The Jerusalem Rotary Club turns 90

The Jerusalem Rotary Club was the first in the land and chartered as a member of Rotary International on March 11, 1929, after being sponsored by the Rotary Club of Cairo.

Norman Bentwich in 1950 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Norman Bentwich in 1950
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Despite having been around for 114 years and in Jerusalem for 90, we often get asked, “What is Rotary?” It would appear that our activities and community services are not sufficiently known to the wider public.
A group of businessmen in Chicago in 1905 formed a mutual networking and support club. Because they met in a different office each week, they called their club Rotary. From those humble beginnings, Rotary grew into the worldwide organization it is today with 1.22 million members in 200 countries. It soon evolved from being business-centered into a community service organization with many projects whose impact is local, national and international. In Israel, there are 60 clubs with 1,400 members.
The Jerusalem Rotary Club was the first in the land and chartered as a member of Rotary International on March 11, 1929, after being sponsored by the Rotary Club of Cairo. There are several versions of how the club began as early records were destroyed or lost in the early years of World War II. One popular version claimed the following: The Rotary International emissary who had been sent to establish Rotary in the Eastern Mediterranean went to Jerusalem and visited 15 men, deliberately choosing men of different races, color and religion. He told each of them about Rotary and each expressed the opinion that it would be highly desirable to have a club in Jerusalem. He then invited them, individually, to be his guest at dinner.
Each came thinking himself to be the only guest but found to his surprise that there were 15 assembled. They glared at each other, and each wondered how the others happened to be there. The host then excused himself, telling them that he would be back shortly. His guests were more uncomfortable than ever. Finally, their natural courtesy began to assert itself. An Arab crossed the room and shook hands with a Jew. Then each of them, feeling he could not be outdone in courtesy, tried to surpass the others in politeness.
At just the right moment, the host returned to the room and raising his hand, announced, “Gentlemen, the Rotary Club of Jerusalem is now in session!”
That group included Norman Bentwich, Palestine’s Attorney General, Canon Danby of the Anglican Church of Jerusalem, who became professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, and Hugo Shmuel Bergman, who later was a professor of Philosophy and rector of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Since then, the Jerusalem Rotary Club remained inclusive despite the difficulties of the Hebron riots of the late 1920s, the disturbed 1930s, World War II and the upheavals with the establishment of the state. Throughout, the community services projects continued and interestingly maintained English as the working language for all club activities, the only one in Israel to do so.
Today the Jerusalem Rotary Club meets every week on a Wednesday at its home base for the past 64 years, the Jerusalem YMCA. Membership has fluctuated from a high of 80 in the 1960s to an average of 30 over the past few years. As with many organizations the problem is one of aging as the younger millennials are preoccupied with work in a changing world.
Nonetheless, activities continue concentrating on community projects and on a scholarship program for Jerusalem schools that is funded by the club’s Jerusalem Rotary Foundation.
The Jerusalem Rotary Foundation of the club has been awarding 50 to 60 scholarships a year for the past 64 years to students who do well in the sciences, mathematics and computer areas of study and who also demonstrate a social, community and peer group awareness. The Foundation is a registered non-profit maintained through donations from members and friends.
Since Jerusalem was established as the first club, Rotary has flourished in the country. There are now 58 clubs with 1,600 members to be found in the major cities and smaller communities. Israel is a single Rotary District and while each club undertakes community projects of its own there are also major district and international activities. The most important is the Polio Plus project, which Rotary International, together with the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation and the WHO, have been running for several years. This important and successful endeavor is aiming to eliminate the scourge of polio worldwide.
In the north, near Safed, Rotary Israel has an established forest, the Paul Harris Peace Forest. It continues with its planting program by awarding tree certificates to members, speakers at meetings and people whom the clubs wish to recognize for their support. A second forest is being established in the Negev and has just been dedicated.
This 90th anniversary year will be celebrated in Jerusalem with a conference and gala concert in the Jerusalem Theater on March 17. There will also be a cycling event for serious riders in Gush Eshkol in the Negev the day before. Both events will raise funds for Polio Plus. Besides the Rotarians, and family and friends of Rotary Israel, many visitors from abroad are expected to join the celebrations.
The Jerusalem Rotary Club and Rotary Israel have had a turbulent history but have succeeded in maintaining their objectives of community service, pluralism in their membership and peace in friendship and harmony. There is still lots of work to be done and only 10 years to the centennial celebrations.
David Seligman is President of the Jerusalem Rotary Club