Keeping fit down under

Unbeknown to most of the public, for the past 10 years or so a state-of-the-art gym facility has been ready and waiting, lurking beneath the aforementioned verdant public space.

YMCA CEO Amos Gil. (photo credit: PR)
YMCA CEO Amos Gil.
(photo credit: PR)
If your thoughts ever drift in the direction of the YMCA building on King David Street, or you happen to find yourself driving, cycling or strolling past the magnificent specimen of architecture, you will probably be primarily drawn to its aesthetics.
With its domes, porticoes and bell tower it is, indeed, an impressive edifice which is possibly best known for the cultural activities it hosts, with Jerusalemites, and others from further afield, frequenting such events as the annual Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, which has been taking place at the YMCA, in late summer, for the past 20 years.
Locals of an older vintage may even recall the legendary stadium there, used by the Beitar Jerusalem soccer club, when the likes of Uri Malmilian, Danny Neuman and Eli Ohana strode the famous, albeit somewhat cramped, turf.
And sport is once again coming to the fore at the YMCA.
While Beitar relocated to the far more spacious Teddy Stadium near Malha in 1991, and the YMCA pitch has gone the way of all flesh, being replaced by mostly still empty luxury apartments and a park complete with a refreshing- sounding water installation, physical activity is now making a coming back on the site.
Unbeknown to most of the public, for the past 10 years or so a state-of-the-art gym facility has been ready and waiting, lurking beneath the aforementioned verdant public space, just waiting for the right time and right financial conditions, to take a bow. All told, the sports center covers an area of some 10,000 sq.m., taking in three large studio spaces which can be partitioned off or opened up, as the relevant group size demands, treatment rooms, saunas, a Jacuzzi, a sports store, café, dressing rooms and showers, and more.
That momentous kickoff is nigh and according to YMCA CEO Amos Gil, the ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place this January.
“The official opening will be at the beginning of next year, but the place has already started to work,” he noted.
Indeed, on my tour of the nascent sports center, under the informative and energized guidance of Programs and Events Manager Anya Shani, I caught the odd sports class in progress, including a bunch of women being put through their paces by their instructor.
“When I joined the YMCA I was told that when religious Muslim and Jewish women come here, the hijab and head scarves come off and they just enjoy the class together,” said Shani. “Here, you can see that’s true.”
That also resonates nicely with the words of Gen. Edmund Allenby displayed on a tiled mosaic by the YMCA front gate: “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity be fostered and developed.”
Truth be told, sport has always been an integral element of the YMCA’s operations. When the complex was designed, some 90 years ago, the plan called for the inclusion of, for the day, an envelope-pushing health club complete with heated swimming pool – the city’s first – a basketball court and a bunch of other gymnasium facilities.
A full 84 years after the first Jerusalemites donned their sporting garb and began shedding some sweat and some weight, contemporary locals are still making the most of the, albeit antiquated, equipment.
The current weekly schedule still features a wide array of activities, from hell-for-leather Zumba and spinning sessions to more pedestrian yoga and Pilates slots.
The 1,000-plus subscriber roster will make the delicate locational shift to the gleaming, still largely squeakyclean sports center, and it is hoped that they will be joined by many others. “We are waiting, every day, to receive the official permit to activate the two principal facilities of the new center – the pool and the fitness room,” explained Gil. “We are waiting for the procedural stuff to be completed at the Municipality of Jerusalem, and then the thousands of YMCA subscribers will move [to the new sports center], and a new era will begin here.”
Judging by the guided tour I took there is plenty to look forward to. Measuring 25m. by 25m., the pool makes for impressive viewing, and the brand-spanking new basketball court came in for special kudos from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
Silver was over here in August, as part of the Basketball Without Borders program, which hosts training camps for top teenage players around the world. “We, at the NBA, get to see courts all around the world, and it is actually one of the nicest facilities we have seen anywhere!” Silver observed. “So congratulations to the Jerusalem International YMCA.”
The gulf between old and new is evident from the get-go. The entrance to the facility-in-waiting sets the expansive tone for the whole place as you take the escalator downstairs. As you descend you may be aware that you are entering subterranean premises. Then again, you might not.
There is no sense there of being underground. That is partly due to the generous height of the ceilings which partly extend above ground level, and due to the transparent floor of the water installation, and its various channels, in the park, which admit daylight.
With the day of the grand opening looming – hopefully, the municipal permit will come through prior to that – Gil and his colleagues still have some work to do.
When he came on board, around two and a half years ago, Gil was blissfully unaware of the job in hand. He thought he had been hired to oversee the running the extant YMCA, and had no idea there was a white elephant awaiting his experienced professional attention.
That bomb was dropped on him, by the YMCA chairman of the board, a few days after he took up the post.
“I had to examine the whole matter, to understand why my predecessors had not managed to get the thing off the ground and to see how to go about it,” Gil said.
He eventually came across the concept of the “sports mall.”
“The new center has lots of spaces. The YMCA will transfer all the sports activities it currently runs to the new place, but it may not necessarily be able to fill all the spaces.”
A subcontracting approach was deemed to be the way to go. “If we found operators of sports or sports-related facilities, and we take them in as our tenants, that reduces costs and makes the whole thing more viable,” Gil explained. “So we get a sports mall. The YMCA will continue to manage the place, as a service to residents of Jerusalem and, possibly, people from the surrounding region.”
Sounds reasonable, and practicable, enough, but the relocation plan involves more than just physically moving in, equipment and all. Jerusalemites who have been fighting the flab and keeping fit at the existing gym over the years may find it more than a little challenging to successfully navigate the mind-set transition.
The new pool, for example, may be of relatively gargantuan dimensions, and the well-lit space is certainly inviting but, presumably, it will offer a very different swimming experience compared with the far more diminutive pool, with its delightful 1930s interior design – particularly the ceilings and crossbeams – which has been constant use for over eight decades. It will be interesting to see how the members handle that bridge.
Psychological elements notwithstanding, the new YMCA sports center offers a bright, breezy and luxurious ambiance, to residents of Jerusalem and beyond who want to stay in shape, physically and spiritually.
And, just in case, you want to get some idea of what you might be letting yourself in for, free tours and trials are available.
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