Heads above water?

With the Jerusalem Pool reopened for the summer only, members are deeply concerned about the long term.

Jerusalem Municipality Pool 311 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Jerusalem Municipality Pool 311
(photo credit: Liat Collins)
It’s hard to imagine an upside to the Holyland debacle, but: The municipality will be watching itself carefully to ensure that it doesn’t make the same mistakes again, at least for the next few months. This extra vigilance and a renewed willingness to listen to the citizens and avoid embarrassing bribery scandals could be a blessing for the struggling Jerusalem Pool, which opened last week after a four-month winter closure.
While the owners claim that the winter closure was for renovations, pool members complain that the winter break is part of an effort to drive away members so the owners can claim losses, close the pool and bribe the city to rezone the area for luxury apartments. The pool, owned jointly by Moshav Shoresh and contractors Ela Brothers, is staying open until October at least, although they won’t reveal plans beyond that.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen. We’ll make those decisions during the summer,” says Rami Barel, one of the directors from Shoresh.
“What happened with Holyland can be compared with what’s happening here,” says Yossi Saidov, a consultant hired by a committee of pool members to fight for the pool’s continued operation. “This pool was owned by a moshav and was bought by private individuals at a very low price. They built buildings around it, and slowly the open areas and the public areas were destroyed or handed over. To say that Holyland could help us, that’s a problematic statement. Holyland is a disaster. It’s not helping anything. But we hope that the municipality learns the lessons from Holyland and that they listen to the citizens in connection with this and pay attention to the right thing to do.”
Since last fall, the future of the city’s only Olympic-size (50 m.) and handicap-accessible public pool has been precarious. The owners declined to renew annual memberships after December 31 and announced they would be closing for the winter for the first time in the pool’s nearly 60-year history. Rumors surfaced that the owners wanted to build luxury apartments and a parking lot. Devoted pool members banded together to form the Jerusalem Pool Action Committee and pleaded with the municipality to take action.
After studying a contract from 1992, the municipality agreed last fall that the area is zoned as a privately owned, open, green area. In a victory for members, the site may only be used as a public pool. Despite repeated attempts, the municipality could not be reached for comment.
“This isn’t just a question of the pool,” Saidov says. “This is a question of the future of the city. Who is this city really for? Who will live in this city, and who will use the services of the city? The Jerusalem Pool is a symbol, something unique. It’s an open pool with a grassy area that attracts young families, children and teenagers. If they close it and build a tower over the pool like Holyland, there will be no uniqueness to the German Colony.”
Pool director Shalom Ben-Yair, also from Shoresh, thinks people should stop calling this the destruction of Jerusalem and realize what it really is: a cost-cutting measure. Electricity bills alone for the pool are in excess of NIS 100,000 per month during the winter, not including heating, staff costs and maintaining the facility. This year, membership prices increased for the first time in four years. Because there are no more annual memberships, the price for frequent swimmers has almost doubled, while one-time entries are up by 10 percent. Members complain that with these higher prices, the pool could have done more to improve the rundown facilities.
“The pool doesn’t make enough money to put a big investment into it,” says Ben-Yair. “So we do the minimum each time so that it continues to function. We make sure there are no problems with the water as is necessary. We do what’s needed.”
Jerusalem Pool Action Committee head Shimon Bigelman scoffs at this logic. “Why, in Ramat Rahel, is the pool open during the winter and there are no problems with that?” he asks. “In Ramat Rahel, they’re actually building another pool. They see they can get good money from this. If they market themselves well, have good bathrooms and treat people like wanted guests, then people will come.”
But director Rami Barel says the biggest obstacle to the JerusalemPool’s year-round operation is not costs. “Our biggest problem isparking. The municipality closed the parking lots. If families can’tpark near the pool because there’s so little space available, it deterspeople from coming.”
Last week’s reopening was met with little fanfare, except for memberscomplaining about the increase in prices. A recent Monday afternoon wasaverage for one of the slower months: 10 people doing laps, a teenagegirls’ swim team warming up, and two families with young childrenenjoying the spring air.
“Emek Refaim is now all jewelry shops and restaurants. It’s nice tohave something not consumerist, not about eating or buying,” saysHadassah Fidler, a new immigrant from Manchester who has made most ofher neighborhood friends through the pool. “Here, you have every typeof person – girls in little bikinis, religious women wading in theirhousecoats, Arab families, really wrinkled old ladies. It’s a bit of azoo, but when it’s really hot in the summer, kids just need to be inthe water.”