Jerusalem of Green

A community project maintains Jerusalem’s greenery and sanity, and builds social capital.

Art by Avi Katz (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Art by Avi Katz
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
NAOMI SHEMER’S song “Jerusalem of Gold” is known and loved. When the dying rays of the setting sun reflect off Jerusalem’s stone buildings and its gold and copper domes, one feels deep love for this beautiful, iconic and sometimes troubled city, where each issue of this magazine is born.
But what about “Jerusalem of Green”? Those words merit a song, too.
Jerusalem has some 70 community gardens, maintained and loved by people of the neighborhoods ‒ helping keep Jerusalem of gold, Jerusalem of green.
I spoke with Amnon Herzig, who spearheaded the restoration of one of the loveliest such gardens, which borders on the Nature Museum in the German Colony, on Mohilever Street. He was born and raised in Haifa 71 years ago. Herzig (who is a close friend and one of my three partners in a venture that seeks to foster “everyone, everywhere” creativity in organizations in Israel and in China) had a stellar career in banking, became Bank Hapoalim CEO’s deputy, then co-founded Club 50, which provides services for those 50 and over, which was sold to insurance giant Migdal.
The history of the garden and the Nature Museum is a tale worth telling.
The building was built originally for an Arab or Armenian effendi and was called Villa Deccan. At the turn of the 20th century, the house was turned over to the Turks.
After World War I, it was used by the British high commissioner, and later became an officers’ club. It was abandoned during the War of Independence in 1948; in the 1950s it became a center for nature studies; and in 1962 the Nature Museum opened its doors.
On its grounds is a sculpture garden, and now, a restored community garden. The original garden was planned by a famed landscape architect named Yehiel Segal, who designed, among others, the Bialik House gardens in Tel Aviv and the Rothschild gardens in Rishon Lezion. Segal planned the museum’s grounds along the lines of a classic English country garden, using local plants and trees, but over time it became badly neglected.
Herzig and his German Colony neighbors got together to restore the garden almost a decade ago.
The Jerusalem Report: How many communal gardens are there in Jerusalem? Herzig: “There are about 70 community gardens throughout the city. Some are small, with a small number of people active, and some are large and more developed.
There is even one garden or more in Mea She’arim and in East Jerusalem. But most are in secular Jewish neighborhoods and mixed neighborhoods.”
The Report: Is there an organization that links them all? Herzig: “There is a Jerusalem Municipality worker who coordinates the community gardens. In addition, the municipality and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) support the project. In particular, they supply professional and logistical assistance for the community gardens ‒ equipment, work tools, plants and professional advice. The work is carried out by a community worker and a gardener, assisted by volunteers and National Service youth and is administered by the SPNI. The budgets for this activity are very small.”
The Report: Where exactly is your communal garden located? How did it start? How did you get involved? Herzig: “The museum building and the area surrounding it are 160 years old. It is among the oldest structures in Jerusalem outside the Old City walls. The area comprises close to 10 dunams (2.5 acres), including the structure and large grounds surrounded by a wall. It was once an orchard of local plants and fruit trees, with reservoirs for collecting rainwater and decorative old pools.
“The community garden was started with the goal of blocking real estate developers from destroying this unique place, which combines history with charming urban nature.
Over the years, the area was neglected and the garden became overrun – a prime target for real estate developers.
“I joined the initiative from the beginning.
I saw it as fulfilling my dream to raise vegetables near my home, along with the desire to preserve the natural character of the place. Very quickly, it became clear that the project required a lot more than just growing vegetables. We were challenged, essentially, to restore the outdoor area from scratch ‒ to construct paths, flower beds, irrigation systems, to restore a water reservoir and decorative pools, to plant a huge amount of diverse trees, shrubs, herbs and more.
“In addition, because the goal was to prevent building on the site, we had to restore and enhance large parts of the open area, comprising five dunams. All this took a lot of time and, of course, we could not just limit our efforts to growing vegetables.”
The Report: Are these gardens under threat from land developers? What is the City of Jerusalem’s position on them? Herzig: “These gardens were established from the beginning to prevent development that does not suit the wishes and needs of the community. In some gardens, the threat of development still looms and in some the threat was eliminated by the efforts of residents.
“It appears that this is the case with the Nature Museum. The site is to be officially recognized by the municipality for three purposes: the historic Nature Museum building, the community garden, and an urban-community sustainability center and neighborhood center for Jerusalem teachers.
