by Abigail Pickus
Jerusalem, said its legendary mayor Teddy Kollek, is the “heart and soul of the Jewish people.”
So it comes as no surprise that during Kollek’s five terms as mayor, from 1965 to 1993, he devoted much of his efforts to nourishing this holy city through many municipal projects and building up the city’s culture of the arts. Notable projects spearheaded or supported by Kollek include the Israel Museum, the Jerusalem Theater and the Jerusalem Foundation, of which he founded and raised millions of dollars from private donors for social, cultural and beautification projects.
Kollek’s legacy carries on today with philanthropic support that continues to build and strengthen Jerusalem well into the 21st century.
“Our goal is to explore what happens when world class creativity meets the city of Jerusalem,” said Karen Brunwasser, Deputy Director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture (JSOC).
Established in 2010 by the Schusterman Foundation-Israel in cooperation with the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Foundation, along with the support of other founding funders, JSOC aims to “nurture, celebrate and take part in the cultural life in Jerusalem,” according to Brunwasser.
What this means is that Jerusalem’s 3,000 years of history, long the source of inspiration for poets, is mined for its cultural possibilities. Every summer, from mid-May through the end of the July, JSOC taps some of the country’s best artists and creative minds to create a series of artistic experiences spanning the worlds of dance, music, poetry, visual art, and beyond that highlight the city’s unique ancient and modern treasures.
“We are always looking at Jerusalem’s natural attributes and asking the question, ‘How can we tap into them in a way that is fresh and contemporary?’” said Brunwasser. As such, JSOC has run interactive events at places like the Israel Museum in ways that bring a typically staid institution alive.
The New Jerusalem Orchestra, for example, played concerts of original music at the Tower of David, an ancient citadel located near the Old City of Jerusalem that many tourists know for its sound and light shows. The brainchild of acclaimed Israeli jazz musician Omer Avital and Yair Harel, one of the pioneers of the piyut revival in Jerusalem (liturgical poems set to music), the New Jerusalem Orchestra played homage to classical western and eastern music, jazz and improvisation and more.
One of JSOC’s mainstays and most popular events takes place in the shuk, the Mahaneh Yehuda market. The Balabasta Festival brings a host of artists, dancers, musicians and street performers into the mix of shops and stalls of fruits and vegetable well into the night and invites the public to join in the fun. The festival has drawn as many as 12,000 people, according to Brunwasser. It is so popular, in fact, that the organization only advertises within Jerusalem and not outside of Jerusalem, the way it does for other events.
More than just a carnivalesque night of fun, Brunwasser sees the Balabasta Festival as contributing to Jerusalem’s culture of urban renewal.
“The shuk is a good example of renewal,” she said. “It has recently undergone a major renaissance, but at the same time, in a world where everything feels branded and sterilized, the shuk still feels real.”
The organizers of the festival deliberately worked with shop owners and kept the shuk open until 11 pm. “We didn’t want it as a backdrop. We worked with the merchant association to weave art and culture into it,” said Brunwasser.
Now that JSOS has run two successful seasons, they are setting their sights on a new goal. “Going forward, we want to make JSOC an international attraction. We want people from abroad to come to Jerusalem and experience the culture the same way they might go to Salzburg or Edinburgh for their festivals,” said Brunwasser. “We hope to commission works in Jerusalem by international artists and also have Jerusalem artists to go abroad. We believe that Jerusalem – artistically – has something to contribute to the world. This is a world city. It should be in dialogue with other world cities while maintaining its unique personality and character.”
Beyond making Jerusalem a cultural hot spot, which gives the reputedly more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv a run for its money, Brunwasser feels that JSOC emerged on the scene as one part of a larger movement to restore Jerusalem as a vibrant and pluralistic city. With the support of Jerusalem’s current Mayor Nir Barkat, who is secular, a host of activist organizations, such as New Spirit and Wake Up, Jerusalem, have sprung up. Organized by young, secular Israelis, they are working to ensure that Jerusalem, which has increasingly become more fervently Orthodox, is a welcoming place for all and an attractive home for young Israelis.
The Leichtag Foundation has also made Jerusalem and its citizens a top priority.
Established as a family foundation in 1992, it is now a private, independent foundation that honors the legacy of the Leichtag family, according to its Vice President and Executive Director Charlene Seidle.
