by Charlene Seidle and Brachie Sprung
As we enter the Hebrew month of Av, Jews around the world begin nine somber days of mourning leading up to Tisha Be’av (the 9th of Av), one of the most solemn days on the Jewish calendar. There are many reasons that we mourn on this day, but most famously it is because of the destruction of Jerusalem and the thousands of years of exile that ensued. Today, Jerusalem is showing signs of returning to its innovative roots, and while we are not theologians, this new spirit of social and entrepreneurial energy should be a cause for celebration for all those who care deeply about this city.
Jerusalem is a city about which many poems have been written, prayers read and songs sung, all inspiring intense emotions both for her residents and for people the world over. Yet, as the city continues to grow and surpass the rest of Israel’s municipalities in population and geographic size, Jerusalem also regularly appears on the top of the charts as Israel’s poorest city.
A related and perhaps most alarming phenomenon is the trend of negative migration from the city that saps the capital of much-needed human capital.
Today, Jerusalem struggles to compete with Israel’s coastal cities in offering the high-quality, well-paying jobs that are needed to keep young, educated families in the city. Additionally, housing prices continue to rise at a rate that makes buying a home completely unattainable for those families.
There is an ongoing competition with Tel Aviv with regard to culture and important quality of life factors, and it seems that not everyone wants to make their home at the center of such religious fervor as exists in Jerusalem.
It does not need to be this way.
Jerusalem of biblical times was the center of the world; not only in terms of purely religious beliefs, but also in what we would today call “social entrepreneurship.” In fact, the first Israelite Temple was built as a result of an innovative public collections system initiated by King David and seen to fruition by King Solomon. The Second Temple was re-instituted despite the lack of enthusiasm by the established leadership, and was the result of an all-out grassroots campaign by the Jews returning from Persia. Jesus, too, preached his message of social justice from the streets of Jerusalem.
We envision Jerusalem rising again as a center of social activism and entrepreneurship. The city has become a hub for young people fighting to reclaim and renew the ancient Jerusalem – and we believe the intensity and diversity which many point to as a negative is actually the city’s foremost advantage.
One striking example of this development is the budding community in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel. Originally built as housing for union workers and students, the neighborhood is today characterized by many different socio-economic populations, often poor and underprivileged ones that represent Israeli society as a whole. Today, thanks to organizations like Ruach Chadasha, scores of young idealistic students and families have been moving into Kiryat Yovel and working together to improve the neighborhood.
Through educational and cultural programs that encourage communal Shabbat celebrations and mentoring young children, the organization has connected veteran residents in new ways to their neighborhood.
Ruach Chadasha has also led the way to developing affordable housing models in Jerusalem, and and is currently working with its partners to develop the first built-for-rental housing project in Israel.
Another example of Jerusalem leading the way is the internationally successful Moishe House. By bringing together residents to live together and host diverse programs every month for their peers, the Jerusalem Moishe House empowers young adults to become facilitators and leaders of their community.
When Moishe House first sought to establish a location in Jerusalem some were skeptical. Within a few weeks of the announcement, this center received more applications than those received at any of its global locations – demonstrating a thirst for pluralistic gathering spaces which celebrate diversity rather than blaming it for social ills.
Such programs are not created in a vacuum. Organizations like PresenTense step up to train these young social entrepreneurs and provide them with the tools they need to create innovative community start-ups that change and improve Jerusalem communities on a daily basis. While these startups often shine a spotlight on the less-than-desirable elements of Jerusalem, we tend to see the silver (or golden, in this case) lining.
Jerusalem’s population, with all its complexities and problems, actually serves as a microcosm of Israeli society. By encouraging grassroots, entrepreneurial solutions in Jerusalem, we believe that the seeds are being sown for solutions to many of the challenges that Israeli society faces as a whole.
While there is still much work to be done, accomplishments are already appearing on the Jerusalem horizon and we can already see the emergence of a thriving city. By harnessing the creative energy that is bubbling below the surface, Jerusalem is being restored to its rightful place as the center of world-wide social innovation.
Charlene Seidle is vice president and executive director of the Leichtag Foundation and senior vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of San Diego. Brachie Sprung is Associate Director of Business Development in Israel for PresenTense and oversees the training of more than 100 entrepreneurs throughout Jerusalem and the world.