A paragon of coexistence

Jerusalem's YMCA celebrates its 75th anniversary.

ymca (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jerusalem International YMCA, the first American architectural project in the Holy Land, was officially dedicated on April 18, 1933. It marked its 75th anniversary on Sunday with a series of riveting lectures by architects David Kroyanker and Arthur Spector and Tel Aviv University Prof. Inbal Ben-Asher Gitler about the building's harmonious history - from its architectural elements and its construction materials (past and present) to the diverse audience it attracts. Director-General Emeritus Rizek Abushar, who also spoke at the anniversary event, is one example of the YMCA's integrative role in the community. During Sunday's anniversary celebration, he recounted his long history with the landmark. In 1949, as a young Palestinian living in Mamilla, Abushar would gaze in awe at what was then the tallest building in Jerusalem. His family was too poor to afford the membership. But one boy in the neighborhood was a member and would tell tales of a marvelous box with a wire door that opened when you pressed a button and then closed again, shaking as it ascended. Curious, Abushar and a few friends snuck into the building to get a look at the contraption. On their way out, Abushar was caught by the elevator operator, who took him to the main office, where he had to sit for a long time. Years later, that office would become Abushar's. His next encounter with the YMCA came soon after, when then-director-general James Sutton visited his school and invited him and his classmates to tidy the grounds around the building. In return, Sutton promised them lunch and a swim in the pool. The boys showed up at seven the following morning. After three hours of hard work, they were treated to a rare feast that included chicken, rice and salad. The subsequent dip in the pool was even more exhilarating, as none of the boys had been swimming before. At afternoon's end, Sutton asked if they would return the following Tuesday, and they all agreed. What they didn't know was that Sutton had also invited a group of Jewish boys to clean the garden and prune the trees. When Tuesday came, Sutton paired off the two groups, Israeli and Palestinian. The Israeli boys didn't speak Arabic and the Palestinian boys didn't speak Hebrew, but somehow suspicion of the other dissipated and they got along fine. For Abushar, it was one of the most exciting events of his life, and he realized there and then that he wanted to devote himself to the kind of work the YMCA was doing. Soon after, he began working there as a ballboy on the tennis court. In 1955 Abushar was promoted to youth director and was put in charge of the summer camp. After that he filled one important role after another, ultimately as director-general. In 1967 Abushar, his wife Alice and their children took refuge at the YMCA, which was just as well, he said, because the staff didn't show up, and there were 36 people, Arabs and Jews - 16 of them children - caught by the Six Day War and unable to leave the building. Despite the hostilities outside, inside there was a different atmosphere. The electricity was cut off for several days, and Abushar helped the youngsters pass the time by having them tell each other stories, including sharing their fears. The extraordinary camaraderie that was forged strengthened Abushar's resolve to make activities at the YMCA more meaningful. Speaking about the influence of the YMCA, Abushar said: "It may not change the world, but if you change one person you change the world."