All the capital’s a classroom

Yad Ben-Zvi’s new School of Jerusalem studies is aimed at putting the city front and center in the Israeli psyche.

Snow-covered Dome of the Rock 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Snow-covered Dome of the Rock 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Arik Wurtzburger believes it is only natural to house the School of Jerusalem Studies at Yad Ben-Zvi.
“[Yitzhak] Ben-Zvi was a strong believer in the centrality of Jerusalem, both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world,” says Wurtzburger, the school’s education director. “Look at [Israel’s first president] Chaim Weizmann. He built a spacious residence in Rehovot – albeit with his own money – and not in Jerusalem. And David Ben-Gurion lived down in the Negev, but [Israel’s second president] Ben-Zvi lived here, in Jerusalem.”
In fact, continues Wurtzburger, Ben-Zvi made no bones about the matter when asked by Ben-Gurion to become head of state.
“He made acceptance of the role contingent on three factors – living in Jerusalem, continuing his research work and having the president’s official residence here,” says Wurtzburger, adding that the Ben-Zvi mind-set is having an enduring effect on the institution.
“His hut is here. He didn’t want some palatial residence. He was part of the people and treated everyone as equals – Jews, Arabs, rich and poor. You only have to look at all the people who attended his funeral.
Everyone came.”
Wurtzburger says that the school endeavors to apply that streetlevel ethos in the spread of its activities across the city. “This building is important,” he says of the school’s handsomely designed premises, “but our classroom is mostly outside. The whole of Jerusalem is our classroom – east and west Jerusalem. West Jerusalem is also a very important part of what we do here.”
The school was formally established following a government decision passed in May 2007. The institution’s official blurb states that “The Central School for Jerusalem Studies is an educational body whose principal role is to formulate an educational approach to the subject of Jerusalem, and to advance and enhance Jerusalem studies in Israel, and the world, and in educational frameworks.”
Wurtzburger feels that the latter area is central to keeping our capital city front and center in the Israeli psyche.
“Of course, schools do talk about Jerusalem, but there is no continuity to studies and information about it,” he says. “Part of our job here is to make sure that all Israelis, and Jews, appreciate the importance of Jerusalem as a linchpin of this country and the Jewish world.”
But it isn’t only Jewish aspects of Jerusalem that feature in the school’s curriculum.
“We train tour guides in the Christian and Muslim aspects of Jerusalem,” says Wurtzburger. “Yad Ben-Zvi and the School of Jerusalem Studies are apolitical bodies, and we cover the entire spectrum of cultural, religious and social life here.”
The School of Jerusalem Studies follows a three-pronged strategy to achieving its stated goals. It offers its wares in the formal and informal education systems by training teachers and devising study programs in both areas.
“The premise of our work is that Jerusalem provides a fertile and rich infrastructure that incorporates a rich range of connections, values and issues that can inspire expansive teaching and learning processes, so that this work is both an objective and a means,” explains Wurtzburger. “We also look at the ongoing and deepening feedback between research-theoretical work and practical-pedagogical specialization in inculcating areas of subject matter to Jerusalem and its values. The third area of our work relates to leading, coordinating and providing support to all the academic and educational bodies that engage in Jerusalem and to promoting cooperation between them and supporting any initiatives they may come up with.”
The educational director says he is also keenly aware that you sometimes have to reach out to people and bring Jerusalem to them before they bring themselves to the capital. It is no secret that, for example, there are plenty of residents of Tel Aviv who rarely make the trip down to the eastern end of Highway 1. The old joke is that the latter don’t come to Jerusalem because “my car can’t manage the climb up to the Castel.”
“We have lots of activities all over the country,” notes Wurtzburger.
“We carry out all sorts of training courses and projects about Jerusalem that are designed to bring teachers and students and other people to Jerusalem and enlighten them about the city and its history.”
Naturally, Jerusalem Day is a good time to introduce Israelis from all walks of life to the city.
“Every year, we hold the Jerusalem Tour Marathon – that’s not a race – whereby we offer no fewer than 120 tours around the city over three days, and each tour is different. We work on getting this in place right around the year. We get around 5,000 to 6,000 people taking part in the tours, and most of them are not Jerusalemites,” he says.
The teacher-oriented endeavor follows several avenues of attack.
School principals all over the country apply to the Jerusalem studies school to book instructional packages for their entire teaching staff.
Then there are Jerusalem studies programs for teachers from various schools under the aegis of the Pisga project, which seeks to raise the level of professionalism among teachers throughout the country.
There are also dedicated teachers’ training projects within the formal education system, such as the Jerusalem Cluster Program, which aims to bond schools around Jerusalem with the history, culture and social aspects of their geographic locale. Schoolteachers also go to the institute during their sabbatical year to research some aspect relating to Jerusalem, and the institute endeavors to constantly update its database and to make the contents available to education professionals all over Israel via the Internet.
Jerusalem students in grades 5 to 8 also take part in the Jerusalem Mosaic program, which operates in conjunction with the Jerusalem Municipality. The students participate in extramural thematic activities based on topics such as “In the Footsteps of the Leaders,” “The Unified Jerusalem,” “Preservation and Development” and “Ethnic Communities and Neighborhoods.”
Wurtzburger says the School of Jerusalem Studies is also committed to getting the word out beyond the national confines. “We run programs for Birthright leaders,” he explains. “You have tens of thousands of young Jews coming here every year to learn about this country, and we help to make sure that the leaders have all the material they need to tell the youngsters about Jerusalem and its history and the importance of its role in the Jewish world. That is cardinal.”
For more information about the School of Jerusalem Studies: 539-8888 and www.ybz.co.il.