New building on the block

For more than 30 years, no new buildings were constructed on King George Avenue. When the Avi Chai Foundation bought the empty lot next to the Yeshurun Synagogue for its new center, it had to contend with the challenge of making it fit in with the architecture of the neighboring buildings while still meeting its functional requirements. The Avi Chai Foundation was established by the late businessman and philanthropist Zalman Bernstein and his wife Mem, who is still chairperson. Its mission is to give expression to the various facets of Jewish culture and tradition, with a focus on the vital connection between Jewish identity and the State of Israel. Its posters on buses and noticeboards have always announced an additional goal, to bridge the gap between different segments of the population, primarily between the religious and secular. The new building itself is a jewel both inside and out. The architect, Israel Prizewinner Ada Melamede Karmi (who with her brother Ram designed the exquisite Supreme Court Building) rose to the challenge of fitting the building in with existing structures on King George Avenue and of meeting the multiple needs of the center (classrooms, library, exhibit lobby, auditorium, offices and meeting rooms for the staff). "I wanted to be a good neighbor and fit in," smiles Karmi. "On one side there stood the stately Jewish Agency buildings with an impressive central courtyard in its foreground. On the other side there was the round exterior of the synagogue with its focus on an imposing entrance." She therefore copied the round exterior, but added peep-holes, through which passersby can get a glimpse at the building's most dramatic feature: a huge, open-air interior courtyard, leading off from the downstairs restaurant. The courtyard, similar to the Jewish Agency's, is fronted by two floors of specially tinted glass. "In warm weather this is sure to be a popular meeting spot," says the architect. The lobby, now showing a photo exhibit by Friedrich Brenner, receives light from skylights set into the roof. "It mediates between the feeling of a home and of an institution," she explains. Some of the classrooms on the first and second floors are fancy, like the wood-paneled auditorium which seats 300 on two levels, while others are utilitarian. The interaction of stone, glass and wood plays a role in giving the structure its distinctive atmosphere, a setting for learning, meeting, working and socializing - all part of the Avi Chai mission. Karmi is very pleased with the results. "Jerusalem presents many difficulties that don't exist in Tel Aviv, but also unusual opportunities," she concludes. Beit Avi Chai is a beautiful addition to the city's landmarks, and promises to make a significant contribution to the capital in the coming years.