All this thanks to the community garden’s initiative.
“From the point of view of the municipality, it must be remembered that it has various priorities – for instance, in the case of our garden, the Education and the Social Services Departments support our activities.
On the other hand, the city’s Building Department has more than once supported real estate developers, a potential source of significant revenue for the city.”
The Report: What sort of activities do you provide? Herzig: “Our main mission is to develop a large spread of activities and bring in an even larger number of supporters. We focus on two central topics: One, developing varied initiatives and community activities with the purpose of bringing to the site as many residents as possible so they develop close ties to it. And second, encouraging activities aimed at protecting the environment and sustainability.
“IN ESSENCE, we turned the place into a pluralistic community center for all the residents of Jerusalem. This is expressed in many activities: a group of parents and children who home school make use of the garden; youths from nearby schools come to the gardens through nature groups; there are community activities with children in their bar mitzva year, and groups of local kindergarten children maintain flower beds in the garden.
“Groups of children and professionals in education and community work come for visits and instructional sessions; Chi-Kung (a holistic Chinese system of coordinated body posture and movement) groups also visit; and on Shabbat there are communal singing, theater groups and Hebrew instruction.
“Many residents now come to the gardens during their leisure hours to experience urban nature. The plant life and animal environment we developed, including reconstructed pools represent many species characteristic of the Jerusalem Hills, some of which are becoming extinct.
“Many projects in the garden were begun in the spirit of preserving the environment.
There is a large recycling facility for producing compost, which serves the entire neighborhood. We practice organic agriculture, without using chemicals. Residents can learn how to grow their own vegetables and herbs in their backyards with irrigation methods that conserve water.
“Our garden serves as an operations and professional center for all the community gardens of Jerusalem. People come to our garden to get equipment, plants and instruction.
So, around the garden we have created a large community of thousands of supporters from all over the city with a strong link to this place. This huge army of supporters helped us convey the message that we are here to stay.”
After chatting with Herzig, I realize that if this column is about business and economics, where is the marketplace angle to Jerusalem of green? Actually, there is a very strong one. It is related to social capital. The Nature Museum community garden in Jerusalem’s German Colony is physical capital – valuable urban land, coveted by developers, who covet financial capital. A land assessor can place an exact numerical value on its 10 dunams.
But the garden is also social capital, defined thus by a leading US sociologist James Coleman: “If I ask for help from someone and receive help, I get a benefit.
But that gives the giving person, too, a benefit, because they can draw on this ‘social capital’ in time of need.”
In other words, social capital is the summed present value of the (monetized) benefits from the love and support of our family, friends, neighbors and community.
“I think that community activities in the garden also have a major positive effect on our health – both because of the physical activity in nature and the opportunity to make social and community connections ‒ to meet and work with other residents for a common goal,” Herzig asserts. “It is very important precisely because of all the alienating processes that occur in big cities.”
I can also argue that implementing sustainability principles and organic agriculture in the community garden also adds to our health. And good health and quality of life have significant economic value.
Economists measure financial capital with precision. They know that global wealth in 2015 amounted to $241 trillion, about three times the global gross domestic product.
But global social capital? Who knows? Marcia Pally, a lecturer at New York University and Fordham University, author of “Commonwealth and Covenant,” wrote, “We want to be situated ‒ embedded in loving families and enveloping communities, thriving within a healthy cultural infrastructure that provides us with values and goals.”
We do indeed. Has the enormous global wealth machine that generated 1,645 billionaires in the world (as of 2015) actually destroyed huge amounts of social capital? Because social capital is unmeasured, have we neglected or overlooked this immense loss? New York Times columnist David Brooks observed, “The weakening of the social fabric has created a range of problems, including alienated young men who join ISIS so they can have a sense of belonging.”
We are learning that the destruction of social capital comes with a very high price tag.
So against this global backdrop, as I stroll through the Nature Museum community garden past the lovely pool and rest for a moment on a bench under shady trees, I ponder how I and my fellow economists have utterly ignored what is most valuable in our lives – our neighborhoods and their social bonds, the glue that holds our lives together.
And I smile at how Amnon Herzig, his friends and neighbors and other like-minded good people have taken one small but significant step toward restoring and maintaining Jerusalem’s greenery, and with it our social sanity.
The writer is senior research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion and blogs at