Making Jerusalem a home for all Jews

Five activists founded a coalition called Yeru-Shalem to create an open public space despite the the capital’s demographic ills.

Yeru-Shalem Coalition activists 521 (photo credit: Studio Adler Photography)
Yeru-Shalem Coalition activists 521
(photo credit: Studio Adler Photography)
When Tehila Nachalon began noticing both secular and religious friends leaving Jerusalem because they could no longer afford housing or find jobs, she knew the phenomenon was serious.
“There is a real danger for the ability of Jerusalem to remain a place that you can first live in and also [that] people can be connected to,” says Nachalon, 36, an Orthodox mother of four. “If Jerusalem becomes a place of only haredim and Arabs and all the other people feel disconnected, that has a dramatic influence on Israel as a whole.”
In June, Nachalon and four other activists founded a coalition called Yeru-Shalem (“shalem” is the Hebrew word for “whole”) to create an open public space despite the ills created by Jerusalem’s demographic reality: For decades, given the high birthrates of haredi (ultra- Orthodox) and Arab families and the rising cost of living, including home prices and municipal taxes, the city – home to roughly 801,000 people – has become a more difficult place for populations like the national-religious and the secular to feel at home in.
According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the percentage of haredim in Jerusalem is 3.6 times greater than their percentage in Israel as a whole. In 2009, while 12,800 people moved to Jerusalem, 19,900 residents left the city. Fifty-one percent of those who left moved to surrounding cities like Modi’in and Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank, where it is cheaper to live. While Jerusalem’s non-haredi school enrollment rose for the first time in 15 years this year, it’s too soon to tell whether the trend is reversing.
“We are alone here in an uphill battle to keep the city creative, dynamic, inclusive and pluralistic against some very alarming demographic political and cultural trends, and... we feel that we’re not just doing this for our quality of life but for the entire Jewish world,” says Yeru- Shalem co-founder Dr. Elan Ezrachi, a Reform Jew, chairman of the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council and former executive director of Masa-Israel Journey, in an interview over breakfast in Jerusalem.
Yeru-Shalem’s other founders include Elisheva Mazya, CEO of New Spirit, an organization that works to keep young people in the city through housing, cultural and employment opportunities; Shaike El-Ami of the Ginot Ha’ir Community Council; and Rabbi Uri Ayalon of Yerushalmim, a non-profit civic organization for a vibrant and pluralistic Jerusalem. While the activists come from different backgrounds, they say that what unites them is their love for Jerusalem and their desire to make the public sphere more open and more firmly connected to Diaspora Jewry. They strive to make Jerusalem a city that is welcoming to all Jews, near and far.
“Jerusalem will be a multicultural center open to dialogue and based on tolerance,” the group’s mission states. In particular, the coalition will “promote a cultural agenda that is inclusive and universal.”
Jerusalem’s demographic changes, as well as recent battles between haredim and the city over gender segregation on buses and police arresting women for wearing talitot (prayer shawls) at the Western Wall, are also likely having a negative impact on the city’s relationship with Diaspora Jews. Part of the coalition’s work, therefore, will be educating Diaspora Jewry on the social ills Jerusalem faces in order to strengthen its bond with its homeland.
Nachalon has found that at conferences in the Diaspora she has attended, there has been what seems like a taboo on addressing social trends in Jerusalem. She is not afraid of showing the less flattering side of the city.
Rather than focusing on keeping Jerusalem as the undivided capital and talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, she would like to hear Diaspora Jews engage with Israel more intimately, “not [as] the Jerusalem of heaven, [as] the Jerusalem of Earth.”
“It’s like ‘Israel of milk and honey’ or ‘Israel of gold.’ Don’t touch it. It’s like a picture. I was like, ‘there’s so much behind the picture,’” she says.
Ezrachi would like to make Jerusalem spiritually inclusive, on a practical level – meaning that when non- Orthodox Jews who live in the city and Jews from around the world are in the city on Shabbat, they should be able to celebrate in their own way.
“[It should be] that the public space in Jerusalem is a place where every voice can be heard and every person can be respected. That Shabbat is a time where people can express their way of celebrating,” Ezrachi says. For instance, the coalition has started brainstorming ideas for Shabbat events for locals and visitors, including community centers and groups leading “social tours,” dialogues, Shabbat services of various kinds, and activities like cycling, communal havdala, learning activities, story-telling and yoga sessions.
Other proposed activities from members of the coalition include holding a series of festivals highlighting local music, street culture, theater and poetry; interfaith dialogue; social action events; establishing a center for Jewish ethics and humanistic interpretations of Judaism; and an international conference every two or three years.
Many visitors to Jerusalem “don’t feel at home” because the city “kind of shuts down” on Shabbat, says Ezrachi. He is not talking about getting the municipality to stop fining those few restaurants that choose to stay open on Shabbat, but rather making the city more vibrant and pluralistic on the day of rest.
The coalition is prepared to face an uphill battle. Mazya’s New Spirit has for the last two summers sponsored outdoor concerts on Saturday afternoons. The last one in particular, on June 30, held in the city’s downtown area, sparked some haredi ire. Hundreds of members of the Eda Haredit in Jerusalem have clashed with police for most Saturday afternoons of the last two years over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat.
While Nachalon says that, as an Orthodox Jew, she would not attend the concerts herself, she fully supports New Spirit’s initiative, as over 1,000 young people in the city have turned out for them.
But Nechumi Yaffe, a 36-year-old hassidic mother of three who teaches history at a Bais Yaakov school in Jerusalem, says she only supports efforts to keep secular Jews in Jerusalem, to strengthen cultural activities and to connect with Diaspora Jews “as long as it doesn’t break Shabbat.”
“It’s important for the town to have young people but it can’t change the core of what the city stands for,” she says in a phone interview. “Jerusalem has a special place for spiritual Judaism.”
Regarding activities that could potentially break Shabbat according to Orthodox tradition, such as playing music, she has one request: “Just do it in Tel Aviv. It’s okay.
Do it in Nahariya; do it in Eilat. Don’t do it in Jerusalem.”
Ezrachi says haredim are welcome to join Yeru-Shalem, though he does not suspect any will be interested.
Nachalon sees national – not just local – implications for the city’s demographic challenges.
“The demography here is going to be the demography in Israel in 20 years, maybe less,” she says. “If we can confront issues here we have a chance nationwide. But if we fail here, it also has a meaning nationwide.”
Mazya feels the same way.
“I see Jerusalem as a symbol for all the challenges and solutions that Jewish society as a whole is facing,” she says.