Nomi Yeshua: Making Jerusalem a city for the world to admire

Nomi, you’ve got a big job ahead of you! Knowing Nomi better now, I am convinced she will tackle it one knot at a time.

 Nomi Yeshua (photo credit: COURTESY NOMI YESHUA)
Nomi Yeshua
(photo credit: COURTESY NOMI YESHUA)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Nomi Yeshua occasionally passes through Canada representing the Jerusalem Foundation. Last summer, she came through Winnipeg with Mayor Moshe Lion of Jerusalem. The delegation from Israel was thanking the Canadian donors who ceaselessly build and support projects geared to make Jerusalem the cultural and civilizational hub that it should be and almost is. Nomi was back in Canada again recently, planning a tour that would showcase an innovative project geared toward helping young women from all the diverse communities in the holy city to lift themselves up into independence. In other words, to train them to actualize their inherent entrepreneurial skills. She was spending a few days in Winnipeg, so we were able to see each other. I met Naomi several ago when she spoke in Gimli at a JNF brunch, and I wanted to update myself about recent changes in her title, details of how she landed her job in the mayor’s office upon making aliyah, and how she transitioned herself through various roles until she does what she does now. Our conversation revealed another transformation, that the art of fundraising has come a long way since Golda Meyerson (Meir) traveled to the United States in a house dress.

Nomi was born in Vancouver, but the seeds of Zionism were planted early. When only in middle school, she applied to a program offering grade 10 on Kibbutz Kfar Blum. She was accepted and spent that year of high school in Israel, no doubt delighting her grandmother, who had made aliyah in 1977. Finishing high school in Vancouver and looking for an education along the lines of liberal arts, she chose political science and obtained a BA from the University of British Columbia. In 1990, Nomi made aliyah, joining her grandmother and aunt, both Winnipeggers, Aunt Miriam having made aliyah in 1966. It was through them that Nomi, a brand new olah, found the dream job in Mayor Teddy Kollek’s office. In Nomi’s own words: “I went for lunch with my grandmother at the home of my aunt’s neighbor. The neighbor, Frada Feigelson, had a sister, Shula Eisner Navon, who had worked for mayor Kollek since 1965, and she hired me as her assistant. Shula left a couple of years later, and then I took over her position.” 

“I went for lunch with my grandmother at the home of my aunt’s neighbor. The neighbor, Frada Feigelson, had a sister, Shula Eisner Navon, who had worked for mayor Kollek since 1965, and she hired me as her assistant. Shula left a couple of years later, and then I took over her position.”

Nomi Yeshua

Shula began with Teddy Kollek (named Tadeuz after Theodor Herzl) the year he became mayor and had worked for him for over 25 years when she hired Nomi. Back in 1965, Jerusalem was still occupied by Jordan up to the Green Line (the 1947 War of Independence ceasefire line which had been drawn with a green crayon). By 1966, Kollek had founded the Jerusalem Foundation, a fundraising device to enable people around the world to assist, whether by large or small amounts, in the cultural development of their “city on the hill.” Its first initiatives were public parks in the poorer neighborhoods funded by donors in New York. 

Without the foundation, moving money smoothly between countries would not have been possible. Kollek was nothing if not charismatic, his personality permeating every field he entered. Before long, he also planted the beginnings of the Israel Museum. He was chummy with every cultural icon of the era, bringing them all to Jerusalem, making the city the focus of high intellectual achievement. Isaac Stern, Arturo Rubinstein, Saul Bellow, Isaiah Berlin, Marc Chagall, Yitzhak Perlman – these were all his friends. Shula would have developed a high sense of aestheticism and beneficence. This is the aura of the workplace Nomi entered, the influence and legacy under which she was to walk her career path. Nomi says she owes Teddy Kollek her passion for classical music. I believe she has also internalized the values he instilled in the Jerusalem Foundation.

