The Jerusalem weekend challenge

Trying to create family programming that will satisfy the needs of such a diverse group in Jerusalem on a Saturday can be a real challenge.

Dinosaurs roam the Botanical Gardens terrain. (photo credit: JOANNA SHEBSON)
Dinosaurs roam the Botanical Gardens terrain.
(photo credit: JOANNA SHEBSON)
Jerusalem is a city with a mixed population with various religions, cultures and religious levels, so trying to create family programming that will satisfy the needs of such a diverse group can be a real challenge.
Add into the mix the fact that in Israel “there is no Sunday” similar to what you have in other parts of the world, and it further complicates the situation. With Saturday being the only day off from work and school, it is a popular day for families to look for events and activities.
The capital’s cultural institutions and heritage sites are always up to the challenge and, together with organizations like Yerushalem, have worked hard to create a proactive plan to engage families to stay in Jerusalem and encourage families from outside Jerusalem to come and visit on Shabbat. Creating special cultural opportunities addresses the needs of local families and tourists, while retaining the Holy City’s unique atmosphere.
On Shabbat you will find certain theaters, museums, community centers and parks open to the public with active programming schedules. These activities aim to fulfill the needs of secular and religious households, local Arab families and tourists. Not a small task.
I spoke with the directors and programming coordinators at a variety of Jerusalem institutions that are open to the public on Saturdays. I asked each one how they deal with the issue of programming on Shabbat. You will see that each institution has its own philosophy and own way of satisfying the needs of its public.
Tower of David
Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in July; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in August
First I met with museum director Eilat Lieber, who began by affirming that “Jerusalem has a special character on Shabbat. At the Tower of David, we wanted to find a way to create community events for families without interfering with the special Shabbat environment.”
She went on to tell me that for the Tower of David, which is a heritage site, it was important to the staff to create a special Shabbat program that made use of the unique location and engaged children using the physical structure of the citadel and its walls.
Tamar Berliner, who is in charge of museum events, took up the task and created a special Dungeons & Dragons game using props, masks and guides. A universal activity appealing to kids of all ages, D&D has become a real success, and they now offer it on Fridays as well. The museum turns into a stage for children to play out their imagination in a real-life citadel that feels like a castle.
The game does not require any writing and can therefore be enjoyed by religious as well as secular families. This new activity, along with the temporary exhibit “Objective” and the panoramic Jerusalem views, make this a site worth visiting and revisiting.
The Tower of David Museum was created by archeologists, historians and religious leaders of all three faiths, creating a place where everyone can hear the story of Jerusalem that is relevant and unique to them. This philosophy had a central role in making the Shabbat programming respectful to all.
Lieber finished the interview with some great news: “In the future, we hope to be able to offer free admission to our museum on Saturdays. We believe that cultural institutions are a valuable asset for the community and at least once a week should be open to the public for free.”
Bible Lands Museum
Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
After receiving many families on Shabbat, the Bible Lands Museum, located on Museum Row, saw that there was a special need for families to have a way of interacting with the museum and experiencing it on Shabbat.
When discussing the museum, director Amanda Weiss says: “The Bible Lands Museum is a vibrant cultural institution offering creative programs for families and a rich array of activities for all ages.”
She continued that during the weekdays and on Shabbat, “it is our philosophy that a museum visit enriches the educational and cultural life of our children, and that to discover the wonder of museums, children must be enchanted by what they see and be challenged to use their own creative energy during the process.”
Therefore it is not surprising that not only does the museum have a special Shabbat event, but it has also started to present the event in English so that it will be available to tourists as well.
Creating programs for all visitors is important to the Bible Lands Museum.
The museum runs special events for families on Saturdays and goes one step further by offering kids free admission.
This summer the museum offers two different interactive treasure hunts, “Shirin the Persian Warrior Princess” or “The Wizard,” where children are sent through the museum galleries on a spectacular journey in search of their lost heirlooms.
On Saturday the museum makes sure that all automatic doors remain open and that all of the movies run on a loop and are not affected when people walk past them. This is an added touch that respects the needs of the religious community.
Botanical Gardens
Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The Botanical Gardens in Givat Ram has been offering families special Shabbat activities called MishpahaTeva and ShabbaTeva during the spring and summer for over three years.
The gardens attract secular families, religious Jews and Arab families over the weekends because it’s a natural haven in the heart of the city.
It is important to the Botanical Gardens management to meet the needs of all of its visitors, which is obvious by its trilingual signs (Hebrew, English and Arabic). To respect the special spirit of Shabbat, the Flower Train does not run on Saturdays.
This year the Botanical Gardens is hosting a Dinosaur Exhibit that is open throughout the week and on Saturday till 10 p.m. The exhibit does not involve any desecration of Shabbat and the gardens are a beautiful place for families to spend some quality time in nature and in the shade. English translation for the exhibit is in the works.
I got a sneak peek of what’s in store for the new Discovery Trail planned to open next spring. It will be a very exciting addition, making the gardens interactive for kids during the week and on Shabbat (more about that in a future article).
The Shmita Garden is another childfocused activity inside the gardens, but it requires the use of a tablet, so it is not recommended for Shabbat.
Bloomfield Science Museum
Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In contrast to the other museums mentioned, the Bloomfield Science Museum feels that it is important to continue regular programming on Shabbat.
As a member of the Yerushalem board, museum director Maya Halevy feels families should be able to enjoy Shabbat as a day of culture and sport, but that the offerings should be the same as during the week.
The idea is to give secular families, Arab families and tourists a chance to enjoy the interactive museum. The exhibits and workshops at the museum by nature are interactive and require electricity or forms of activity not permitted to religious Jews on Shabbat.
This summer the “Musica” exhibit showcases different musical instruments made out of everyday materials.
For the religious segment of the population, the museum does allow visitors to purchase tickets in advance, and there are no electric doors or issues with walking inside.
Other cultural institutions
Additional options for family activities include the Israel Museum, Museum of Islamic Art, Gazelle Park, Biblical Zoo, Jerusalem Cinematheque, Train Theater, Beit Shmuel Theater and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory.
Tzaphira Stern, who is in charge of the Saturday Programming Initiative for Yerushalem, told me that “Yerushalem is working hard to make sure the local community centers have content and programming for their constituents on Shabbat.” At the same time, she also provides content and funding for outdoor events in local parks for young families. Yerushalem is getting the word out that Jerusalem has content for secular and religious families on Shabbat.
To keep up to date on what is open in Jerusalem on Shabbat, visit 
The writer is the founder of Fun In Jerusalem ( She lives in the capital with her husband and three kids and loves to inspire family fun.
Looking for special summer events and activities? The Summer Family Guide ( created by Fun In Jerusalem for Jerusalem Post readers is now available online.