While the foundation focuses its support on the San Diego area, where the Leichtag family lived and worked, after a board visit to Israel they decided to also place their strategic focus on Jerusalem.
“Because of its diversity and complexity, the foundation looks at Jerusalem as a social and economic microcosm of Israel as a whole and as the perfect lab to develop projects to address some of those issues for the entire country moving forward,” said Seidle.
One goal is to reverse the negative migration of young people from Jerusalem through a combination of supporting social entrepreneurship and social action, arts and culture, young communities and affordable housing.
Leichtag is responding to a very real phenomenon in which secular and modern Orthodox young Israelis have banded together to “take back” the city that just a decade ago seemed to be edging them out. Through a combination of political activism to young families who are settling in urban neighborhoods and giving back to the greater community, they are fighting to make Jerusalem a more pluralistic, welcoming place. But to succeed, these ventures need support and incentives.
“One of the most exciting things we are working on is with Ruach Chadasha (New Spirit) to support affordable housing for young professionals in Jerusalem,” said Seidle, referring to a nonprofit student organization working to keep young Israelis in Jerusalem. With this particular project, New Spirit is working with the municipality to develop a pilot around rental housing.
If it sounds tame, in reality it’s exactly what the country needs in the aftermath of the social protest movement that shook Israel last summer, according to experts. In fact, Israel has yet to adopt a model of affordable housing to keep middle class and dual income young professional families able to live in cities like Jerusalem because rising costs are pricing them out of the market. With this pilot, Leichtag is modeling how other philanthropists can join in the effort to keep housing affordable – in this case, through social investments that produce modest returns rather than direct grants. It is also a model that can be replicated across the country, according to Seidle.
Another area of focus for Leichtag is workforce development and job training for the charedi (Ultra Orthodox) community in Jerusalem. The programs include everything from establishing a one-stop campus to help charedim with job placement, career education through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as well as funding for special initiatives that empower moderate voices within the charedi community. The later includes supporting a project spearheaded by a young charedi social entrepreneur who has developed a pilot program to prepare charedi teens for the bagrut, the Israeli national matriculation exam that is required by all Israelis for the army and university. Since this exam is not commonly taken by the ultra Orthodox community, it further serves to alienate them from integrating into Israeli society.
“One of our measures of success is that graduates of this program stay charedi so that they can work for change and become models of how they can make a living and be true to their faith and still work. We see this as critical to economic stability in Israel,” said Seidle.
Leichtag similarly supports PresenTense, a social entrepreneurship hub in Jerusalem, to “build out the scope and infrastructure of social entrepreneurship in the city,” according to Seidle. “We see the Jerusalem fellows of PresenTense as a brain trust for us to learn directly from young Jerusalemites from a broad range of sectors, including Arabs and charedim.”
Finally, Leichtag is in the initial stages of working within East Jerusalem, whose population is mostly Arabs, to advance workforce development and sustain a stable economy to help them rise out of poverty.
“There is a real need,” said Seidle. “Only about 30 percent of adults in East Jerusalem participate in the labor force. This is particularly pronounced among women who represent just 15 percent of the work force. They also face a lot of barriers, such as having little access to capital for small business and other development because of their status.”
Now the foundation is working with partners to gather information, map out a needs assessment and scope out activity on the ground in East Jerusalem. Once the research is complete, Leichtag plans to reach out to other foundations to educate about needs and opportunities to join in the effort.
“There seems to be a real lack of awareness among other funders of what is going on in East Jerusalem,” said Seidle. “We hope to help educate other stakeholders about what is happening on the ground through this research.”
What is unique in this equation is for a Jewish foundation to include assisting Arabs, but that, said Seidle, is exactly the point.
“The foundation is looking at Jerusalem broadly. As one of the poorest cities in Israel, how does East Jerusalem contribute to the poverty of the whole city? Of the whole country? Putting the political aside, it is in our best interest if we care about Israel and Jerusalem to address issues of poverty across the board.”
“There is a lot of complexity in Jerusalem,” Seidle continued. “We feel that everything that makes Jerusalem complex and ‘problematic’ also drives creativity. Jerusalem’s problems can be a positive agitator that leads to solutions and new ways of looking at things. In this way, Jerusalem is a lab in which we can develop pilot projects and if they can work in Jerusalem, they can work anywhere in the country.”