Shir Hadash: A new community center in Jerusalem

Sharansky to be guest speaker at cornerstone laying ceremony this month.

311_Shir Hadash construction site (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
311_Shir Hadash construction site
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
‘Ihave a dream,” says the man of God. No, he isn’t Martin Luther King, and his dream is not about the equality of his people but the quality of his people. His name is Rabbi Ian Pear, and he’s been nursing his dream for more than a decade.
Now, it’s on the verge of becoming a reality.
Pear’s dream is to have a community center that encompasses a kindergarten, a synagogue and other religious facilities with educational and cultural programs that are dedicated to bringing Jews closer to Judaism and closer to one another.
With this as their focus, Pear, who hails from Arizona, and his wife, Rachel, who is from New York, founded Shir Hadash a decade ago, soon after making aliya.
In those days, their dreams were still lofty because they hadn’t hit the many snags of Israeli bureaucracy.
Since then, they’ve come down to earth somewhat, and are taking a more realistic view of what is feasible and what is not. But even when something looks feasible and has been given the green light in almost every quarter, there’s always someone who’s waiting to put a pin in the balloon.
Shir Hadash started out in the colorful Jerusalem neighborhood of Nahla’ot, where Pear was able to rent premises for next to nothing because the building in which he was located was known as the cursed house. Few people wanted to live or work there.
According to legend, it had blocked out the light from a kabbalist yeshiva, and the head of the yeshiva was so angry that he cursed it.
That was fine with Pear, because it helped to bring down the cost of the rent. He also rented what he called a hospitality house so as to be able to host a lot of people on Shabbat.
Eventually his congregants outgrew the premises and he moved to Emek Refaim in the German Colony into what had previously been an illicit gambling den.
Subsequently, a local elementary school allowed him to use its facilities for Sabbath services, and during the week the kindergarten, the lectures and the educational programs are held in Katamon.
With all the moving around, Pear did not forsake his dream of a permanent home for Shir Hadash, and while Uri Lupolianski was still mayor, put in a bid for a land allocation for a nursery school.
Because the particular area that he had in mind had been zoned for precisely that purpose, he had minimal problems with red tape.
The municipality made the land available, architect’s plans were drawn up and approved and the groundbreaking ceremony was held last June.
The laying of the cornerstone is due to be held on September 27, with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky as guest speaker.
Technically, Pear and his supporters are ready to start building straight after Succot, but there’s still an obstacle to be overcome.
One of the neighbors objects to some of the concepts that are being incorporated into the project, and it seems that the only way Pear and his friends will get him to budge is through a court order.
It’s really a shame because so many people are eagerly waiting to see the fruits of the collaboration between prominent Israeli architects Ron Gross and Yael Spector and Robert A.M. Stern, one of the leading architects in America.
The regular Shir Hadash congregation encompasses 150 to 170 of what Pear chooses to call “family units,” even though it includes singles. Some 90 percent come from English-speaking countries, such as the US, Canada, England, Australia and South Africa, and those without relatives in Israel tend to bond more closely with each other.
The congregation is frequently enlarged by visitors, both individuals and groups that feel more at ease with a congregation whose members speak their language and have a service which is or more less familiar to them.
There are also non-Jewish visitors who are interested in learning about Jewish ritual.
SHIR HADASH aside for
the moment, the impact of American born rabbis on all streams of Judaism in Israel is nothing short of remarkable.
In haredi circles there was amongst others Massachusetts-born Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Horowitz, better known as the Bostoner Rebbe, who died last year. In the Reform Movement there are such people as Cleveland-born Rabbi Richard Hirsh, a former Executive Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism who is now an honorary life president of the WUJP; and siblings New Yorkborn Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman and Rabbi Naama Kelman-Ezrachi, who have each made an impact on religious life in Jerusalem and beyond.
The Mesorati Movement in Israel was founded by American immigrants and American-born rabbis continue to be in the forefront of the movement. Modern Orthodox rabbis are also making great inroads in Israel, most notably Rabbi Shlomo Riskin with his Ohr Torah education network in Efrat and Rabbi Stewart Weiss with his outreach program in Raanana. And on the subject of outreach, let’s not forget how many Chabadniks living in Israel were born in America nor how many of the yeshivot and women’s seminaries in Jerusalem, especially those in the old city, were founded by Americans.
Now Pear, yet another American, is establishing a new community in the capital’s German Colony.
Meanwhile, the synagogue, nursery school and diverse educational programs are devoted to expanding the individual’s knowledge of Judaism, love of fellow Jews, and commitment to building a passionate, ethically centered and concern for one’s fellow being-infused community.
And true to Shir Hadash’s name, all its activities emphasize the positive attributes of Jewish tradition, such as joy, meaningfulness and warmth – the Song (Shir) of Judaism if you will – in what is hopefully a new and creative (Hadash) way.
All of the congregation’s activities emphasize the positive aspects of Jewish tradition, and joy plays a major part in this positive approach.
Lest anyone doubt Pear’s credentials, he received his rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University, many of whose alumni have distinguished themselves in Israel not only in promoting religious life, but in other fields as well.
Pear also holds degrees in law from New York University and in international politics and security from Georgetown University. He and his wife are parents to Gavriella, Michaella and Darya, who attend a religious school.
Before coming to Israel, he was a rabbinical intern at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, and after coming to Israel, served as director of the Hillel Foundation at Tel Aviv University.
Pear believes that mutual respect and love for fellow Jew are keys to true spirituality and essential components in the fostering of Jewish unity.
