Hitorerut B'yerushalayim: Youth revolution

Young, non-haredi Jerusalemites have formed a political lobby to create a viable future for city's youth.

hitorerut 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hitorerut 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The problems facing Jerusalem youth are familiar and ubiquitous: skyrocketing rent and a scarcity of apartments, few job prospects, transportation issues and a wanting cultural life. It is of little surprise, then, that a new political movement, Wake Up Jerusalem (Hitorerut B'yerushalayim), has been established to focus on creating a viable future for the city's youth. "The older you get, the fewer friends you have left in the city. People call themselves 'the last of the Mohicans,'" says founding member and native Jerusalemite, Shahar Fisher, 25. Though the group only announced itself at the beginning of June, its professional appearance and organization give the impression of a veteran political movement, and its goal of gaining representation in city council seems inevitable. For that to happen the party needs at least 12,000 votes. And with less than 20 percent of the secular population having voted in the previous municipal elections, the group has entered the wilds of Jerusalem as well as the Internet to increase awareness and voter turnout, register more members and encourage involvement. "We paid the price [of non-involvement] with a city council and mayor that are not representative," says Fisher. Within a month and a half, the original group of six volunteers grew into a volunteer staff of 50 with 500 registered members. "We counted on it," says Fisher, referring to the overwhelming response to the group. "We're not crazy people with wild ideas. We came out of this community, this society, and we more or less knew what other people were thinking." Each of the group's founding members - Ofer Berkovich, Merav Cohen, Fisher, Kobi Frig, Amir Hakimian and Ido Nahum - is responsible for departments of eight or 10 volunteers. The departments deal with a variety of subjects, including content, policy and legal issues, research, design, media, marketing and organization. Fisher is involved with research, Web content and conceptualizing the group's agenda and ideology. "Jerusalem is not just a symbol, it's also a real city with a large population," says Sara Freedman, 24, a volunteer who joined the group a month ago. Freedman moved to Israel from Toronto six years ago, and to Jerusalem two years later. For four years she commuted to Herzliya to study at the Interdisciplinary Center. "Now I'm looking for a job. My husband is a student, and we were already looking for other communities - we felt that leaving Jerusalem was an eventuality. Then when I found out about the movement, I felt like I could at least hope to stay here." Freedman is religiously observant, and for her being involved with like-minded secular youth is as important as her involvement is to them. "As non-haredi young people in Jerusalem, we share the same problems." Freedman learned of the movement while riding the bus where Ofer Berkovich, 25, the group's driving force, was energetically handing out flyers for one of the group's events. "I was so excited, I told him I wanted to speak to the person in charge. He said, 'That's me.'" "We're a bunch of young adults, 20- to 30-years-olds, pushing for change, taking responsibility," continues Fisher. "This is rare - there's lots of apathy. The young population is Jerusalem's future, and we're trying to say to the municipality, 'Let us stay here, don't drive us away, this is what we need.'" The group's first protest in June was to get into their cars, piled high with suitcases, and say, "We're leaving." After the Bridge of Strings inauguration debacle, the group organized an officially approved alternative ceremony. "For us as a movement, the Bridge of Strings is a scandal regardless of whether you think it's aesthetically great or terrible," says Fisher. "The budget for the opening ceremony alone was NIS 2 million - [nearly] a quarter of the yearly municipal culture budget spent in a single night." On July 10, the group organized an activist conference at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. "People wanted to know who the group was, what we did, how to get involved," says Fisher. "We wanted to let them know in an organized way." Each department head spoke about the kind of work their group did. Afterward, everyone dispersed into a large hall where tables had been set up with posters explaining each department. Staff members sat at the tables answering questions and taking the names of people who wanted to be involved and contribute. Two weeks ago, the movement held an event at Independence Park that included live music and information booths with representatives from like-minded social and political groups in Jerusalem. The group is also planning an event for Tisha Be'av, where religious and secular figures will speak about the meaning of mourning. The key to the group's quick absorption of staff and volunteers is preparation. Between January and June, they discussed and prepared an in-depth organizational structure. The movement aims to work on three simultaneous levels: municipal, creating and supporting policies that will benefit Jerusalem's younger population; national, creating a lobby group within the Knesset, where many Jerusalem-related laws are passed; and societal, creating community programs for at-risk populations. Hitorerut believes that decision making in city council doesn't take the city itself into consideration. To address the problem, the group has instituted research groups to suggest policies based on analysis of local problems. Their consultants include volunteer lawyers and strategic counsel who look for creative solutions that either exploit the city's inherent potential or address problems that arise in other major cities. "In London, for example, there is an additional tax for 'ghost apartments' that aren't regularly inhabited," explains Fisher. "We're also looking into economic engines to drive the city forward. Jerusalem has two of the best medical research institutes in the world, but there's almost no biomedical industry in Jerusalem. If we could create a link between them, we'd create employment." The group is mindful that all their agenda items are linked: employment, housing, education, and recreation/culture. "People outside Jerusalem think the whole place is like Mea She'arim and has nothing to offer," says Freedman. "It's an image problem. The secular culture, non-Orthodox observant culture, student culture - people don't know what these look like in Jerusalem." Jerusalem has a strong combination of local patriotism and frustration, adds Fisher. "Everyone knows the problems," says Freedman. "We're trying to be the solution."