Cityfront: More than the Western Wall

Jerusalem will be both the textbook and the classroom of Yad Ben-Zvi's new school for Jerusalem studies, promises director Ilan Ezrahi.

Ilan Ezrahi speaks softly, but his declarations are bold. The newly appointed head of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute's International School for Jerusalem Studies, which is set to open this year, Ezrahi brings a revolutionary vision of what the school and Jerusalem itself should be. "Compared to the actual discourse and tone in which locals and visitors alike speak of Jerusalem, this is definitely different," Ezrahi says of his vision. "The despair and rejection of Jerusalem, so fashionable these days, is in large part a result of ignorance of what this city really is." Ezrahi, who is an expert in connecting Diaspora communities to Israel, was born in Jerusalem and is the proud grandson of one of the founders of Rehavia, where he lives today. And until recently, Ezrahi was the executive director of the Jewish Agency's Israel experience program MASA. As for what brought him to Yad Ben-Zvi, Ezrahi says that he has always been involved as a lay person in public processes that shared the same goal: "To improve the status and situation of Jerusalem, specifically in the tension existing between renewal and development and preservation." In this regard, Ezrahi was one of the main proponents of the struggle for the preservation of historic buildings in Rehavia, a fight that produced an official list of neighborhood buildings to be preserved. Ezrahi is also on the staff of the Ginot Ha'ir Community Center, one of the city's most active community centers in matters of preservation and environment. "The whole city of Jerusalem will be both the textbook and the classroom of this school," he explains. "The Yad Ben-Zvi Institute is well known for its Land of Israel studies. Now we want to expand it and focus on Jerusalem studies, in an institute renowned for its academic excellence." Yad Ben-Zvi's location in Rehavia, where the Renaissance men and women of the state's early days congregated, is not lost on Ezrahi. "The fact that Yad Ben-Zvi is located in the very heart of Jerusalem, an area that represents a combination of modesty and and learnedness as was once praised and appreciated, will be the core message the school wishes to convey," he says. "We are on the brink of a new period for this institution that will have, I believe, a tremendous impact on the whole city - if we do it the right way," he continues. "We are in effect creating a new cultural center whose influencewill be widespread. The school will act as a hub for local culture, which is something we are sorely lacking. "We want to resurrect everything that is connected with a local, Israeli, rich and appealing culture - from the research and programs to the menu at the new in-house coffee shop," he adds. "The school will be a home for local artists, a place where they will be the owners, in creative terms, of the place, not the guests." The school will offer programs in four different tracks: one for locals, "to effect a deep change in their attitude toward their own city... we want to restore their pride in being Jerusalemites, to live here in this astonishing and very special city," explains Ezrahi; one for Israelis in general, "to give them the tools to realize that Jerusalem is much more than a short visit to the Western Wall - it is a varied, exciting and unique world," he continues; one for Diaspora Jewry, "to give them the tools to get to know this city, far beyond the usual routes of the average Jewish tourist," he says; "and last but not least," he says, a track for "the whole world, the millions who love and long for Jerusalem, and wish to know it better. "The school will offer all of these people a new and comprehensive knowledge [of the city]," concludes Ezrahi. "It will highlight places that are largely unknown to visitors and even locals, far beyond the traditional tourist rounds."