconditions or strings attached.”
Elhaj says that the meetings were no less significant for the donors themselves. “It was an experience for them to hear from the other side, people from east Jerusalem.”
At one meeting, he recalls, one of the Beit Hanina board members said that, “when I was growing up, there was a demolition order on our home. My children grew up with a home that had a demolition order. That was the only side we knew. The language barrier that was in place because we couldn’t speak Hebrew prevented us from meeting and speaking with Israelis. We automatically assumed that the Israelis were the ‘bad’ side. Suddenly, I met people who wanted to do good.
“After our meetings, I returned to my children, and I said that there are nice people who want to do good for east Jerusalem.”
After Elhaj’s introductory remarks, the center’s board members shared their thoughts about the community sports center. Younis Abu Sbieh says that having a pool in east Jerusalem has been a long-time dream of the community center’s leadership. Despite the political complexity involved, he is confident that the community center’s administration, which has always served the community well, will be able to manage and operate the pool successfully.
A second member of the board says that in recent years, residents of east Jerusalem have been exposed to what he terms the “Bad Israeli” in terms of government decisions, citing current tensions around the entry of Jews to the Temple Mount and the lack of construction permits for the east side of the city.
“The pool will be an example of the good side of the government that east Jerusalem residents will see.” In his eyes, the pool will be an equalizing factor for Arab residents, akin to the equal medical treatment that Jews and Arabs receive in hospitals.
In the midst of our meeting, one of the board members rolls out his prayer mat and quietly begins his afternoon prayers in a corner of the room. Various snacks, including baklava and sweets, are offered to the guests.
A third board member, Ali Elwan, points out the difficulties that east Jerusalemites have in learning how to swim without a public pool in their neighborhood. He relates that he taught his children to swim in a local private pool, but as another member says, not everyone in Beit Hanina has the money to pay for private lessons. Elhaj notes that currently, 1,600 students are sent to swimming pools on the western side of the city to learn how to swim. “Imagine the waste of travel time and money. Soon, everything will be here.”
The community center director says that the sports center will have a positive effect beyond swimming. “This center will change the approach and customs and culture. Today, kids finish school and have nothing to do. Once the sports center is completed, vandalism will go down, and instead of wasting time on the street, they will have a place to enjoy. It will have a long-term positive influence on the neighborhood and east Jerusalem.”
Doron adds that the economic benefits of the sports center to Beit Hanina will be substantial. The new facility will provide employment opportunities for hundreds of people – managers, coaches, instructors, technicians and more, and will serve as a fertile ground for the growth of local civic leadership.
As our meeting comes to an end, Shai Doron speaks passionately about the construction of the sports center. “You can’t speak about joint existence when there is such a big gap between west and east.” He emphasizes that one needs to distinguish things like this from the political aspect of Jerusalem. “No one here will become a Zionist, but we need to separate from politics and look at real life, to examine the real needs of each community. This will strengthen the community.”