The Human Spirit: The paradox of Jerusalem

The paradox of life in Jerusalem is that while we live our lives forever alert to possible terrorism, our daily human interactions are becoming more and more integrated.

‘THE BEST moment of the Jerusalem YMCA’s launch was when trainers – a mix of Jews and Arabs – demonstrated a variety of gymnastics and aerobics on stage.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘THE BEST moment of the Jerusalem YMCA’s launch was when trainers – a mix of Jews and Arabs – demonstrated a variety of gymnastics and aerobics on stage.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A young and talented journalist colleague from Tel Aviv consulted me recently about possible stories in Jerusalem that showcased Jews and Arabs interacting together. I paused a moment, not knowing where to start.
The paradox of life in Jerusalem is that while we live our lives forever alert to possible terrorism, our daily human interactions are becoming more and more integrated.
I’m not only talking about institutions like our hospitals where teams of Jews and Arabs routinely work together – from the kitchen staff to the transplant surgeons healing Jewish and Arab patients; from the delivery room to geriatric departments. Kidney and liver transplants go from Jews to Arabs and vice versa. You can’t get more integrated than that.
But I’m thinking about our everyday lives, the commonplace interactions that weave the texture of daily Jerusalem.
So exactly how integrated is my life as a religious, head-covering Jewish woman who lives in a middle-class neighborhood in what the Australians would call Western Jerusalem?
My choice for recreation is the Sylvan Adams Sports Center at the YMCA on King David Street. The 85-year-old YMCA, with its historic swimming pool, summer camp and choir, has always been a venue for Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents and tourists. It has become even more so with the opening of the new 9,290-square-meter sports complex.
The name of the new facility is that of Canadian immigrant, Jewish philanthropist and sports aficionado Sylvan Adams. He heard that “the most important YMCA in the world in the most beautiful city in the world” had long struggled to open a modern sports club in the ancient city. Adams had already sponsored sports centers in Montreal and Tel Aviv when he stepped in to make possible the completion of the Jerusalem center.
At the recent festive launch (a year after the actual opening), Adams said he didn’t even have to complete the tour of the facility before he signed on. He particularly foresaw children and adults of all backgrounds swimming and working out together in an upbeat, congenial atmosphere. Indeed, the pool’s swimming lessons draw hundreds of kids, whose ethnicity you can only tell by the way their moms tie their head scarves. There’s even a Junior NBA League.
The best moment of the launch was when trainers demonstrated a variety of gymnastics and aerobics on stage. Think of men and women dressed in blue-and-white YMCA T-shirts, doing push-ups and somersaults to the 1978 hit song “YMCA,” with its heartening message: “Young man, you can make real your dreams/ But you got to know this one thing/ No man does it all by himself.”
The trainers were, of course, a mix of Jews and Arabs. Among the latter was the personal trainer who works with a friend and me, making sure we don’t injure ourselves lifting weights in the hi-tech, multicultural gym. I go after work. My day-job office is in Hadassah University Medical Center, so I go from one totally integrated environment to a second.
On Monday nights, after swimming, I do my food shopping at the Osher Ad (“Happiness Up”) supermarket. The discount chain caters to those who, like me, keep a mehadrin (strictly kosher) home kitchen. However, because of the store’s low prices and super-sized packaging, it draws large families of both Jews and Arabs. We queue up together at the checkout and compare the bargains in our carts.

ABOVE THE supermarket is a mall, where I frequently buy clothing for my grandchildren at the American-like chain stories. My favorite saleswoman is a young woman who wears a hijab.
At my branch of Super-Pharm, the pharmacist who takes a personal interest in my medications wears a hijab.
The health fund nurse who takes my blood pressure and keeps tabs on my inoculations wears a hijab.
My gynecologist at Hadassah Medical Center is a female Arab doctor. When she’s not at the hospital, she runs a clinic for religious Jewish women in Beit Shemesh, and another on Saturdays, for Palestinian women who need a specialist.
The manager and mechanics at the garage where I have my car serviced are Arab. So is my hairdresser.
My Tel Aviv colleague, far to my Left politically, is surprised and impressed. I tell her that she needn’t be impressed. None of the above derives from a political agenda. I never choose the professionals and service personnel out of a desire to be ethnically diverse. That’s just the way life is in Jerusalem.
Any Jerusalemite can tell you a similar story. After all, Tel Aviv is 95% Jewish; Jerusalem, only 64%. Somehow in our relatively poor, supposedly right-wing, hyper-religious city, integration is everywhere. We have paradoxically managed to create an extraordinarily mixed society despite our history and the ongoing threat of terrorism.
“That’s not the way we live in Tel Aviv,” my colleague admits.
Not that everything in Jerusalem is dandy. Rumor has it that our new mayor will be walking the streets of Jerusalem early in the mornings to become better acquainted with the challenges of the city. He should make sure to visit Arab neighborhoods as well as the Jewish ones.
An afternoon recently spent interviewing a family in Silwan made me aware of how neglected the neighborhood is. Likewise, I hate knowing that 50% of Jerusalem’s Arab women who are my age have diabetes, despite national health care. I don’t know any Jerusalemites – Left, Right or center – who don’t think municipal services and health initiatives should be extended to all neighborhoods: rich and poor, Jewish and Arab.
My Tel Aviv colleague created a superb profile of two Jerusalem nurses, close as sisters, who go beyond their shifts in the depth of their friendship. She altered her view of Jerusalem.
If those who live in Tel Aviv have a skewed image of Jerusalem, we shouldn’t be surprised that those who live outside of Israel can’t imagine how closely Jews and Arabs live together. Nonetheless, accusations that we practice apartheid, which often come from foreign friends who live in exclusive gated communities on mountaintops, still rankle. Apartheid – the staple charge of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel – is repeated so often, even friends have begun to wonder what we’ve become.
I invite them: Come to work with me, come grocery shopping with me, jump in the YMCA pool with me. And do Zumba to that YMCA song. As it says, “You can make real your dreams… No man does it all by himself.” In Jerusalem, we’re doing it all together.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.