There cannot be unity while people focus more on what divides them than what unites them, and only through unity, he believes can the Jewish people fulfill their mission of rebuilding Israel both spiritually and physically, and in doing so, help to improve the world.
Today, there are 30 children attending the Shir Hadash nursery school, or kindergarten, as it is called in British English. Pear initially dreamed of having the nursery school grow grade by grade into an elementary school, but after all the bureaucratic hassles that he has encountered over the years, and all the licensing issues that are involved, he’s going to put the growth plan on hold – at least until the reality of the situation presents itself.
“Once we get to age 5, we’ll worry about 6,” he says.
Currently, Shir Hadash has received a license for a nursery school that will be built in such a way that it can easily be converted into a synagogue and a community center. Pear is hopeful that a proper, permanent synagogue will be constructed in the not-too-distant future, but that depends on the goodwill of the neighbors in the area and on whether Shir Hadash can get a license.
Unlike some other groups and congregations which took over residential premises and converted them into educational facilities and places of worship, thereby incurring the wrath of neighbors who objected to the noise and change of character of the neighborhood, Shir Hadash is building on a plot of what used to be wild forest land that remained in an urban area on the seam of the German Colony and Talbiya, known in Hebrew as Komemiyut, but seldom referred to as such.
There is an adjacent plot of land which Shir Hadash hopes to acquire with the vision for the future that as its community expands more space will be required for its diverse activities.
Of course, the realization of such dreams requires money. Initially, the largest donor was Pear’s father-in-law, Bob Abrams, a former New York state attorney, for whom the New York State Justice Building was renamed. Abrams and his wife, Diane, are financing the cost of the Beit Midrash in memory of their parents.
But much more money is needed for the $5-million project.
Enter Max Weil, an energetic octogenarian who used to be a pensions consultant.
Weil and his wife, Jenny, came on aliya from New York in 1992, and settled in an apartment that offers one of the most panoramic views of Jerusalem.
When they had come on an exploratory trip to look for a suitable place in which to live, the apartment was one of the places they inspected. Jenny Weil hated it, but her husband saw its possibilities and took her upstairs to look at the refurbished apartment of a neighbor who had been a Panamanian ambassador to Israel, and whose son had once employed a certain Binyamin Netanyahu in his furniture business.
The floor space of the upstairs apartment was identical to that below, and Jenny Weil told her husband that if he could achieve something similar, she would be prepared to live there.
The end result was stunning, incorporating Max Weil’s acute sense for detail.
He drove his architects and interior decorators mad, but in the final analysis, they were proud of what they and he had accomplished, and are still in contact with him.
Once the apartment was ready, Weil turned his attention to establishing a kolel. It started with six men. Kolel Sinai now has 50 regular students who come together three times a week, and pay an annual membership fee of $600, so that there is some money available to give an honorarium to the rabbis who lecture them.
With the kolel in full swing, the everenergetic Weil turned his attention to a family reunion. It started by chance when he was introduced to someone, and after a brief conversation about backgrounds, realized that the person he’d just met was a relative.
This set Weil on a massive, seven-year project in which he traced more than a thousand relatives ranging through every stream of Judaism from haredi, to unaffiliated to married out.
His German forebears, Noah Abraham and Hanna Felsenstein, had 12 children, 11 of which had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of their own, living in many different countries. Weil tracked most of them down and was in e-mail and telephone contact with them, collecting biographical details which were later published in a book and on a Web site.
His research led to a family reunion in Jerusalem in 2000 at the height of the Second Intifada. Jenny told him that he would be lucky if five people showed up. Hardly any visitors were coming to Jerusalem in those days, and hotels were all but empty.
Weil is a man who simply cannot acknowledge defeat. He called, he wrote, he persuaded and succeeded in getting well over 600 people to attend. Most had never met each other before and were not even aware of each other’s existence.
Suddenly they were sitting in the banquet hall of what was then the Hyatt, and looking at each other, realized that they were all connected by a blood line.
Since then, there have been other reunions and a Felsenstein family newsletter has been established, and of course the comprehensive Web site.
Weil also become involved with Maagalim, a project that helps 11thand 12th-grade students to acquire Jewish values, and was proud of that fact that he influenced its founder, Assaf Weiss, to extend the program to include female students.
There were plenty of other projects to which he donated money, but he sought something more. He was happy to give, but he wanted a hands-on connection, and was particularly interested in healthor education-related projects.
He was also looking for something in Jerusalem, and something that was non-discriminatory and would serve all sectors of the population.
He discovered Shir Hadash only five months ago, fell in love with the whole concept, and contrary to what usually happens, he chased Pear, rather than Pear chasing him.
“This was just made for me,” Weil tells the Post. “I called Rabbi Pear and said I wanted to be a major sponsor.
He’s the spiritual motivator and I’m involved in the details.”
Weil acknowledged that as a stereotype yekke, he is not an easy man to work with, because he is too demanding of perfection, but said that he and Pear got along fine and agreed on most issues.
Although it will be a boon to English speakers, Shir Hadash also hopes to attract Hebrew speakers and will have special programs for them said Weil, who expects construction to begin in six months.
He is looking forward to the day when the first phase will be completed and the premises can be used for weddings, bar mitzvas, a communal succa and all the other spiritual, social, cultural and sporting activities that the concept of a community center suggests.
Asked why Sharansky was chosen to be the guest speaker at the cornerstone laying ceremony rather than a wellknown rabbi, Weil replies: “Because Sharansky represents the values that many of us believe in.”