The next 50 years of Jerusalem

Jerusalem Foundation President Yohanna Arbib-Perugia shares her vision for a rapidly changing city.

JERUSALEM FOUNDATION President Yohanna Arbib-Perugia says her vision is that Jerusalem be recognized as a ‘beacon of democracy and hope for humanity.’ (photo credit: JERUSALEM FOUNDATION)
JERUSALEM FOUNDATION President Yohanna Arbib-Perugia says her vision is that Jerusalem be recognized as a ‘beacon of democracy and hope for humanity.’
It’s difficult to imagine Jerusalem without the Jerusalem Foundation.
Since it was established 50 years ago by Teddy Kollek, the city’s legendary former mayor, the Foundation has executed 4,000 projects – from neighborhood parks to world-renowned landmarks – at a cost of some $1 billion.
As the organization’s international chairman Sallai Meridor told me a few years ago, “If you were to take an aerial shot of Jerusalem and remove from it everything that the Jerusalem Foundation has accomplished, you would see a very different picture of the city.”
Among the Jerusalem landmarks that bear the Foundation’s name, to name but a few, are the Jerusalem Cinematheque, the Khan Theater, the Bloomfield Science Museum, the Mishkenot Sha’ananim cultural and conference center and the Tower of David Museum.
As the Foundation prepares to celebrate 50 years of developing Israel’s capital, I sat down with its President, Yohanna Arbib-Perugia, to discuss the organization’s vision for the next 50 years.
“The way Jerusalem looks today has a lot to do with Teddy Kollek’s vision,” says Arbib-Perugia, a 47-year-old Italian real estate fund executive and former chairwoman of Keren Hayesod, who divides her time between Israel and Italy. “His vision was to develop a Jerusalem that would take care of the well-being of all its citizens – Muslims, Christians and Jews.”
Arbib-Perugia explains that while Kollek’s vision remains relevant today, the needs of the city have changed, and that vision needs to be adapted to Jerusalem’s population today.
“One of my main issues for the city of Jerusalem, one that I share with Mayor Nir Barkat, is to focus on education and creating economic opportunities for residents,” she says.
While Jerusalem has gained landmark institutions over the past 50 years, its population has changed a lot in that time. It has become one of the poorest cities in the country and one of the least educated. What is the Foundation doing to train people and to create jobs for them?
“We need to deal with the new realities of the population today with an increasing proportion of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox. What we try to do is to create opportunities for these sectors of Jerusalem’s population.
“The haredi population, for example, is an intelligent and hardworking group that studies very hard, but not subjects that are relevant to employment. So we try to create the educational opportunities that offer haredim an entrée into mainstream society. This is one of our biggest challenges, but at the same time it is one of our greatest opportunities. If you are able to shift the focus away from 100% Torah to Torah V’avoda (study and labor) by giving them the tools to enter the labor market, then we have adapted to the new reality of the city. And the same goes for Jerusalem’s Arab population, with whom we try to do the same thing.”
Can you tell us about the Foundation’s work in east Jerusalem?
“Residents of east Jerusalem should have the same opportunities as those in west Jerusalem. There are segments of the Arab population that have greater access to educational opportunities, and if you offer proper tools, everyone can be part of mainstream society and be part of a Jerusalem that levels the playing field for all.
“I see beacons of hope in this population. Offering tools that have the potential to shift from poverty to a more hopeful path through education – that changes the whole face of the city. You may always have extremists, on both sides, but if you are able to channel it toward the moderate mainstream, that is revolutionary.”
Is it fair to say that the Foundation is turning its focus to intellectual infrastructure rather than the creation of cultural institutions?
“I would say that the focus today has trended more toward content and less on construction. There are cycles where there is an uptick in physical projects, but they must also contain the intellectual infrastructure.
Jerusalem is a beautiful city, and one of the reasons it is such a beautiful city is thanks to the Foundation that has had such an important role in the city’s landscape. But creating content is key to making this city even more vibrant than it is today.
“As a fund-raiser myself, I know that it is harder to raise funds for content than for physical projects, but I am convinced that philanthropists understand the importance of content and not just the building that houses it.”
Does “content, not construction” also apply to the east of the city, with its neglected infrastructure?
“I would say that the nature of our business in east Jerusalem is slightly different – there remains significant need for physical infrastructural improvements. Parks and gardens, for instance, which are prevalent in west Jerusalem, are lacking in east Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem compared to west is clearly more in need of physical infrastructure, although we also try to focus on content, like educational curriculum in schools, after-school programs, and economic opportunities.”
Given the violence that has afflicted Jerusalem in the past year, how receptive are people in the east of the city to working with a foundation that considers strengthening unification as one of its key objectives?
“While there are challenges, I find that east Jerusalem residents and the NGOs we work with are eager to improve quality of life in east Jerusalem. If you find the right people and the right partnership, the projects succeed and are well accepted by residents.”
How closely do you work with Mayor Barkat?
“Very closely. We have regular meetings and we share ideas and thoughts, but we clearly remain an independent organization.
The difference is that the municipality has many other large-scale issues to tackle that we, as a foundation, do not.
Affordable housing, public transportation and roadways, for example, are the responsibility of the municipality and are not issues we are involved in.
“We have many projects in common, and we have others that perhaps might not be the top priority for the municipality, but we do see eye to eye on many things, and at the end of the day we both want the same thing: a vibrant, flourishing city.
“But it really goes beyond personalities.
Today it’s Nir Barkat, but tomorrow it could be somebody else, and we would need to find a way to work in partnership with the next mayor as well. When it comes to Jerusalem, it behooves us all to work, as best as we can, for the advancement of the city.”
The Foundation has raised a billion dollars over its 50 years. Do you see similar levels of funding going forward over the next half century?
“The Foundation is rooted in a number of very important donors from very important families who built relationships with Teddy Kollek. These are, I would say, the guardians of the Foundation, the builders of Jerusalem, and they see their contribution to Jerusalem as a privilege. They feel honored to have to been able to contribute to the growth and the well-being of the city.
“We are now trying to work on multiple levels. We are working with second- and third-generation donors, but we are also trying to enlarge our funding base. Historically, we have focused on major donations, and while we are not trying to change that model, we are looking to improve upon it. I think we should still continue to pursue big donations, but we must also try to appeal to the younger generation.
“Our generation has the privilege of saying that we rebuilt Jerusalem after 2,000 years. That privilege comes with responsibility. By bringing in the younger generation, we also incorporate their vision and leadership, an opportunity to promote the importance of this city with them as well.
“The scope of the Jerusalem Foundation is not only based on Jewish giving, it is based on global giving, because Jerusalem has a message for all humanity, and not just Jews. I have expanded my horizons beyond the Jewish world. My personal forte has been raising money from Jews, and today I am learning how important Jerusalem is to non-Jews who value Jerusalem as a city that is home to three monotheistic religions.”
How would you define your vision for the next 50 years?
“My vision is to contribute to the well-being and strength of Jerusalem so that it is recognized globally as a vibrant international city and a beacon of democracy and hope for humanity.”