Getting to the heart of the problem

The mayor, the city center merchants and some of the city’s most powerful foundations put their support behind director Uri Amedi to save the Lev Ha’ir Community Center.

Uri Amedi 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Uri Amedi 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The feeling that something bad was about to happen at the Lev Ha’ir community council and center was more than a rumor after last year’s High Holy Days. But the real bombshell was dropped at the end of December when some of the employees were cut back to part-time, others were fired, and its flagship, the Place for Poetry center, was asked to find another home. The reason behind all this was a deficit of NIS 3.9 million, which threatened to freeze all activities at Lev Ha’ir.
The news of the near bankruptcy of the most wellknown community center in the city spread like wildfire. Officials at Kikar Safra, the Israel Association of Community Councils and Centers, the Mahaneh Yehuda market and influential nonprofits were concerned and surprised. In fact, a tremendous improvement in its financial situation has removed the threat of closure and the firing of legendary director Uri Amedi, although the problems are by no means over. The recovery was due to rapid mobilization of the Jerusalem Foundation, Keren Hayesod and Mayor Nir Barkat.
The near demise of Lev Ha’ir – which incorporates Nahlaot, Mahaneh Yehuda, the city center, Nahalat Shiva and Jaffa Road from Kikar Safra to the central bus station – was a result of goodwill and naivete canceled out by financial mismanagement and a drop in donations due to the global recession. However, the municipality’s position regarding the fate of Lev Ha’ir is also a crucial piece of the puzzle.
“Two things caused the major crisis at Lev Ha’ir,” explains Zvika Chernichovsky, until a few months ago the director-general of the Jerusalem Association of Community Councils and Centers. “First the economic crisis and, perhaps even more, the particular character and mission of this community council, which is totally involved in and committed to social issues and not built around any sort of income as are other community councils and centers. But perhaps the worst thing was that when the crisis at Lev Ha’ir erupted, we at the Association of Community Councils and Centers had no friends left at the municipality.”
But is this true? Although there is no question that Amedi managed to mobilize some of the largest foundations to save Lev Ha’ir’s projects, all the parties involved admit that the unexpected public announcement of Barkat’s support of Amedi and Lev Ha’ir was no less crucial in changing the course of the situation.
“It was about two months ago,” recalls Amedi, “I knew there had been a meeting about the situation of Lev Ha’ir, and I was very concerned, since I was not invited to participate. I knew that some of the participants were not exactly my biggest supporters, and I felt like a condemned person waiting for the moment of my execution – namely, my dismissal.”
A few days later Amedi, who has some reliable sources at Kikar Safra, was informed about a second meeting and, to his surprise, he was invited to take part.
“I went there like a prisoner to his public execution. I was sure I was invited there only to be dismissed in total disgrace – not that I felt guilty. I believed, and I still do, that we used the money for the best causes, but I realized of course that such a huge deficit couldn’t just be swept under the rug.”
The outcome of the meeting was a total surprise not only for Amedi but, according to sources at Kikar Safra, for some of the high-ranking officials as well. “After all, this mayor believes in business,” says Chernichovsky. “He had the right to say that in the face of such a deficit, the only solution would be to shut down Lev Ha’ir, and he couldn’t be blamed for that.”
“It was astonishing,” recalls Amedi. “Barkat just said we should all help Uri [Amedi] because what he is doing at Lev Ha’ir and in many other places is important for Jerusalem. And then he invited me to his office to talk about some additional details regarding the rehabilitation plan I had submitted. At first I was totally speechless.”
NO ONE knows exactly what changed the course of the situation. Was it the public and immediate support of the Jerusalem Foundation which, through its president, Ruth Cheshin, expressed its total confidence in Amedi’s plans? Was it the clear declarations of Greg Masel, CEO of Keren Hayesod, who publicly announced his support for Amedi – backed with large sums quickly transferred to the Lev Ha’ir coffers? Or was it perhaps the staunch support of most of the merchants of the city center and the Mahaneh Yehuda market for the man who turned them into a success story? “I guess it was all these and the feeling that Amedi’s lynch – that’s the right word in my opinion – wouldn’t go down well with the public,” continues Chernichovsky.
Asked how she analyzes the situation, Cheshin says it was evident to her that Amedi’s vision and great projects couldn’t just be cut off. “It was clear to me from the beginning that I was committed to Uri and had to help him, and that is what I did.”
