Shai Doron: The philanthropic partner of Jerusalem's mayors

Jerusalem Foundation president Shai Doron talks Teddy Kollek, Moshe Lion and diversity

 SHAI DORON, always a civil servant. (photo credit: Oren Bossani)
SHAI DORON, always a civil servant.
(photo credit: Oren Bossani)

Shai Doron was a young lad in elementary school in Jerusalem on the first day of the Six Day War. Unlike the situation today in which many apartment buildings have bomb shelters, the bomb shelters that did exist were community shelters and not always a hop, skip and a jump from home.

On the first day of the war, Shai and many other children went to school as usual. His grandfather came to take him home to Rehavia, but on the way there was a siren which signaled the need to run for cover. The closest community shelter was in the Valley of the Cross, which was relatively near to where Shai lived but seemed to be a long distance away when a little boy was running for his life. He spent most of the war in that bomb shelter.

After the war, Jerusalem was considerably larger than it had been previously, as the Israeli victory resulted in the reunification of the city.

As Shai grew older, he was enrolled at the Gymnasia Rehavia – the third generation of his family to be a student there, as were his siblings after their mother and grandfather had preceded them. In recent years, Doron’s eldest son, Tal, was also a student there, as were many people who have since distinguished themselves in diverse fields such as law, economics, archaeology, journalism, politics, education, and civic affairs. Former presidents Yitzhak Ben Zvi and Reuven Rivlin were also students there. Ben Zvi was also a teacher.

In his youth, Shai was always interested in the Scouts and in helping people to find their direction in life.

 NEVEH YA’ACOV, contemporary vista. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) NEVEH YA’ACOV, contemporary vista. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Working with the scouts in Neveh Ya'acov

At the age of 25, he secured a position as head of the Neveh Ya’acov community center, where he also established a unit of the Scouts. 

Neveh Ya’acov was completely isolated – geographically and demographically in those days, he reminisces as we sit over early morning coffee at the Montefiore coffee shop cum restaurant in Yemin Moshe.

Neveh Ya’acov essentially comprised an immigrant community whose population mix consisted mainly of people who had come to Israel from Morocco, Asia and the Soviet Union. What they had in common was a need to escape discrimination and persecution, and a strong desire to improve their standard of living.

Nowadays, Neveh Ya’acov is more of a haredi stronghold, yet another demonstration of changing demography as populations moved from one place to another. Doron is very pleased that some of the people that he met then carved important careers for themselves and have contributed to the state in different ways.

Some of those whom he befriended in Neveh Ya’acov all those years ago, have remained his close friends. It was there, says the boy from Rehavia, that he learned the meaning and the beauty of diversity.

After three years at the helm of the community center, Doron was plucked out of there by legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who appointed him as his bureau chief – a post he held for five years.

“I was never part of the private sector,” says Doron. “I always worked for civil society.”

Working with Teddy Kollek

WHAT HE loved about Kollek was that he didn’t play political favorites. What he cared about was how well people did their job and how effective they could be on behalf of Jerusalem. It didn’t matter to him which party they voted for or to which they were affiliated. What he cared about was how they related to Jerusalem.

“For Teddy, Jerusalem was a mission,” says Doron, contrasting Kollek to successors such as Ehud Olmert and Nir Barkat, who he asserts, used Jerusalem as a platform to the next step in their political careers.

Looking back, Doron regards working with Kollek as a privilege.

“In the five years that I worked with him, I learned more than when I went to the Kennedy School of Government or to Harvard. The time I spent with Teddy was the best school ever.”

“In the five years that I worked with him, I learned more than when I went to the Kennedy School of Government or to Harvard. The time I spent with Teddy was the best school ever.”

Shai Doron

Doron admits that “Teddy wasn’t easy and he wasn’t fun, but the five years of learning from the master” was worth some of the discomfort.

Kollek had, on several occasions, been offered the position of minister in the government but was not remotely interested. “Nothing was more important to him than Jerusalem.” He worked for the city 24/7. His name, address and phone number were in the telephone directory.

Every Saturday at 11 a.m., Kollek would convene a meeting at his home with the Jerusalem Development Authority. Doron had to be there whether he liked it or not. His wife was certainly not happy about it. They had a newborn baby, and she was left on her own to care for the infant while Doron was spending two hours every Saturday morning with Kollek.

In retrospect, Doron has no regrets. “When a giant like Teddy devotes his private time, and you are facing a great teacher, you don’t refuse.”

Heading The Jerusalem Foundation

After five years with Kollek, Doron was appointed head of the Jerusalem Zoo, where he remained for more than a quarter of a century, until he was offered a position he couldn’t refuse – president of The Jerusalem Foundation.

The organization, founded by Kollek, works in partnership with the Jerusalem Municipality to facilitate diverse projects and programs.

As president of The Jerusalem Foundation, Doron feels that he is putting more links in the chain of Kollek’s legacy.

Even though Kollek, Jerusalem’s longest-serving mayor, died 16 years ago at the age of 95, Doron speaks of him as if he were still here but simply retired. Kollek arguably did more than any other mayor to build and develop the city while promoting coexistence with the Arab population.

