Getting on board

The First Station in Jerusalem is not all about the money, it’s a meeting point of culture and activity that is open to everyone, even on Shabbat.

The First Station in Jerusalem (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The First Station in Jerusalem
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For an outsider, Jerusalem on Shabbat may be a surprising thing to experience. The city feels like a ghost town. In between shuttered shops and desolate streets, one can find a restaurant or two that are open. It’s easy to assume that those who are not religious are left to fend for themselves.
However, a 20-minute walk south of the city center leads to the Tahana Rishona, the “First Station,” the recently rennovated railway station – become a cultural and culinary attraction. Among its restaurants and cultural and sports activities, it is open on Shabbat (usually a contentious issue in a city that is always trying to reconcile a complex identity.) “We try to make it a meeting point for people without causing provocation,” says Noa Berger, marketing manager for the venue. “We’re not here to fight, so we don’t want to bring in big festivals that would create a lot of noise [on Shabbat].”
The Ottoman-era railway station, in operation until 1998, fell into disuse and became covered in graffiti. It was renovated and refurbished by businessmen and entrepreneurs Avi Mordoch and Asaf Hamo, whose previous credits include turning the old railway station in Tel Aviv into a chic attraction of upscale restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.
About 60 percent of the enterprises in the First Station are open on Shabbat, says Berger. These include two non-kosher restaurants, an ice cream and coffee shop, stands selling roasted nuts and phyllo-dough sweets, a gift store and bicycle rental center.
There are plenty of free activities as well. There is a yoga class on Saturday mornings; sculptures populate the area, and there’s an art gallery with traveling exhibitions. Games for kids are set up along the length of the promenade, and on one Saturday there was an experimental theater troupe with oversized puppets and ballet dancers provide more entertainment.
Cyclists and runners make use of the bike path, which extends toward the neighborhood of Malha, a distance of almost seven kilometers.
Yogev, a native Jerusalemite in his mid-20s, says he frequents the First Station once or twice a week. He’s pleased with the renovations, which preserve the history of the station, while giving the community a public space to enjoy.
“If you want to take your family or someone who comes from outside Jerusalem for a little walk or out to eat but don’t want to get into the car, this is a great solution,” he says.
The neighborhoods of Talpiot, Baka, the German Colony and Katamon are all within walking distance of the First Station.
Sharona, a young grandmother who lives in the German Colony, attends the Saturday morning free yoga class. She says she goes to Tel Aviv a lot to visit her children and expresses a desire to move there, but she’s lived in Jerusalem all her life and lights up when talking about it. She thinks the First Station is nicer than the one in Tel Aviv and says it offers a lot because it’s open, free, and anyone can just walk in.
Ayelet, a resident of Baka in her late 20s, says the First Station is a bit “yuppie” for her taste. But she’s not against it. She says it’s nice that families come with their children and can ride their bikes around the open plaza.
Jake and Estee, a brother and sister in their early 30s, come out for a breather on Shabbat. Sitting down to enjoy a cup of coffee and an ice cream, Estee says they just wanted to get out and talk to each other.
“I have a baby who is with our mother right now,” Estee says. “We don’t live in the city, so I came to visit family.”
On Saturday afternoons, many families come from outside Jerusalem, in part for something new to do and to see what all the hype is about.
A woman named Or from Maccabim, on army furlough, is at the station with her family. She says her family was looking for something new and interesting to do together on a Saturday, and came to the First Station to see what it was about.
Matti, a father in his mid-40s from Holon, is there with his wife and children on a visit to family that lives in Jerusalem. He says he doesn’t know the city well and if he comes at all, it’s usually once a year to the Western Wall.
A continuous stream of people walk in and out of the plaza throughout the day. In addition to the secular community, it’s not uncommon to see religious families enjoying the space.
“They come with their own food from home, and they eat it here,” Berger says. “We bring in artists and musicians [and hold] sports classes that are free, so people can participate in them without paying.”
“We’ve been getting amazing support from moderately religious people, ones who are not ultra- Orthodox.” Berger says. “They’ve been really supportive of the fact that we’ve been open throughout the weekends… I think many of them would like Jerusalem to be a more pluralistic place.”
While there are no haredi neighborhoods in the area, the Arab population is a demographic of Jerusalem’s population that is noticeably absent. Berger is optimistic that eventually the First Station will attract the Arab population, but for now they are not engaging in a public relations campaign toward any specific community.
“We’re getting accustomed to the city, and we’re letting the city get accustomed to us,” Berger says. “This complex is open to the public 24/7. We don’t have guards at the entrance, and we don’t have gates that are locked.”