This week in Jerusalem

Peggy Cidor’s round-up of city affairs

Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jerusalem Western Wall, Dome of the Rock 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Running for the money The sponsored two-day run from Jerusalem to Eilat benefiting Afikim, the association that helps underprivileged children and their families, kicks off this Wednesday. The event, which includes 16 runners, has won over an important supporter – Yossi Heyman, CEO of the Jerusalem Municipality. Heyman, himself a marathon runner, was taken with the idea of the sponsored run and decided to join forces with the Afikim team. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, is a longtime supporter of Afikim and is also sponsoring the event.
Afikim has eight day centers within regular schools, six of which are in Jerusalem. Children from underprivileged and mostly new immigrant families from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union receive a daily hot meal and help with homework from certified teachers, together with extracurricular enrichment activities alongside their parents, which include music, theater outings and other cultural activities.
The organizers have already raised over $100,000 and hope to double this amount in order to continue their excellent program.
Barkat’s victory over ‘ghost houses’ The Knesset this week approved the decision submitted over three years ago by former city council member Merav Cohen, with the approval of Mayor Nir Barkat, to find a way of reducing – if not completely erasing – the phenomenon of Jerusalem “ghost houses.”
The idea, promoted by the mayor, was to obtain the authorization of the Knesset and Interior Ministry to fine owners who leave their Jerusalem holiday homes empty for most of the year. The issue exists in a few prestigious neighborhoods and causes a wide range of problems, including vandalism, and has a disastrous impact on rental prices. For three years Barkat tried unsuccessfully to effect a change in the law regarding the amount of arnona (municipal tax) on these ghost houses.
But this week, the Knesset’s Finance Committee finally decided to support the mayor’s proposal and voted in favor of the decision. According to the new law, the owners of a property that is uninhabited for more than six months of the year will be charged double arnona. Sources in the municipality admit they are not convinced that this will solve the rental problem in the city, as owners of these luxury ghost houses can easily afford this increase in taxes.
New guy, old problems Whether it comes from a lack of experience in the political scene or as a well-prepared plan, the new deputy mayor Haim Epstein, who represents, with his one seat on city council, the more extremist sector in the haredi benches of Bnei Torah is opposed to any activities on Shabbat at the First Station. What has become one of the most successful leisure and culinary locations in the city, in which religious and secular can share entertainment, fun for children and also moving ceremonies of Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdala, seems dangerous in Epstein’s eyes. At the first directory meeting of the city council (a group in which the heads of the lists included in the coalition all participate), Epstein announced that he wants to see all the businesses shut down at the First Station on Shabbat, and that this will be one of his first aims at the city council. The reaction of other members of the directory – especially from Ofer Berkowitz, deputy mayor and leader of Hitorerut B’Yerushalayim (four seats on the council) was clear and rapid: “No way.” It’s not clear for the moment if this is the first sign of a crack in the coalition or just a minor misunderstanding of Epstein of the new realities on the ground that have changed the cultural and leisure time of the residents in the city.
Kind of vacation The news regarding the decision of the Education Ministry, and adopted by the municipality, to add three more weeks to the “studying” days of the school year (kindergartens and first and second grades) was well received by the parents of children it is designed to help. For the Jerusalemites, this might sound like a normal continuity of what started last year, with city councillor Rachel Azaria (Yerushalmim) who added one whole month of classes to the public kindergartens.
The initiative is welcomed by all sides – administration at the municipality and parents as well (perhaps a little less by the children themselves) but now starts the polemic about the content of these three weeks. Is it going to be a mere “baby-sitter” style or a little more serious program of enrichment, even though it will not be part of the regular curriculum? There are still six months ahead for us to debate the matter, which sounds likely to become a very hot topic.