Op-Ed: Keeping Jerusalem Pluralistic And Vibrant
Jerusalem, the holy city. A complex and controversial place that is sacred to the three religions of the Book, plastered across international headlines and disputed upon by locals. While considered the booming center of Israel and culmination of its unique essence, Jerusalem is in trouble.
“Why did you move to Jerusalem?” I am asked in a negative tone by both Israelis and non-Israelis.
Many young people view Jerusalem as an old-fashioned, closed-minded and ultra-Orthodox city that is not a suitable place for progressive and secular movers and shakers. Friends have described feelings of alienation, discomfort and judgment as secular Jews in Jerusalem. They feel that in addition to a limited social life, Jerusalem does not provide them with career opportunity and development, unlike cities such as Tel Aviv.
The extremity in religiosity, concerns of safety, less prevalent work opportunities and polarization of Jerusalem all contribute to a great cause of concern. As young secular people, as well as non-haredi Orthodox, become disillusioned with Jerusalem and head for Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheva, and other peripheral cities, the diversity that draws Jews of all backgrounds to Jerusalem is at stake.
Amongst this doubt and speculation, can Jerusalem remain a pluralistic and vibrant space? And with that, one that warmly welcomes newcomers, both young Israelis as well as others from around the world?
According to a 2014 study of Israeli population movements, 5,720 young people between the ages of 20 and 29 left Jerusalem and moved to other localities, contributing to a total of 17,090 Israelis of all ages who left Jerusalem. In the same year, 3,309 olim (immigrants) of all ages moved to Jerusalem from abroad. In one year, the net out-migration of Jerusalem’s population increased significantly. As people of all ages, particularly millennials, leave Jerusalem for the periphery at a rapid rate, Jerusalem’s existence as a Jewishly diverse city is at stake. Enter Jerusalem Village.
Retaining Young People
Jerusalem Village, a nonprofit organization in the heart of the city, enables cosmopolitan young adults to form invaluable connections and to channel their passions to ensure the future of a vibrant Jerusalem. By mixing together religious, secular, Israelis and Jews from other countries between the ages of 22-35, Jerusalem Village provides a sense of belonging as well as an opportunity for meaningful and authentic experiences.
“Our research conducted through surveys and focus groups has shown that about 50 percent of new immigrants leave Jerusalem within their first year of living here,” says Jerusalem Village founder and director Lisa Barkan. “The three main reasons for leaving Jerusalem they cited were lack of jobs, lack of intimate social circles and an inability to speak the language.”
Jerusalem Village primarily addresses the need for intimate social circles by creating an ecosystem in which Israelis participate in welcoming newcomers to the city. This is done through several unique projects, notably the Shabbat dinner program coined “Shalom al Lechem” (“greetings over bread”).
Shalom al Lechem brings together a small and diverse group of up to 15 young Israelis and internationals for quality conversation and delicious food in the comfort of a Jerusalem home. The meal is hosted jointly by native Israelis and internationals, where each host invites his or her own group of friends. The hosts reflect their favorite traditions and handpick the Shabbat dinner menu with a talented chef, who comes to their residence and cooks a homemade meal with his kosher portable kitchen.
Shalom al Lechem creates a personal and authentic setting where young people can create and join in important discussion all while sitting around the Shabbat dinner table. Shany Batit, a young Israeli woman who recently hosted a Shalom al Lechem meal, believes that taking in olim is very important. She told me that “after serving as an emissary in the United States, I know how good life is there, and I just don’t know how the olim left those comforts. I am happy to help look after them.”
Many Israelis are interested in helping new immigrants acclimate and adjust into life in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem Village provides them with the unique opportunities to do so.
In addition to providing an “in” to the social scene, Jerusalem Village addresses the issues of Hebrew language and unemployment through its tailor-made immersive Hebrew program for new immigrants called “Alternative.”
While many new immigrants spend several months studying in a formal Hebrew class called an ulpan, they rarely use their Hebrew and revert to speaking in their native tongues once finishing this Hebrew study. Alternative provides young adults in Jerusalem the opportunity to develop Hebrew proficiency while easing into Israeli life. By bridging between native and new Israelis in an interactive learning environment, Alternative creates a comfortable Hebrew-speaking community.
Alternative’s Yomyom (day to day) Hebrew course provides hands-on learning experiences such as learning how to fill out bureaucratic forms or pay a bill over the phone, to mastering proper shopping etiquette at the shuk (outdoor market). Yomyom helps new immigrants integrate into Israeli society by teaching them the “ABC’s” of maneuvering through life in Jerusalem. Additionally, Alternative provides employment for young Israelis, as it hires local natives as teachers and teacher assistants to create and administer the program.
Last winter, as my release date from the IDF was nearing, it was clear to me that I would move to Jerusalem and begin my life there as an Israeli civilian. I always felt that Jerusalem was full of character and a very personal place to live. I had spent a semester living in the dorms at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a few years prior and knew that I would return to live in the Holy City once again. I always felt that there was no place quite like Jerusalem; the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere.
As people often say, there is something in the air when you arrive in Jerusalem. I love doing my grocery shopping in the shuk, walking down the streets made of Jerusalem stone and seeing with my very eyes the contrast of ancient history with modern technology.
As I reflect on the current situation in Jerusalem, I cannot help but notice parallels to Detroit. In recent years, Detroit has struggled to retain as well as attract young Jews, primarily due to lack of jobs and an underwhelming social scene, especially compared to other cities.
Several Jewish social initiatives have been launched to combat this issue, allowing for networking opportunities as well as community building. In addition, an upturn in job availability has sparked an increase in the younger population considering a life in Detroit.
For Jerusalem to reverse the out-migration of millennials and restore its population diversity, it needs to identify and connect this new generation of go-getters who have their own pioneering spirit. Coupled with the encouragement of the Jewish community and its philanthropic visionaries, a step forward in this vital mission can be secured.
For more information on Jerusalem Village, visit www.jerusalemvillage.org.
Originally from West Bloomfield, Stephanie Horwitz, 25, is the community manager at Jerusalem Village. She previously served in the IDF.