The right man in the right place at the right time

Jerusalem Foundation President Ruth Cheshin reminisces about her mentor's cultivation of the Holy City he commanded for more than a quarter of a century.

ruth cheshin 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy photo)
ruth cheshin 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Jerusalem Foundation President Ruth Cheshin reminisces about her mentor's cultivation of the Holy City he commanded for more than a quarter of a century 'He never thought of himself as someone with a monopoly on wisdom," Ruth Cheshin says of the late Teddy Kollek, the man who set the wheels of her career in motion 40 years ago. "And he was always willing and eager to learn something new." Cheshin has headed the Jerusalem Foundation since the end of the Six Day War in 1967. It was then that her boss at City Hall decided to invest energy in raising private funds for public projects necessary to turning the now reunified Jerusalem into a modern, tourism-friendly place. Since then, the foundation's projects have included anything and everything from the renovation of neighborhoods to the development of cultural institutions to the building of playgrounds to the restoration of historical sites and the preservation of religious ones. And, as the name "Teddy" became synonymous with the country's capital, the name "Ruth Cheshin" became synonymous with the Jerusalem Foundation. A seventh-generation Jerusalemite, Cheshin (the wife of Supreme Court Justice Mishael, mother-of-three and grandmother-of-five) is also chairperson of the board of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, director of Teva Pharmaceuticals, and a member of the boards of the Israel Festival, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Tower of David Museum, the Khan Theater, the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television, the Jerusalem Music Center and the Jerusalem Theater. In this hour-long interview, Cheshin talks candidly and lovingly about the mayor with whom the whole world was on a first-name basis throughout the 28 years of his tenure (from 1965-1993) and afterwards. He was often abrasive, Cheshin says, yet he was always "able to accept criticism." When you think of Teddy, what's the first word that comes to your mind? Human. Compassionate. It was hidden behind a lot of abrasiveness, of course, but it was there. The personal life stories of "ordinary people" always moved him. And he saw everyone as equals, whether they were kids from poor neighborhoods in Jerusalem or the billionaires from the United States. He also treated everybody the same way. He was equally capable of screaming or smiling at people, no matter who they were. It's highly unusual these days, when most people with standing take themselves very seriously - with a sense of self-importance. Teddy wasn't like that. That was one of the most wonderful things about him. Do you remember the first time you met him? Yes, and in fact, it was surrounding precisely one of those "human" stories I mentioned. It was in 1965. I was a tour guide. The Tourism Ministry - which used to hire me to guide some of its guests - offered me a job handling important visitors arriving for the opening of the Israel Museum. One of these VIPs was a well-known artist, who was quite old with a very young wife. On the second day after their arrival, he died suddenly. His wife was at a complete loss, literally and figuratively. She didn't know what to do. She was in a foreign country, where she didn't speak the language. She'd accompanied her husband, and suddenly he was gone. She was all alone in the world. It was awful. Teddy didn't know me, but he came to me and gave me the following order: "Your job is to take care of that woman from morning till night. Make her feel at home." And so I did - for every minute of every day, until she was on the airplane back home. The museum handled all the technicalities of the coffin and the body, etc. But I took care of the woman. The very fact that this is what Teddy had on his mind during the opening of the museum he was so concerned with and excited about was a fantastic human gesture. Even though he "ordered" you to take care of her... Yes, that was his style - the way he made requests. And that was the beginning of your decades-long acquaintance? Yes, but do you really think that after that he even remembered me at all? [She laughs.] Not a chance. Though I, of course, remembered him. A few months later, I volunteered for his election campaign - he was elected mayor in December 1965. But I still didn't really meet him then. When he was elected, the person I worked for as a volunteer during the campaign offered me a job. He told me that Teddy, who considered tourism very important, had hired him to manage the tourism department of the municipality. He asked me to be his assistant and I agreed. During that period, nobody ever visited Jerusalem. You know, there was a famous story of a British soldier visiting Jerusalem in '65 who, after walking around the streets of the city past 8 p.m., asked his friends whether the curfew was still in effect. [She laughs again.] What attracted Teddy to the whole issue of tourism? He thought that more people should be encouraged to come here. More tourists mean more money, more movement. We all know that. Look what went on in Jerusalem during the intifada. Tourists stopped coming, and restaurants closed, shops shut down and hotels were virtually empty. The city was dead. Teddy always understood this. The average [pre-'67] tourist would come to Jerusalem in the morning and return to Tel Aviv, or elsewhere, in the evening. Our goal was to cause the tourists to spend at least one night in Jerusalem. So we had to create attractions. That was the idea behind the tourism department of the Jerusalem Municipality. Then came the the Six Day War, which unified the city. Suddenly, Jerusalem became an international attraction - the most famous city in the world. How did that make Teddy feel? It made him feel great. He was like a fish in water. He really was the right man in the right place at the right time. Anyway, it was during the Six Day War that I got to know Teddy. Most of the staff of City Hall was drafted. I was in my seventh month of pregnancy with my second son at the time - he's now 39 - and I was practically the only person in the building, which is why I ended up working with him more directly. So, when the war ended, he said to me, "Listen, Ruthie, tourists are now coming to the city, so we don't need a tourism department. I think what we need to do now is develop the Jerusalem Foundation." It already existed? Yes, but on a very low flame, so he wanted to develop it. While I was mulling over the proposition, he said, "What's the problem? It won't take you more than two days a week, at most." That convinced