Working with Moshe Lion

SOME MIGHT say that present mayor Moshe Lion has done even more, given the ever-increasing number of multi-story buildings dominating the Jerusalem skyline and the number of organizations and institutions that have sprouted since he took office near the end of 2018. It should be remembered that before that, Lion was chairman of Israel Railways and head of the Jerusalem Development Authority, during which time he also played a significant role in innovation and growth within the city.

“Teddy would get angry if anyone built a housing complex higher than eight floors,” Doron recalls.

Asked about how he, who claims to have Jerusalem in his DNA, feels about the changing face of Jerusalem, Doron declines to answer directly, which in itself indicates that he’s not exactly thrilled.

The worst thing that affects people, he says, is the perspective of the good old days. “Yes, I miss the Jerusalem of the 1960s and 1970s, but that is not a reason to change or not to change.”

On the other hand, since change is synonymous with progress, he says that Lion is the best partner anyone could wish for when embarking on a philanthropic endeavor.

He is quick to clarify that even though they travel abroad together for fund-raising purposes, they don’t really hang out together, nor can they be characterized as friends.

Yet for all that, he lauds Lion as being willing to join any initiative for the benefit of the city. “He doesn’t care about who came up with the idea but what it’s about. He cares about partnership and working together with the establishment, and this has opened other doors for meaningful projects for the city.”

As proof of how they work well together, Doron cites figures of funds raised from around the world. When Doron became president of The Jerusalem Foundation in August 2018, monies raised in that year amounted to $19 million. Last year, funds raised abroad and from the government amounted to $51.6 million.

“Jerusalem is facing a huge momentum,” says Doron, again praising Lion for having come to office prepared to go along with The Jerusalem Foundation’s vision for 2030 and beyond, in which diversity is the core.

IN DORON’S perception, diversity is Jerusalem’s most important asset. “So many different people are inspired to live here or to be involved in projects and programs.”

He is particularly proud of the fact that The Jerusalem Foundation is leading the construction of east Jerusalem’s first community sports center in Beit Hanina-Shuafat.

When completed, the sports center will contain all the amenities of a modern sports and community center, including an indoor pool, and will be managed by professionally qualified local community leaders and not by people from outside.

“But they have to get the same services as people on the west side of the city,” Doron emphasizes, adding that the foundation supports many cultural initiatives throughout the city, in which locals are encouraged to head the projects.

He is convinced that this policy will impact positively on the future of Jerusalem.

“We’re taking quality people and are helping them to get senior positions all over the city in establishments that deal with social and cultural needs, as well as empowerment.”

He stresses the importance of internal leadership within the Arab and haredi communities and the anticipated long-range effects.

For instance, one of the programs is to annually take 10 young students from east Jerusalem and enroll them in a social workers’ degree course at the Hebrew University, after which they will be hired by the municipality to work as qualified social workers in east Jerusalem. These will be full-time positions, which Doron is confident “will change the entire system of welfare services in east Jerusalem.”

There is an acute shortage of social workers in that part of the city today, and some are outsiders who are resented by the local population. By increasing the number of local social workers and providing the right services, the chances are high that there will be a better society in the future, he says, noting that social workers can help young people to realize their potential and not be the victims of missed opportunities for lack of proper guidance.

Another program that is underway is that of informal learning spaces.

“Learning space should not be restricted to the classroom,” says Doron as he enthuses about open space learning. “Every child in Jerusalem should have the opportunity to learn outside the classroom – in the zoo, in the aquarium, in the Tower of David and the Botanical Gardens.”

Visits to all these places will add to the learning experience. Classes of students should be exposed to these venues not just once a year but 10 times a year to awaken their curiosity and encourage them to research, says Doron, on the presumption that some students who are bored in the classroom will discover new areas of knowledge that interest them and will pursue these subjects.

By finding topics of interest in Jerusalem, Doron is hopeful that members of the younger generation will commit themselves to Jerusalem – not politically but in terms of what they can give to civil society and gain from it by way of social interaction, informal education and culture.

Something that annoys him and that he would like to see changed is where the CEOs of cultural institutions, hospitals and national institutions such as the Jewish Agency live. In the vast majority of cases, he says, they do not reside in Jerusalem, and he wants them all to make their homes in the capital.

“This is the time to bring the best professionals and their families back to Jerusalem because they believe this is the place for them to grow,” he says. 

GETTING BACK to Kollek, whom he admired so much, why did Doron leave City Hall?

He is not a political creature, he explains, and he didn’t want to be involved in Kollek’s last campaign for re-election because, in his opinion, Kollek would lose to Ehud Olmert, and Doron didn’t want to be around to witness that.

“I told Teddy not to run and to resign before the election. But Rabin, Peres and Dalia Itzik all told him that he should run again. I told Teddy that he should call a press conference and say he’s not running and that he is resigning before the election.”

That would have made room for deputy mayor Amos Mar-Haim to show his own leadership qualities and possibly defeat Olmert.

Kollek acknowledged that Doron was right but declared that he couldn’t resign. He had to run.

He did, and lost, partially because Olmert ran what, in Doron’s view, was a brilliantly positive campaign in which the slogan was “We love Teddy, but we vote Olmert.”

As our interview draws to a conclusion, Doron moves to another table for the next meeting. I comment to Jerusalem Foundation spokesperson Liat Rosner that the Montefiore Restaurant was Kollek’s favorite meeting place, to which she replies: “It’s also our home away from home.” ■