A city’s wake-up call

The Hitorerut Party has visions of a new Jerusalem for the young generation.

Hanan Rubin (left), Ofer Berkowitz and Orly Jackson-Cohen (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Hanan Rubin (left), Ofer Berkowitz and Orly Jackson-Cohen
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Despite what some may think, Jerusalem’s Hitorerut Party does a lot more for the city than just organize large outdoor parties for young people. So declares its leader, city councillor Ofer Berkowitz.
“That’s some kind of urban legend people try to pin on us for various reasons,” he says in a recent interview, accompanied by his No. 2, Hanan Rubin. “We have done a lot of important work, and we can show our supporters an impressive list of achievements.”
Hitorerut (“awakening” in English) was a spontaneous decision made at the home of Yoav Oren (one of the young people who founded the group) on a cold evening during January 2008.
“We realized that we were at the start of an election year [the 2008 elections took place in November], and the atmosphere was that almost everything was doomed here – no place for the young, no future, no jobs, no decent housing. And let’s not even talk about the lack of leisure and entertainment options,” says Berkowitz. “So many of our friends had just packed up and left for the Center of the country, and it was clear that this was the only option for most of our generation here.”
“But we loved the city, we were born here, raised here, and some of us simply couldn’t accept that deadlocked situation,” continues Rubin.
Berkowitz and the other key personality in the Hitorerut story, Merav Cohen, decided together with their friends – all in their early 20s at the time – that they weren’t just going to throw their hands up like their friends who had left Jerusalem had.
“We knew this city had genuine potential, even for young people, that it was up to us not to surrender and resign, so on the spur of the moment, without a real plan, we started to get things moving, and the rest is history,” adds Berkowitz.
History indeed: For the first time in the city’s political story, a list composed entirely of young people, dedicated to their own generation’s issues, was elected to the city council. Their victory was even more impressive considering that they were not backed by any political party or power, had no money, and more importantly had no political experience.
The result was a turnabout on the local political scene, with far-reaching impact. After five years on the city council, despite few achievements to show and an embarrassing conflict between Berkowitz and Cohen that led to the latter’s departure from the party, Hitorerut is still here – and according to its leaders, it is more mature, more experienced and ready to address A city’s wake-up call the concerns of a broader swath of Jerusalem residents.
“Parties and entertainment programs are nice and important for the younger generation, but they are just a part of our activities,” Berkowitz says. “We have done a lot to encourage investment in the city, as well as government involvement in small businesses.
We launched a forum for small businesses where one can get information and tips, while the second issue in which we invested a lot of influence and activity is improving housing for residents in their 40s.”
The 30-year-old Berkowitz, who is recently married, and Rubin, a 31-year-old, married father of four, explain that these two issues are the ones that matter the most to their generation – those at the crossroads, who need to decide whether to remain in Jerusalem.
The two men feel they are in the best position to understand such problems.
“We are connected to the field; we see it everywhere and every day. We know how the lack of access to affordable housing or the lack of decently paying and interesting jobs can make the difference... we experience that all the time firsthand.”
According to Rubin, the figures say it all: “When we know that 45 percent of young people decide to leave Jerusalem because they cannot find a job adapted to their professional training and expectations, it is clear that this is where the leadership of the city should be directing all its efforts.”
In that regard, for the past five years Hitorerut has been spearheading the effort to give official priority to locals in all tenders and employment opportunities in the city. So far that effort hasn’t met with much success, and too many of the tenders the municipality offers go to non-residents. The situation is the same for the high-ranking positions at Safra Square, all of which are currently held by people who do not live in the city and who pay their property taxes (arnona) to other city councils.
Hitorerut did achieve victory on one front recently, with TV’s Channel 10 moving its news studios to Jerusalem. That was one of Cohen’s first tasks during her term as a city council member representing Hitorerut, and it took almost four years (since the issue was brought to the mayor’s attention) to achieve.
Berkowitz says that if he is elected to the next city council, he will see that government administrations that have still not moved to the city (as required by law) do so, as a means of developing the city’s income and increasing job opportunities, together with importing a “stronger” population to the city (relatives and families of the government employees).
Asked for his predictions regarding the election results, he sounds confident and speaks of at least four seats on the next city council.
Of course, he and his partners on the list know that if they want to achieve that result, city residents must participate in the elections, and Hitorerut’s members have put a heavy emphasis on the need to vote . Their greatest fear is to see disinterest, even apathy, toward the electoral process make a comeback.
Since mayoral candidate Moshe Lion appeared on the scene to challenge incumbent Mayor Nir Barkat, the question of which of the two, if either, Hitorerut plans to support is unavoidable. Berkowitz and Rubin do not hesitate to confirm that Barkat would certainly be their first choice.
ONE OF the major issues linked with Hitorerut in recent months has been its support for keeping the new Cinema City complex open on Shabbat. This has become the issue most identified with the movement, and one that has garnered it quite a few critics – mostly because, while it may be important to have one more entertainment venue open on Shabbat, many feel there are other, more pressing problems for the city’s younger population.
But for Hitorerut, the Cinema City issue has become a kind of a symbol for what a group of determined young people can do to change the atmosphere of a city, and Berkowitz did not hesitate to appeal to the High Court on the matter.
“Yes,” agrees Rubin, “the Cinema City is a symbol and a matter of principle. It is important as a means to give back to the young people and the secular residents of this city [who] hope that it is still their home, too.”
He adds immediately that “as for myself, as a religious person, I will never go there on Shabbat, and I even doubt I will go to see any movie there at all; my personal taste is somewhat different. But the residents of this city who trust us deserve such a venue, and it is our task to provide it for them.”
IN FACT, quite a few of the successful entertainment venues that have opened in the city over the past few years are in one way or another linked with Hitorerut – although in some cases, such as the First Station compound, the party can’t claim sole credit. Berkowitz is in charge of the cultural events at the Station, including the successful “Kabbalat Shabbat” events that the Yeru-Shalem association and the Ginot Ha’ir Community Center have organized there.
Berkowitz, who insists that his vision is to enable everyone to share the city – religious and non-religious alike – says that having non-kosher restaurants operate right next to the square where the Kabbalat Shabbat gatherings take place illustrates exactly what he has in mind regarding the city’s needs.
“We represent several sectors of the city’s public,” he says.
“The image we had five years ago, of a young and dynamic group addressing only the young generation and busy mostly organizing parties, is part of the past.”
That image, he explains, “was necessary and even crucial then; it was a new and refreshing message. [But today,] we represent those who have grown up with us during these five years. We are not the same – I got married, other members did, too, some became parents. But we still feel we have something special and new to say, because we say that dreams can come true.”