Going the extra mile

This year's Jerusalem Foundation Prize recipients have contributed to marginalized sectors of the community.

Last Monday, the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Konrad Adenauer Conference Center hosted a special ceremony to honor two people who in their own way have had an enormous impact on the life of this city: Clara Feldman and Avi Sabag. The two were awarded the 2007 Jerusalem Foundation Prize in Honor of Teddy Kollek for Leadership and Public Excellence for their unique achievements that have benefited the capital and its residents. Feldman is the founder and executive director of the Shekel Association for Community Services for People with Disabilities, an NGO that helps people with special needs become participating and active members of the community. Sabag is the visionary behind the Musrara Photography School, which he founded 18 years ago, and has since become an integral part of the once poor and marginalized neighborhood from which it takes its name. Although their contributions differ, Feldman and Sabag both believe in the importance of enriching the local community, special needs and periphery populations alike. Over the years, they have persevered through all the red tape and indifference to their efforts, especially by the establishment. Shekel has taken the lead on changing negative attitudes toward people with physical, intellectual, emotional, mental and learning disabilities. "We're not talking anymore about caring for these people until their life reaches its end, we're talking about a real life, about making the most of their potential," says Feldman. "What we're doing is telling society, 'Look, these people may have all kinds of handicaps, but they are still real human beings and they deserve anything and everything a normal human being needs - in terms of welfare, profession, entertainment, social and emotional needs. They are equal.' "When we went public with this attitude less than 20 years ago, it was a kind of revolution." Despite the prize and the honors, Feldman says, the situation on the ground is very difficult and every achievement requires huge amounts of work, and struggles with bureaucracy and budget cuts. Still, says Feldman, who has dec ided to donate her share of the prize (NIS 65,000) to Shekel, not everything is so bleak. "I know that we are still miles away from the day when we will have a blind minister, or a CEO in a wheelchair, but at least this isn't out of the range of the society's consciousness anymore. "I believe the day will come when we will employ disabled people in a wide range of tasks and they will receive all their social and financial rights," says Feldman. Sabag heads the Musrara School, which is much more than just another school for the study of photography. "We are here to create a profound change in the local situation. Our goal is to promote involvement and real mingling between students and local citizens, especially in this neighborhood, which has for a long time been considered 'problematic,'" says Sabag. "We say art is part of life; it belongs also to the citizens, to the inhabitants of underprivileged quarters, and the citizens should be a part of the artistic action." Musrara, on the line between west and east Jerusalem, suffered more than any other Jewish neighborhood in the city from snipers and other manifestations of the tense stand-off during the years between the creation of the state and the Six Day War. Later, in the early '70s the Black Panthers, a Mizrahi-oriented protest movement, came forth from Musrara. For many, the neighborhood still retains its poverty-stricken, underdeveloped and dangerous image. For Sabag, the goal in creating the Musrara School was to transform these perceptions, a goal he believes he has largely achieved, even as he emphasizes that there is still much work to do. At the Musrara School, which has some of the most advanced programs of study in music and photography, there is a special focus on social involvement: This is not a place where you can come, study and ignore the environment - students are expected to become involved, and to learn about the quarter, its history and inhabitants. "Here art is not only for the rich or highly educated," explains Sabag. "It is a natural part of life - of the teachers, the students and the 'clients,' our neighbors. "We had a few special projects, in which the residents participated with the students and were also involved in exhibitions, in the community center and even inside their houses, which they opened up to us." The school's community outreach programs have been so successful that "the model of the Musrara School has been learned and applied in the world," says Sabag.