Getting garbage out of Zion

Overseas yeshiva and seminary students are cleaning up the city, neighborhood by neighborhood.

jerusalem cleanup 88.298 (photo credit: )
jerusalem cleanup 88.298
(photo credit: )
To date, nearly 150 students have taken part in two clean-up campaigns run by Nikayon Zion (Cleanliness of Zion), a student-run grassroots initiative that each week focuses on cleaning the streets of another of the city's neighborhoods. Hailed by local residents as "tzadikim" (holy men and women), applauded, hugged and kissed, the students have obviously struck a chord in this trash-filled city. But when overseas students decide that volunteering to clean up Jerusalem is a project of major importance, and are able to fill some 150 garbage bags in two hours of work in the upscale Rehavia/Nahlaot neighborhood, then something stinks not only in our streets but also in Safra Square. Nikayon Zion launched its first Jerusalem neighborhood clean-up in Rehavia/Nahlaot on December 2, 2005, with the participation of 50 yeshiva boys and 80 seminary girls. Divided into two groups (boys in Nahlaot and girls in Rehavia), the volunteers went through parks and along city streets, picking up trash. Last week, the group repeated its efforts in the German Colony with around a dozen students. This time, it was a coed undertaking. To make the project more attractive to participants, Nikayon Zion combines the clean-up efforts with a guided neighborhood tour. "When we started, we thought we would have a clean-up once a month," relates Nikayon Zion organizer, Minnesota native Alexander Chester, who is currently an intern at Bar Ilan University. "But after the first clean-up, 250 students signed up. We can't work with such a large group all at once. So we decided to do a clean-up every week on Friday morning with a group of around 50 students in order to be able to include everyone who wants to take part." The idea for Nikayon Zion originated last year with Chester's brother, Sammy, when he was a one-year student at the Har Etzion Yeshiva in Gush Etzion. "On Jerusalem Day, Sammy took part in the march through the city," Chester recounts. "He was upset by the filth he saw along the route. So Sammy took a plastic bag and started cleaning as he marched. People noticed. An old Arab man came up to him and in halting Hebrew thanked him for helping to make the Holy City more beautiful." Sammy decided it would be really nice if more students could be organized to clean up Jerusalem. When Sammy returned to the US, Chester decided to carry through with his idea. "Alex had this vision," states Batel Meshel, Chester's co-organizer and a student at Simhat Shlomo in Nahlaot. "I came on board to help. Now, I am in charge of the women's groups." Nikayon Zion was set up with assistance and seed money from Shomera Lesviva Tova (Guardian for a Good Environment), a non-profit organization specializing in environmental education and activism. Chester and Meshel contacted various yeshivas and seminaries to recruit volunteers, selected the initial neighborhoods and found volunteer tour guides. So far, students from 18 yeshivas and seminaries have taken part in the two clean-ups. They include both national religious and liberal Jewish institutions. "The message of cleaning up Jerusalem is an apolitical one that appeals to students across the religious spectrum," Chester notes. "We want students from all the streams to feel comfortable. That is why we did separate groups for the more Orthodox schools and a mixed group for the more liberal. I would really like Nikayon Zion to be able to bring people of different backgrounds together, as well as giving overseas students the opportunity to learn about Jerusalem's various neighborhoods and experience them on a personal level." Avi Rovinsky, a student from St. Louis studying at Netiv Aryeh, took part in the first clean-up in Nahlaot. "We started at Gerard Behar and found tons of garbage in the shrubbery. The place really needed a cleaning. Then, we proceeded to the alleys and streets of Nahlaot. All along the way, residents kept coming up to us and asking what we were doing. When they heard, they thanked us. One man, from outside of Nahlaot, asked us if we could come and clean his neighborhood." Melissa Tisck, who hails from Las Vegas and is studying in the Conservative Yeshiva, took part in both the Rehavia and German Colony clean-ups. "It was very interesting to be both able to clean up the city and learn about the different neighborhoods at the same time. In Rehavia, I was with a group of Orthodox girls. I never really talked with religious girls before. I had the opportunity to learn how they perceive secular Jews and liberal Judaism, as well as to compare our experiences in Israel. I didn't think there would be a lot of trash in these neighborhoods, but there was." "I walk down the streets of Jerusalem and I see all this disgusting trash lying around," remarks Ann B. Young of Wilmington, DE, a part-time student at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, who took part in the German Colony clean-up. "This really bothers me. I would like to make this city a cleaner place. Judaism has a very important message about the environment and our responsibility to take care of it. In some way, I feel that I am fulfilling that responsibility." "This is a wonderful idea," enthuses Allan Rabinowitz, who volunteered to guide the German Colony tour. "Imagine what a difference it would make if every time Israeli school kids go on tour, they would clean up the area they are learning about." Passerby Yitzhak Sherman of Arnona was so taken with the group's efforts that he began to share his experiences as a teenager, newly arrived in Israel from Romania, during the War of Independence. "We were sent here - where the gas station at Liberty Bell Park is today. From Mount Zion, snipers shot at us. But we made a real effort to hold on. If we hadn't, we would never have won the war and we would not have a state today. I am pleased to see a new generation of concerned young people making an effort for this city." The German Colony volunteers filled more than 30 bags with trash and two with recyclable plastic bottles during their two hours. They found plastic bottles, food wrappers, soda cans and other miscellaneous trash under the shrubbery in the Liberty Bell parking lot, an area that city sanitation workers seem to have never ventured into. They also spent more than 20 minutes cleaning the area of the unused railroad tracks, near Bethlehem Road, from mountains of rubbish, another apparent no-go zone for sanitation workers. Rehavia/Nahlaot and the German Colony are two of the city's most expensive areas, whose residents pay the highest rates of arnona (property tax). One would think they were at least entitled to clean streets and public areas in return. No amount of volunteer efforts, however noble, can absolve the municipality of its duty to provide this basic service. For his part, Chester has ambitious plans for the future. On Jerusalem Day, he would like to hold what he terms "a mega event" that will involve a citywide clean-up. "Before thousands come to march through Jerusalem, we want our volunteers to fan out through all the neighborhoods and clean up the city." He would also like to reach out and engage Israeli college and high-school students in the clean-up effort. "I just want to make Jerusalem more beautiful for everyone," he concludes. A municipal spokesman told In Jerusalem that, "The areas in question are cleaned routinely by the Jerusalem municipality. However, some of them, like the railroad area, are private property. The municipality has contacted the railroad authority about cleaning this area and has even taken measures against them, and also takes steps to clean this area." The spokesman also noted that in the 2006 budget, the municipality has allocated NIS 85 million to cleaning, maintaining and beautifying Jerusalem. For more information contact Alexander Chester at or 054-7931851