During his life prior to the years as mayor, Kollek was a man of action. In 1942, he was appointed deputy head of intelligence for the Jewish Agency. By 1945, he was in contact with the highly secretive M15’s main representative of British Military Intelligence. Through 1947 and 1948, he represented the Hagana in Washington, during which time he managed (working from within the Hagana) to clandestinely transport into Palestine used and leftover American military armaments, including ammunition, which formed the basis of what became the Mossad during the War of Independence. From 1952, he served as the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. Teddy Kollek and David Ben-Gurion were cut from the same cloth: Neither was religious; both were educated in Vienna. Just as Ben-Gurion didn’t whine that the land being offered to the Jews was inadequate, so Kollek took it in his stride when his city suddenly ballooned in size and population. His attitude was “Of course, come in. Let me help you.” 

 Teddy Kollek (credit: YA’ACOV SA’AR/GPO) Teddy Kollek (credit: YA’ACOV SA’AR/GPO)

He arranged for the provision of milk for Arab children. Then he placed City Hall smack on the seam line of the unification. Religious or not, if there were discontented naysayers, as at the time of the ten spies, these two men were able to withstand them.

It is fortuitous that the Jerusalem Foundation was already established by this time.

From its beginnings it has been apolitical, embracing the Jewish mandate to be caretakers of Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill, for the benefit of all the people of the world. This mindset led Kollek to embrace his new communities with open arms and strive to bring them the same enhancements he had begun in the rest of the city.... green spaces at first, then tentatively expanding to cultural and social centers. Fast forward to now, with 4,000 plus projects completed or in the works. Not that “completed” is ever stamped across the page. And no longer is the meeting of open hand and deep pocket the way it’s done. In 1966, the Jerusalem Foundation was incorporated in New York City. In 1970, a Canadian branch in Montreal was opened by the Bronfman family, a contact Kollek had made when moving armaments. (Hmm...interesting!) Beginning in the early 20th century, more and more philanthropic efforts were being channeled into entities like these (the Rockefeller Foundation being one of the earliest) as efficient ways to channel movement of large sums of money through government regulations and to facilitate the management of funds over long periods of time. 

Kollek obviously was an excellent people person, arranging his friends into donors, his donors into friends, and then, eek!.....channeling them into boards of directors. It takes a special gift, and there is no doubt in my mind that this gift also resides in Nomi. From Kollek’s office, she went on to various fundraising and marketing positions, also managing to obtain a master’s degree in education from Tel Aviv University. At one point, she served as liaison to former Jerusalem mayor Nir Birkat. As she told me, the edifice of fundraising and what it accomplishes cannot exist without the building of relationships. For Nomi, to develop and direct this structure of board members and donors, as she does, bespeaks a temperament that loves and respects people. It’s a big job; it consists of many small jobs. Over the years, Nomi has done everyone else’s job. I met her when she was director of the Canada Desk. Now she is chief development officer, as well as executive director in Canada. There have been other positions, each indicating an upgrade in skill and responsibility, but I get the feeling that many of the duties are intermingled. 

Projects over the decades have gone beyond parks and cultural centers, although it’s safe to say those haven’t stopped. Nowadays, a not so frequently mentioned element of the Jerusalem Foundation, words to the effect of “integrating the day to day lives of the city’s inhabitants” have moved a little more front and center. “Shared living” is the phrase being used. Easier said than done, as the saying goes. Nomi pointed out serious complications in accomplishing this, which originate in the city’s education system. She told me that there are four streams of public schools, all segregated, all paid for by taxes, no way to loosen up and unravel them. The first time these students have anything to do with each other is when they enter the IDF. Up until then, there is no interaction. They have not had any contact with other perspectives. Overcoming this alienation is going to take more than nice architecture. And this isn’t even talking about Arab communities established during the Jordanian occupation, including an early refugee camp cheek by jowl against an Arab village. 

Nomi, you’ve got a big job ahead of you! Knowing Nomi better now, I am convinced she will tackle it one knot at a time. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion was certainly wise to come and thank Canadian donors. I hope he’s also thanking the ones who “pray for the peace of Jerusalem....”  ■

A version of this article was first published in the Jewish Post and News of Winnipeg.