Asked if she could assure that the threats were all behind him, Cheshin admits that this is still not the case.
“Problems are always around, but what Uri has done and will still do for Jerusalem cannot be compromised.”
Cheshin admits that not all the people involved have such a genial attitude toward Amedi but says that for the moment, the situation is much better.
Greg Masel, the CEO of Keren Hayesod, one of the major funders of Lev Ha’ir, sounds almost surprised by my question regarding his decision to give an emergency grant to Lev Ha’ir. “We are very proud to be part of the supporters of the wonderful projects of Lev Ha’ir,” he says. Realizing from my inquiry that this attitude is perhaps not shared by all, Masel adds that his institution was not the only one that offered help and says that in any case, the projects have all been duly checked “and found all perfectly matching our vision of what should be done in and for the city of Jerusalem. We’re happy that other foundations have given their support as well.”
He adds that the Keren Hayesod funds are not going to “cover any overdraft of Lev Ha’ir but to enable some of the projects we care for to continue, despite the difficult financial situation of the neighborhood council.”
Regarding rumors of an eventual decision to stop funding Lev Ha’ir even before the news of the deficit had been made public, Masel is adamant that nothing of the sort happened. “No one has tried to convince us not to support Lev Ha’ir. It is true that for about a year and a half there was no money from us to Lev Ha’ir, but that was due to the simple fact that, like all other institutions, we also suffered from a decrease in fund-raising, nothing else.”
BUT WHO wanted to “lynch” Amedi and why? “Uri has enemies here and there,” says Eli Mizrahi, deputy president of the Mahaneh Yehuda merchants association.
“He has a vision; he believes in human beings, and he is not after money or flattery, so people who cannot elevate themselves to this height were surely after him, waiting for any wrong step he would make. And frankly, such a huge deficit is more than just a wrong step – though nobody suspected him of personal wrongdoings – but he should have been more careful.
He should have understood that he needed someone with financial expertise at his side. It’s too bad he understood it so late.”
Still, at least one of Amedi’s strongholds is apparently moving out of his control. During the darkest days of the crisis at Lev Ha’ir, a project originally conceived by Amedi took shape but, due to the circumstances, Amedi is not part of it.
“The move to establish an administrative body for Mahaneh Yehuda is the right thing to do,” explains Mizrahi. “Uri himself wanted it, and it’s time for us to get organized in a separate framework, though there is no question that we are still part of Lev Ha’ir.”
Asked how he feels about it, Amedi admits that he is a little ambivalent, explaining that he wanted that framework to exist but felt that the timing could say something about his precarious position in his own territory. “Sometimes I feel like I am like a swimmer among sharks, except that those who do it enjoy it, and I hate the feeling.”
“Not all the problems are solved, and I’m expecting additional difficulties because there is no doubt that we do not have any more friends at the municipality,” says Chernichovsky.
Nevertheless, he says, “it is clear that even after the financial rehabilitation plan submitted by Amedi and approved by Barkat, some of the basic issues have not changed: Lev Ha’ir is not just another community center or community council – it is a special institution that has different tasks and aims and is not involved in business issues. I mean, they are not concerned about making money but are focused on community issues, and that is not going to change – at least as long as Amedi is there. But the problem is that not everyone in high official positions likes it.”
THE REHABILITATION plan included a severe cut in staff, a reduction of working time for other staffers and a plan to try to add sources of income to the neighborhood council, a decision that has not yet shown any results, since the neighborhood has no features like a swimming pool (like the community council of Ramot) or dancing and art schools (such as the Rassco and Gilo community councils). What has been achieved so far is an impressive amount of emergency fund-raising: NIS 350,000 from the Jerusalem Foundation; NIS 200,000 from the Shusterman Foundation, in addition to a delay in refunding a loan for last year’s Balabasta project at the Mahaneh Yehuda market; a $75,000 grant from the Dir Foundation; NIS 500,000 from the municipality special projects budget; a NIS 450,000 loan from the Yuvalim community council through a decision of its director, Michael Ben-Avi; and a loan from the Israel Association of Community Councils and Centers.
“Today,” says Moni Armosa, president of the finance committee of the Lev Ha’ir council, “we are already standing at NIS 2.4m. in our deficit. Frankly, I don’t know of any other local council that has obtained such a result in such a short time.”
