Anyone who has frequented their local establishment will probably have experienced the snugness, the cozy ambiance, the sense of being somewhere – to quote from the hugely popular 1980s-90s American sitcom Cheers – “where everyone knows your name.”
That is exactly the spirit Michal Levy and her pals are looking to generate at their new venture, a social pub in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. The watering hole opened up for business on Vardinon Street a couple of weeks ago. Support for the undertaking comes from the director of the municipality’s Social Businesses Department Omri Ben-Ami and the director of the municipality’s Division for Businesses Development Amir Hakimian. As the municipal website has it, the latter is responsible for the business development of one of Israel’s largest and most challenging cities.
That principally refers to out and out commercial enterprises, but just in case Hakimian’s hands were not already full, now he also has the aforementioned community-oriented leisure spots to oversee.
A devoted Jerusalemite, Hakimian exudes a sense of local patriotism. “The Division for Businesses Development was created based on a vision of business development and looking to strengthen Jerusalem,” he says. “We are proud to be the leaders in renewal and creativity.”
Hakimian is at pains to note that he is not alone in his efforts to address the human side of the city, and keep Jerusalemites smiling and, hopefully, making a living in the process. “We developed the field of social businesses, which Omri Ben-Ami brilliantly leads, and in order to succeed in this we need and have the tremendous backing of the mayor. He cares. He is connected to this idea. It comes from the guts.”
That, Hakimian believes, produces juicy beneficial fruits all around. “That leads to good things [on the social front]. The Municipality of Jerusalem is, currently, the only municipality in the country that engages in social businesses.”
He and his colleagues are eager to spread the word and lay the groundwork for more socially-oriented endeavors where the social business and pubs are coming from, and get others on board in the process. “We run conferences, courses, workshops and other activities,” Hakimian happily notes, before referencing the Bible for some local-roots collateral. “They say: ‘For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’” Indeed they do, at least in the book of Isaiah. And the “Lord” here is, at least as per the official title of his British counterparts, Lord Mayor Moshe Lion.
“Bravo!” Lion enthuses. “I welcome the new social venture in Gilo. The more the merrier.”
Deputy Mayor Yossi Havilio, who heads the Division for the Advancement of Youth and Young People in Jerusalem, attaches great importance to the operation of social pubs in the city. "They serve as a vehicle for creating leisure and cultural sites for young people, and also as a venture that unites the community in the neighborhood," he notes. "The municipality will continue to support and assist all community and social ventures and, in particular, the cafés and pubs."
Hakimian sees added value all around the country. “We want to share our [social business] expertise. We want people to learn about this and to engage in this field. We want to launch nationwide projects; unfortunately, the field of social business in other municipalities is not adequately developed. We want to share our knowledge because it will create a stronger country.” Amen to that.
WE EVENTUALLY move onto the new venture up in Gilo, and its ilk around town. “Social pubs are a niche area within the Division for Businesses Development,” Hakimian explains. “They have a social pub, in Armon Hanatziv, in an old bus. That’s really cool. They have all sorts of activities there. It’s a wonderful community anchor.”
All told, there are currently five social pubs dotted around town, including in Pisgat Ze’ev, Beit Hakerem and Kiryat Hayovel. The latter is located in the vicinity of The Golem “Mifletzet” (Monster) slide sculpture and takes its name from it.
The Mifletzet bar sets out an expansive human stall. “We are not just a pub,” its website states. “We are a neighborhood cultural center and a community meeting place.” Well said, and that is an ethos to which Levy wholeheartedly subscribes.
The Vardinon Street pub has some pretty sturdy grassroots behind it, with all the founding partners well on board and engaging in sterling work on behalf of the local social scene prior to the opening. “There are currently five of us and we all volunteered with the young families forum here,” Levy explains. “We organized lots of activities for children. There’s a games facility which runs once a week.” And it doesn’t exactly break the bank, even in these trying times. “Parents can pay something, NIS 5, and can spend time there,” Levy adds.
If anyone has roots at the southernmost tip of Jerusalem it’s Levy. “I have been living in Gilo since 1980,” she says. “I was 8 years old when the family moved here.”
Back then – my own parents moved there in 1982 – the upper reaches of Gilo, in particular, were a very different proposition. “There wasn’t even a road that climbed up here,” Levy laughs.
Growing up there, through her childhood and youth, Levy has a firm personal handle on the social and cultural needs of local kids and their parents. “There wasn’t much to do around here when I was little,” she recalls.
That memory fuels her local work today. “If we wanted to go out we had to go downtown.” As a parent of former teenagers I can attest to parental concerns relating to logistics and, yes, good old Polish anxiety over our offspring’s wellbeing and safety. Having the youngsters closer to hand helps, no doubt, to allay such protective – if not overly protective – energy expenditure.
The lockdowns and suffocating insular stretches of the recent past and, sadly, the present have left their mark on Levy’s neighbors and other fellow Gilo residents. “We put together all kinds of cultural activities here to make it easier on the parents.”
After a while, Levy and her socially-minded pals felt it was time to do something for the grownups as well. “We decided to set up something for ourselves too,” she says. “The community is very important to us. It is very important for us to nurture the people in the neighborhood, and to keep the youngsters in Gilo.”
If Levy is anything to go by there’s a good chance that will be the case. She and one of the other members of the leading fivesome are Gilo-bred, one is from elsewhere in Jerusalem, one is moving in from Netanya and the last one is from Beersheba.
“We thought it would be nice if we had somewhere to go out in Gilo, and to spend time with our neighbors and friends without too much bother of having to drive out of Gilo, looking for parking places and all that involved process.” The accent is very much on informality and feeling at home. “We thought we’d like to have somewhere we could pop into in our beach sandals, you know, without dressing up – not at all formal.”
But it isn’t just about propping up the bar and downing a pint or two while some suitable musical sounds lace the backdrop. “We want to organize all sorts of events at the pub too,” Levy elucidates. “We want to have music shows, and standup comedy acts, workshops, talks, and also things that involve the residents. They can volunteer to help out at the pub. We would be delighted to have, say, a local standup comedian perform at the pub. We want to encourage initiatives that come from the residents themselves.”
Luckily, Levy and others did not have to start from scratch. “We have had a lot of advice and help from the people at the Mifletzet. There are a few people who mentored us from there. We went over there to see how the business works, in reality.”
And there was plenty to take in, with more to negotiate in the near future. “The Mifletzet people helped us with advice about the official rules and regulations, and how to deal with and arrange cultural activities. They learned all that the hard way and we benefited from their experience.”
It is not a copy-and-paste template situation. “They listen to what we want and need, and we adapt it to our own needs. We learned a lot from them.”
The Gilo lot were also able to get some idea of how the Kiryat Yovel enterprise has impacted on the locale in all sorts of ways and how the new pub may tweak the local scene.
Levy hopes the new pub will bring in residents from all walks of life, and social, socioeconomic and religious stripes. “We want the residents to have their say. We want them to tell us what they would like to happen. That’s why we want them to be part of the cooperative work on the pub.”
There is certainly a significant hinterland to be addressed and the pub, Levy hopes, will help to bring out a stronger sense of community. “Gilo has 33,000 inhabitants,” Levy notes. “We don’t want to exclude anyone. So far we have had secular and religious people there. Everyone is welcome at the pub.”
Currently, the pub is open on Thursday evenings, with the hope that the business hours will stretch to Fridays, and before and after Shabbat.