me, and that's how I began to work for the foundation. We had two very small rooms on the roof of City Hall. If someone had told you then that the Jerusalem Foundation would become such a massive, world-renowned operation, what would you have said? If we were so world-renowned, instead of raising $30-35 million per year, we might be raising $100 million. But it's true that it would have been hard to fathom that it would develop the way it did. Was Teddy involved in the day-to-day working of the foundation? Was he actively involved in the fund-raising? Yes. Teddy was someone who liked to go into the details. As mayor, as well. He would get up at 5 a.m. and start inspecting the streets. As far as fundraising was concerned, he was definitely involved, because he had charisma; people loved him and wanted to help him develop Jerusalem. He was also lucky, because the period was a wonderful one. The whole world - Jews and non-Jews alike - was looking at Jerusalem and wanted to take part in its rebuilding. He knew how to take advantage of that. He knew how to translate it into money. Would he focus his requests on specific projects, or merely ask for donations, and then decide himself how they should be allocated? Teddy knew that a park was needed here and a nursery school there - and we would try to find funding for them - to match donors to projects. When did you become the head of the foundation? You could say that I headed the foundation right from the start. But at first it was the size of a match-box, and I was considered its secretary. Then I was general-manager, and finally president. After Ehud Olmert replaced Teddy as mayor, he established the New Jerusalem Foundation. Why? When he was elected, he thought that, along with City Hall, he had inherited the Jerusalem Foundation. He didn't know exactly what it was. If he had done his homework, he would have learned that the Jerusalem Foundation wasn't sitting on piles of money. The way we worked was to find a donor to fund a certain project. This could be a shelf of books at a school for $3,000, or it could be the entire library of a school for $200,000, or a neighborhood library for $2 million. But the donation was always earmarked. If it was a large project, there were a number of donors. So, in fact, there was never money left over. Olmert didn't know this. He thought there was money that he could use to fund projects for the city. But the Jerusalem Foundation was never a department of the Municipality. In any case, he didn't establish the new foundation until his second term in office [Olmert was elected in 1993; the New Jerusalem Foundation was established in 2000.] Are your projects affected by the political situation in Israel? Definitely - yet not because the foundation is a political body, but because Israel is. And when people are angry at Israel, they often lose their desire to give money to Jerusalem. Of course there are ups and downs. During the second intifada, for example, we suffered terribly, because most of our fundraising is done among people visiting Israel, and they weren't coming. So, though we went abroad [to raise funds], it's just not the same when you make an appeal to someone in his office on Park Avenue as when you're showing him with his own eyes the actual places and spots you want to develop in Jerusalem. When the intifada ended, we not only matched previous years in terms of donations, but even exceeded them. We're on an upward curve. Which community gives you the most? Do evangelical Christians contribute? We don't have so many evangelist donors. Not that we have anything against them. But if I'm not mistaken, they tended to give to Olmert's foundation. I would say that about one quarter of our funds come from non-Jewish sources. In Germany, we have a group of dedicated donors. Most of the money we raised to renovate Mishkenot Sha'ananim came from non-Jewish Germans. In the US, too, we have John Whitehead - of World Trade Center Foundation fame - he's helped raise money for the restoration of Via Dolorosa, for example. It's very important for us to help the minority communities here. Indeed, one of the things we deal with is coexistence. Donating money often involves ego-gratification. Do people from whom you try to raise funds make specific requests to have their names displayed prominently? Of course. But I also encourage this. When you see a sign attributing a donation to somebody, you might say to yourself, "Ah, that family donated this park - why shouldn't I also give money?" It creates incentive. It's appositive thing, though it took me a while to understand this. In the beginning, I didn't like the idea of calling some national park after some private person or other. It was actually Teddy who told me that it's a good thing to have the person's name. "It's because of him that we established the park, after all," he said, explaining that we could all benefit from this policy. And it's the easiest thing in the world to do. Teddy was 100 percent right. That was one of the things I had the privilege of learning from him. What is your view of the light rail system under construction for Jerusalem? With all the problems of congestion that it's causing the city right now, there's no choice but to have that light rail. Jerusalem has to be a modern city with a proper transportation system. Culturally, do you think Jerusalemites can get used to it? Of course we can. Our cultural problems lie elsewhere. If you had to sum up Teddy's legacy in terms of your endeavors at the Jerusalem Foundation, what would it be? Our desire and efforts to create a pluralistic city in which residents respect each other. Teddy always used to say that he never expected everyone to love one another. But that they should respect and value each other. Live and let live. After Teddy ceased being mayor, did you continue to have close ties with him? Yes, of course. He had an office here, though as he grew older, he became less active. You mentioned his abrasiveness. Were your feelings ever hurt by him? Suuure...Many people around him had their feelings hurt - myself among them. Sometimes, he would yell at me and I would yell back. Did he accept that? Was he someone with whom one could argue? Yes, he was very open to persuasion. Always ready to listen. He never thought of himself as someone with a monopoly on wisdom. He was able to accept criticism and hear dissenting opinions. And he was always willing and eager to learn something new. Do you miss him? Did you feel that his death signalled the end of an era? Yes, very much so. But, unfortunately, over the last two years, we'd been forced to get used to this sad fact, because he began slowly to deteriorate. Interestingly enough, though, as much as we had time to get used to it, his death was nevertheless tragic - and though it was expected, it was a surprise.