“There was no more money to pay salaries, to finance some of the most important projects of this council,” adds Amedi, not even trying to hide how deeply he is hurt. “I had to close down some of the best projects I have given birth to here, like the Place for Poetry project and the Barbur art gallery, which we didn’t close but it still suffered from the budget cuts. Nor could we back the planned in-house project of the Shalem Dance Company. I was feeling that everything I had planted and nurtured here over 30 years of service was swept away or threatening to crumble. It was a nightmare.”
Not that it is the first or the only community council plagued by financial difficulties these days. In the same period, the community council of the Katamonim was facing a deficit of about NIS 2 million, as well as at least two other local councils with quite large deficits. So why all the fuss about Lev Ha’ir? “Because Lev Ha’ir is very different from other community centers or councils,” explains Chernichovsky. “This is not just another local community center offering leisure activities that bring in money. At Lev Ha’ir there are no gyms, no ballet or any other afternoon activities that parents pay to send their kids to – it’s all culture and community: the poetry workshop, the cultural events open to all, the art gallery, the dance company, not to mention all the special events in the shuk. Nothing was done from a profit perspective. In other words, Lev Ha’ir has never been and was never meant to be a business. That has been its greatness and, at the same time, the source of its vulnerability.”
Amedi – and he is the first to admit it – has no idea how to conduct financial affairs. “Whenever I was asked to go and help, I would do it, as I believe a civil servant should do for the community he serves, but I never thought I could ask for any compensation. And I don’t mean personal compensation, of course, but something that would go into the coffers of Lev Ha’ir. It never occurred to me, and I realize now that it was a mistake.”
And Amedi did go – almost everywhere. “If one day someone will try to determine how much money Amedi saved in terms of legal procedures avoided along the path of the light rail while he took upon himself the negotiation of the residents and shop owners that had to be evacuated, there is no doubt we’re talking about many millions of shekels,” says Chernichovsky.
FOR ARMOSA, there is a lesson to be learned from what happened. “Uri is a man of vision, and we all respect him and follow him because of that vision. But now, as head of the finance committee of the community council, I will see to it that there is also some substantial income added to the vision. And in any case, the days of Uri’s being asked to take upon himself and Lev Ha’ir additional neighborhoods facing problems without any compensation for Lev Ha’ir are over. I’ll will personally see to that.”
S. is a high-ranking official at Kikar Safra and has known Amedi for years. For him, what happened at Lev Ha’ir is a warning, despite the current improvement. He believes there are some obvious reasons for the gravity of the situation. “First of all, the name. Amedi is not only Uri, the man so many love to love here, but he is also the brother of a former deputy mayor and candidate for mayor. Some people don’t forget that, even though we all know he has never been involved in politics.”
S. adds that by becoming a kind of local savior Amedi has, despite his personal modesty, also become “omnipresent” while totally independent, since he is not employed by the municipality but by the Israel Association of Community Centers. “For the last few years, he’s been everywhere – at Lev Ha’ir, at the shuk, on the Jewish Quarter local council, in which he decided to include services and contacts with the Arab residents of Silwan, a step that not everyone here appreciated.
He was sent to the Musrara neighborhood to oversee the activity of its local council and tried there too to bring his view on residents’ solidarity and commitment and focus on culture and community – again, instead of producing some money-earning projects. He created some of the most successful structures for youth in the city, he works with students, with elderly, with new immigrants – he is literally everywhere.
When there was some trouble in the Bukharan neighborhood, who came to help? Amedi, of course, etc. etc. Perhaps for some people here, it was too much.”
Aviva Shpitzer, a member of the Lev Ha’ir board and considered to be one of Amedi’s supporters, is convinced that nothing has yet been settled. “I wish I could be as optimistic as Uri is,” she says. A Holocaust survivor aged 82, Shpitzer was recently released from hospital but says that Lev Ha’ir and Amedi are so dear to her, that even though she is sick she’s ready to do anything required. “The financial situation was a terrible error of Uri’s,” she says. “He should have been aware of the fact that he is not a finance man and should have brought in an expert long before things started to crumble. But, to be honest, all of us board members should have done so. But we all have to be careful so that the wonderful things associated with Lev Ha’ir and Uri are not destroyed.”
“I felt that everything was over, lost,” says Amedi, visibly moved. He adds, very quietly, that for him, what he did during the 30 years he spent at Lev Ha’ir was much more than just doing his job. “That is my way of expressing my love for this city. It is my soul that was involved here, nothing less.”