A learned response to problems

A series of projects are integrating students and graduates into underprivileged neighborhoods, thereby reviving the areas and encouraging youth to stay in Jerusalem.

Students studying on grass 521 (photo credit: marc israel sellem)
Students studying on grass 521
(photo credit: marc israel sellem)
A rather unusual e-mail arrived Sunday morning in the inbox of Yerushalmit, the recently established pre-army academy in Kiryat Hayovel. The academy is the most recent of a series of projects initiated by New Spirit, an organization working to keep students in the city.
“I am a resident of Rehov Brazil in Kiryat Hayovel,” wrote Motti Osher. “I am a neighbor of the academy, and I want to thank you for the terrific community work you are doing here, which helps us keep this neighborhood and Jerusalem a pluralistic place for all.”
Taking into account the academy, the Student Village in Kiryat Menahem, the “toolbox” project (helping new graduates of arts schools to get some professional experience in the city), the Young Communities, the City for the Young project (a municipal plan to increase social and cultural activities) – it seems that something is changing in the city as far as young people are concerned.
“There are still some people in Tel Aviv who think that living in Jerusalem is strange, but that doesn’t make young locals feel bad or ashamed anymore,” said city council member Yakir Segev (Jerusalem Will Succeed), “and that’s a big step in the right direction.”
“A change in the mood is indeed a very important step,” agrees Merav Cohen, No. 2 at Hitorerut B’yerushalayim. “But we seek a deeper change in the shape of things, something that will go beyond the needs of students and will make this city a place where it’s good to live.”
In a recent highly publicized event, a group of youth, organized and led by Hitorerut and New Spirit, won a tender from the Construction and Housing Ministry to purchase and build affordable housing on Rehov Nicaragua, one of the slopes of the Kiryat Menahem neighborhood.
The project, called Young House, will enable 42 young couples and individuals to purchase apartments at reasonable prices and stay in the city.
In the same neighborhood, some 31 students live in modest rented apartments, which form the first Student Village in the city, another New Spirit project.
Twelve Young Communities have been created in the past three years in various neighborhoods, many of them in Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menahem.
Officially, these projects are not presented as responses to the attempt of haredi families to establish an enclave in this part of the city, but off the record most of the people involved will admit that this goal is certainly somewhere in mind.
“We are not working against anything,” says Elisheva Mazia, director of New Spirit. “We want to work positively, to promote things and make things better for the young generation and, by extension, the city.”
New Spirit works mostly on student issues and needs, such as improving quality of life and working conditions, while Hitorerut deals with the more political aspects, including activism in dealing with the ministries of Construction and Housing and Industry, Trade and Labor. Both movements benefits from significant support – logistical and financial – from the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA). New Spirit also receives support from American Jewish Federations.
Among these groups the consensus is that the serious change in the priorities of the municipality, as a result of Mayor Nir Barkat’s support for the needs of youth and a large emphasis on culture, has created new realities on the ground.
While it might still be too early to declare that the demographic threat to the city is over, most of the groups mentioned above say they have a good feeling that perhaps the worst is already behind us.
“We know that there has been a dramatic change in the immigration figures in 2010, so 2011 will be crucial to seeing how deep the change we already feel in the air is,” says Mazia.
However, all agree that while a tangible change is already felt regarding the cultural needs of the young, that will not be enough to bring young people to live here, not even enough to keep those who were born in the city or have come to study in one of its numerous educational institutions here.
“In fact,” explains Ben Ereli, head of the communities department at New Spirit, “we are working hard to see that the unbelievably high number of students who come to study in Jerusalem will find the required conditions – housing, jobs, culture, community structures and so on – that will make them stay here.
“After all, Jerusalem is the city that draws the highest number of students each year. It is an opportunity we don’t want to lose.”
NEW SPIRIT was created seven years ago by a group of students who thought that graduates should be encouraged to stay here once they finish their studies.
“We created the organization, and since it was about a year away from the elections, we submitted our project to the candidates. It turned out that only Barkat bothered to listen to us, and even promised that if elected, he would support our project. Barkat was not elected then [2003], but he maintained close ties with us during his term in the opposition, and since he was elected, all these ideas have become part of his vision, part of the municipality’s official program and goals, and that’s great,” continues Ereli.
Hitorerut was created about a year before the elections of 2008, in an attempt to pull the young population out of its apathy and get them to vote for a secular mayor.
Both movements, which collaborate on a few issues, warn that there is still a lot to be done, and caution that the battle is not yet won, but believe that as far as youth needs are concerned, the achievements are considerable.
Ereli, who is married with two children, is himself a member of one of the Kiryat Hayovel Young Community created by New Spirit. Born and raised in Kibbutz Ein Gedi, he decided to study education at the Hebrew University and graduated from the “Revivim” program, training students to become teachers for humanities and Jewish studies in high schools.
“We share a lot, but we mostly invest in the improvement of our environment in the neighborhood,” he says, adding: “We created a kindergarten – it’s not only for our kids. Any resident of the neighborhood is welcome, and they do come. We make a point about parents’ involvement, we see that our kids receive the best education.
“I don’t want to sound patronizing, but we certainly, by our mere presence here, by turning this not so well-to-do neighborhood into a popular one, have improved it.”
Asked what is the difference between that and the involvement of young students and social activists in the remote and impoverished neighborhoods that took place in the Seventies, Ereli answers that having an organization backing them makes all the difference: “Back in the Seventies, there were a lot of young students who did things here, but it was in a spontaneous mode, lots of good intentions and no structures or money to back the ideas. [New Spirit is] large organization, we fund-raise for our projects and we have the support – logistical and financial – of the municipality and of additional bodies, like the JDA, the New York Federation and additional federations in the USA, and some philanthropic groups – That’s a big difference.”
