by Rachel Marder
Jerusalem – Once Tehila Nachalon began noticing both secular and religious friends leaving Jerusalem because they could not afford housing or find jobs, she knew the phenomenon was serious.
“There is a real danger for the ability of Jerusalem to stay a place that you can first live in and also [a place that] people can be connected to,” says Nachalon, 36, an Orthodox mother of four. “If Jerusalem becomes a place of only haredim and Arabs and all the other people feel disconnected, that has a dramatic influence on Israel as a whole.”
Nachalon, along with four other activists, in June founded a coalition called Yeru-Shalem (the latter half of the word meaning “whole”) to create an open public space despite the ills created by Jerusalem’s demographic reality: For decades, given the high birth rates of ultra-Orthodox and Arab families, the rising cost of living, including home prices and municipal taxes, the city – home to roughly 801,000 people – has become a more difficult place for populations like the national-religious and secular to feel at home in.
According to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the percentage of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem is 3.6 times greater than their percentage in Israel as a whole. In 2009, while 12,800 people moved to Jerusalem, 19,900 residents left the city, and 51 percent of those who left moved to surrounding suburbs like Modi’in and Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank, where it is cheaper to live. While Jerusalem’s non-haredi school enrollment rose for the first time in 15 years this year, it’s too soon to tell whether the trend is reversing.
“We are alone here in an uphill battle to keep the city creative, dynamic, inclusive and pluralistic against some very alarming demographic political and cultural trends, and by doing this we feel that we’re not just doing this for our quality of life but for the entire Jewish world,” says Yeru-Shalem co-founder Dr. Elan Ezrahi – a Reform Jew, chairman of the City Gardens Community Council, and former executive director of Masa-Israel Journey – in an interview with JNS.org over breakfast in Jerusalem.
Yeru-Shalem’s other founders include Elisheva Mazya, CEO of New Spirit, an organization that works to keep young people in the city through housing, cultural and employment opportunities; Shaike El-Ami of the City Gardens Community Council; and Rabbi Uri Ayalon of Yerushalmim (“Jerusalemites”), an organization that promotes pluralism and young families. While the activists come from different backgrounds, they say what unites them is their love for Jerusalem and their desire to make the public sphere more open and more firmly connected to Diaspora Jewry. They strive to make Jerusalem a city that is welcoming to all Jews, near and far.
“Jerusalem will be a multicultural center open to dialogue and based on tolerance,” the group’s mission states. In particular, the coalition will “promote a cultural agenda that is inclusive and universal.”
Jerusalem’s demographic changes, as well as recent battles between haredim and the city over gender segregation on buses and police arresting women for wearing talitot at the Western Wall, are also likely having a negative impact on the city’s relationship with Diaspora Jews. Part of the coalition’s work, therefore, will be educating Diaspora Jewry on the social ills Jerusalem faces in order to strengthen its bond with its home.
Nachalon has found that at conferences in the Diaspora she has attended, addressing social trends in Jerusalem has felt taboo. She is not afraid of showing the less flattering side of the city. Rather than focusing on keeping Jerusalem as the undivided capital and talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, she would like to hear Diaspora Jews also engage with Israel more intimately, “not the Jerusalem of heaven, the Jerusalem of Earth.”
“It’s like Israel of milk and honey or Israel of gold. Don’t touch it. It’s like a picture. I was like, there’s so much behind the picture,” she says.
Ezrahi would like to make Jerusalem inclusive spiritually, on a practical level – meaning that when non-Orthodox Jews who live in the city and Jews from around the world are in the city on Shabbat, they should be able to celebrate in their own way.
“[It should be] that the public space in Jerusalem is a place where every voice can be heard and every person can be respected. That Shabbat is a time where people can express their way of celebrating,” Ezrahi says. For instance, the coalition has started brainstorming ideas for Shabbat events for locals and visitors, including community centers and groups leading “social tours,” dialogues, Shabbat services of various kinds, and activities like cycling, communal havdalah, learning activities, storytelling, and yoga sessions.
Other proposed activities from members of the coalition include holding a series of festivals highlighting local music, street culture, theater and poetry; interfaith dialogue; social action events; establishing a center for Jewish ethics and humanistic interpretations of Judaism; and an international conference every two or three years.
Many visitors to Jerusalem “don’t feel at home” because the city “kind of shuts down” on Shabbat, says Ezrahi. He is not talking about getting the municipality to stop fining those few restaurants that choose to stay open on Shabbat, but rather making the city more vibrant and pluralistic on the day of rest.
The coalition is prepared to face an uphill battle. Mazya’s New Spirit has for the last two summers sponsored outdoor concerts on Saturday afternoons. The last one in particular on June 30, held in the city’s downtown area, sparked some haredi ire. Hundreds of members of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit sect in Jerusalem have clashed with police for most Saturday afternoons of the last two years over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat.
While Nachalon says she would not attend the concerts as an Orthodox Jew, she fully supports New Spirit’s initiative, as over 1,000 young people in the city have turned out for them.
But Nechumi Yaffe, a 36-year-old Hasidic mother of three who teaches History at a Beit Yaakov school in Jerusalem, says she only supports efforts to keep secular Jews in Jerusalem, strengthen cultural activities and connect with Diaspora Jews “as long as it doesn’t break Shabbat.”
“It’s important for the town to have young people but it can’t change the core of what the city stands for,” she says in a phone interview. “Jerusalem has a special place for spiritual Judaism.”
Regarding activities that could potentially break Shabbat according to Orthodox tradition, such as playing music, she had one request: “Just do it in Tel Aviv. It’s okay. Do it in Nahariyah, do it in Eilat. Don’t do it in Jerusalem.” Ezrahi says haredim are welcome to join the coalition, though he does not suspect any are interested.
Nachalon sees national – not just local – implications for the city’s demographic challenges.
“The demography here is going to be the demography in Israel in 20 years, maybe less,” she says. “If we can confront issues here we have a chance nationwide. But if we fail here it also has a meaning nationwide.”
Mazya feels the same way.
“I see Jerusalem as a symbol for all the challenges and solutions that Jewish society as a whole is facing,” she says.