Strong foundations

Outgoing president of the Jerusalem Foundation looks back on 57 years with the city's largest organization.

Ruth Cheshin 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Jerusalem Foundation)
Ruth Cheshin 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Jerusalem Foundation)
Seventh-generation Jerusalem resident Ruth Cheshin, who has dedicated most of her adult life to improving life in the city, wasn’t there early Friday afternoon. With a sigh, she explains that for the past few years she and her husband, High Court Justice Mishael Cheshin, have been spending at least two days a week in the center of the country to be closer to their children and grandchildren. “And it’s not only us,” she adds.
“It’s the same with all our friends – the children have moved to the Tel Aviv area, so we live in Jerusalem but spend part of the week away from it.”
In 1967, a year after the launch of the Jerusalem Foundation by Teddy Kollek, who was also the foundation’s first president, Cheshin began working as the organization’s general coordinator. Her association with the legendary Jerusalem mayor went back to 1965, when she helped him open the first tourism department of the city’s municipality.
In her role as general coordinator, Cheshin was the person actually in charge of the foundation’s day-to-day operations. She didn’t have any previous experience, but says that her way was always to just do things and create facts on the ground.
Which she certainly did. During her over 40 years with the foundation, of which she eventually became president, she has been the driving force behind its remarkable transformation.
From its modest roots, the Jerusalem Foundation has grown into a multinational organization that has raised sums others can only dream of. Sums even Cheshin herself never dared dream of, at least during the early years.
Cheshin explains that she saw it as the task she had been given in life.
So as one might imagine, her recent decision to resign as president wasn’t an easy one to make.
Many factors were involved, she says, but one of the main ones from a personal standpoint was her and her husband’s desire to spend as much time as possible with the children of their late son.
Shneor Cheshin, named after Mishael’s father, who served on the Israeli Supreme Court in the early days of the state, was killed last year in a hitand- run accident near Rosh Ha’ayin.
Cheshin remains active at the foundation, but has handed the reins over to Mark Sofer, a career diplomat who has held a variety of senior posts with the Foreign Ministry, including most recently that of ambassador to India.
“He’s a mensch,” says Cheshin. “I have no doubt he will succeed, and anyway, I’ll be around to help and advise. But I am confident he has the best skills to succeed. In fact, I envy him. I envy him because he is beginning something so wonderful, so great.”
Asked which of the thousands of projects conducted by the foundation best symbolized its achievements and impact in her eyes, Cheshin hesitates only for a brief moment.
“The Konrad Adenauer Conference Center in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and the Sheikh Jarrah Health Clinic,” she says.
The Mishkenot project, which began with a budget of $2,000 and ended up with a budget of $12 million, is, in Cheshin’s eyes, worth every penny.
“We took a historical structure, dating from the first years of the new, modern Jerusalem, when Jews began to establish [themselves] outside of the [Old City] walls, and transformed it into a modern beautiful cultural center for the benefit of all Jerusalem’s residents. It combines historic restoration and preservation with modern needs – that was very important in my eyes, very symbolic for this city.”
As for the Sheikh Jarrah clinic, Cheshin is particularly proud of the fact that in addition to meeting its original goal of providing quality health care for the area’s Arab residents, it has become a model of successful coexistence.
“Arab residents and Jews from the northern neighborhoods get health care, and in the meantime, talk, exchange recipes and child-care tips,” she says. “It has been going on that way even during some of the worst periods this city has gone through. That is not to be taken for granted....It shows us that working for the benefit of the residents of the city is the right thing to do.”
Considering the breadth of the foundation’s activities, one might expect some failures over the years. But Cheshin quickly – and proudly – points out that the foundation’s working rules, which demand stringent assessments of all projects before they are proposed to potential donors, prevent such failures.
“We never tried to jump too high with our projects, at least not before we were sure we’d have a safe landing, in order to avoid mistakes and failures,” she says. “In fact,” she adds, “we never celebrated the laying of a cornerstone – we always marked hanukat bayit [housewarming or inauguration] ceremonies.”
Though the foundation has close ties to the Jerusalem Municipality, it is nevertheless an independent institution, as per Kollek’s vision right from the beginning. This status has always been carefully preserved, says Cheshin, except for a few years, during Ehud Olmert’s two terms as mayor.
The “clash” between Olmert and Cheshin erupted right at the start of Olmert’s tenure, and eventually brought him to the decision to establish an additional foundation for Jerusalem.
The new foundation’s results were less than spectacular, with many donors not understanding why the city needed two. Quite a few simply refused to donate to either.
Cheshin had to work hard to retain her donors, most of whom remained faithful to the institution established by Kollek, whose name to this day, she says, still has the power to open doors and hearts.
Although Cheshin’s relationship with present Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are good, Cheshin doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge that the foundation’s independence isn’t guaranteed, and that the struggle to preserve it never ends.
“Leading this foundation requires the skill of a tightrope walker. It might be easier for Mark [Sofer], because he has skills I am totally deprived of, like diplomacy – which can help a lot. I, and this isn’t a secret, have never been a diplomat. I’ve always gone straight ahead.
“I realize that conditions [today] are much more difficult and in that context, Mark’s skills will be very important. He realizes this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he understands that if, at the head of the Jerusalem Foundation, he acts wisely, the sky is the limit.”
However, Cheshin doesn’t hide her concern for the future.
“Fund-raising while the image of Jerusalem and of Israel in general is so bad isn’t easy. The problem lies even here, among ourselves – too many of the young generation are leaving the city, because they cannot find their place here. The attitude of the ultra- Orthodox community has become a serious problem and the young do not wish to stay here anymore. They cannot even come to visit anymore – they feel it’s no longer their city. And their parents follow them outside. It’s a terrible thing.”