OMER, A philosophy student, is almost 25, single, and was born and raised in Rosh Ha’ayin. He recently moved to Kiryat Hayovel, and although he is not an official member of the Young Community, he knows most of its members and is in close contact with some of them. He is considering joining it or perhaps will try to create a new one, of single members.
“It’s a terrific idea, and it helps not only the local residents but even ourselves. Without a community to belong to, most of the students will eventually leave the city once they complete their studies here. Being part of something that goes beyond the daily simple needs broadens your horizons and gives you some good reasons to stay here, especially for young people who want to be part of a change.”
Today, there are 12 Young Communities in several neighborhoods: Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Menahem, the Katamonim, French Hill, Gilo and East Talpiot.
Each community gets consultation from experts on community matters such as educational needs, employment, parents’ and residents’ involvement in the local councils, and so forth. They provide help in contacting potential sponsors for community projects and in fund-raising, and also provide professional consulting on the chosen projects.
“Every Young Community works in close contact and collaboration with the local community council, and while the first objective is to create a community in which you live and share things with your close friends, it is shaped in a way that enables local residents to join and become part of the projects which are always created for the benefit of the whole neighborhood,” emphasizes Ereli.
It seems that the Student Village might quickly become the flagship project for the benefit of both young people and the city.
“This is an attempt to cause young students, who will become the next influential citizens of this country, to stay in Jerusalem,” says Ereli.
The village is in fact a few apartments all situated in Kiryat Menahem, one of the most underprivileged and impoverished neighborhoods in the city. The apartments, scattered among a few streets, house students from across the country.
At the moment, there are only 40 students, but the plan is to grow by at least a few dozen soon. The students, carefully chosen for their readiness to participate, obtain a substantial stipend which covers their tuition and a generous rent subsidy. Most of the NIS 1 million allocated to this project comes from the JDA.
“We had figures saying that under such conditions about 85% of the students participating would stay in the city after they graduated,” says Ereli.
“They don’t just live in this neighborhood, which is in itself a good thing, but they participate in a serious and large community project, in social activities among the residents of the neighborhood, be it in education, help in homework for pupils, ecology projects. We have created here the largest compost bin in the whole city, and it works in close collaboration with the residents.
“[The students] become part of the neighborhood, and they improve its life and the residents’ quality of life.”
The JDA decided to sponsor the project in the framework of its plan to give preferential conditions to students in the sciences – math, biology, physics and so on – all students from the Givat Ram branch of the Hebrew University. It includes student olim (from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union) as well as Arab students from the North of the country. They all agreed to live in Kiryat Menahem, and to give back to the neighborhood in return for the subsidies.
The students also hold cultural evening programs, social and community workshops among themselves.
“Let’s not forget we’re talking here about students who didn’t know each other before. They come from different places in the country, different ethnicities, and they have to learn to get together while they are engaged in the project involving the neighborhood,” adds Tamar Katzir, a member of New Spirit.
AYELET AND YEHUDA, a married couple with one child, live in one of the apartments rented in Kiryat Menahem for the Student Village. Ayelet came from the Golan Heights to study at the Hebrew University’s medical school and Yehuda came from Netanya and studies optometry here.
“It’s very exciting to be part of such a project,” says Ayelet.
“We had some thoughts of staying here after graduating, at least for a period, but this projects helps very much, and I know about students who even didn’t consider staying here who changed their mind once they joined.”
In the framework of the project, Ayelet works with a girl in fourth grade who lives and studies in Kiryat Menahem.
“I help her with her homework, help her improve her results at school, on a very personal basis. It’s me with her only, and I feel I’m doing something very important.”
Ayelet also volunteers for four hours a week operating a gymboree and collaborates with the project team at the Kiryat Menahem neighborhood local council “to develop and lead social projects to improve the quality of life here, in education, community work and so on. It is very rewarding to feel that as a young person I can be part of such an important thing.”
The apartments are located on Nicaragua, Hanurit and Costa Rica streets, and from the outside no one can tell the difference between them and the local residents’ homes.
The idea is that the students become an organic part of the neighborhood; thus they live in the same kind of apartments as the residents, and through their presence, empower the residents to improve their conditions.
“When New Spirit started to work here, we only had the students’ needs in mind – but today we are somewhere else: we see beyond, we think about the years that come after graduation,” explains Mazia. “That’s the best way we can do our part for this city and propose to young and productive educated people, students and graduates, to be part of a change here.
Today we talk in terms of residents, those who graduated and are now here to become part of this city – after they’ve been here for a few years, got used to being here, have perhaps married and established ties. We say that they can stay here, they don’t have to leave this city. Once that’s said, our main concern is to provide job opportunities. People won’t stay here even if they like the city and feel involved, if they can’t find decent jobs.”
Tammy Dahan, until two years ago a resident of Kiryat Menahem, says that one of the reasons that she and her husband decided to move to Pisgat Ze’ev was the feeling that nobody cared about Kiryat Menahem anymore.
“We felt that the municipality, the government – anyone involved here – didn’t believe something good could happen to this neighborhood. We have nothing against new olim, we ourselves were once olim. But the fact is that almost all the olim who were sent here are old or cannot work and earn their living decently, and so they just join the underprivileged among the residents.
“So the young who might have a choice flee from here, and after a few years we also caved in. If such a project had existed here two years ago, we would have considered staying here, but at least this is happening [now],” concludes Tammy.