If Tel Aviv is The New Black, Where Does That Leave Jerusalem?

the new blackTragically, while in Jerusalem, young internationals aren’t inspired by their Israeli peers, or exposed to the city’s ongoing rejuvenation and renaissance.

by Emily Ziedman

It’s true, as soon as Birthright participants finish their ten days, they head straight to Tel Aviv. Who can blame them? Who wouldn’t want to chill at the beach while processing the whirlwind ten-day Israel experience? The truth is, Tel Aviv offers a lot of things Jerusalem doesn’t: world-class nightlife, designer boutiques, flat streets for easy biking and running, gourmet restaurants, a plethora of high-tech startups, the highest percentage of young people in Israel, and a beach filled with the best looking ones. It’s the city that the average single Jewish young person dreams about.

All this hype over Tel Aviv has, in turn, largely moved the secular community of internationals out of Jerusalem. Until about ten years ago, when Jerusalem became “religious” and Tel Aviv became “secular,” unless volunteering on a Kibbutz, practically every tourist and new immigrant came to Jerusalem. Today, 60% of all new immigrants that land in the city through the Hebrew-learning program at Ulpan Etzion leave after only one year. Most MASA programs for ages 22-30 in Jerusalem have closed or moved to Tel Aviv. (The thousands of MASA participants in Jerusalem are pre-university, ages 18-20).

This internal migration of young internationals is not due to any lack of social and cultural opportunities for young adults in Jerusalem. The city holds a laundry list of initiatives and opportunities for more pluralistic minded young adults. However, these are not the activities that are widely represented. This is for two main reasons: First, Birthright Israel only lasts for ten days, so for someone who has never seen the Kotel or the Old City before, it’s a must, and does not leave time for other experiences. Second, activities for young adults in Jerusalem are largely grassroots and are led by young Israelis, making them extremely unique and meaningful, but unfortunately very difficult for newcomers to discover on their own.

Moreover, the state of Jerusalem’s atmosphere and offerings is commonly distorted. Most people are flat-out shocked when I tell them that Jerusalem is home to more than one open bar on Shabbat, let alone a vibrant young community. Unfortunately, the Jerusalem tourism itinerary currently only provides a surface experience of the city, mainly focusing on its history, complexities, and challenges, and offers little insight into its incredibly authentic and innovative community structure. Tragically, while in Jerusalem, young internationals aren’t inspired by their Israeli peers, or exposed to the city’s ongoing rejuvenation and renaissance.

If they were, perhaps they’d see that Jerusalem offers one of the richest Jewish community experiences in the world. In Jerusalem, young communities and cooperatives of singles and young families organize community projects to improve their neighborhoods, serve as a supportive network, and participate in the wider development of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is home to young artists, activists, students, entrepreneurs, politicians, and more, who love life in the city and are dedicated to contributing to its important growth and development.

The best example of this is the “Awakening” political movement, which provides numerous services and cultural activities for young adults and, after the November election, now holds the second largest number of seats in the municipality. This has set up the city to support a hotbed of socially and culturally minded initiatives, whether it’s a group of friends making Arak for their street in Nachlaot, or artists who renew old traditions to create meeting points between Jerusaelmites. These are all things that young internationals should have the chance to be a part of, so that they too can feel a sense of ownership and belonging.

Recently, I led a focus group of MASA participants in Tel Aviv, during which I learned that at the MASA orientation seminar (which takes place in Jerusalem every year), participants were provided with little guidance as to where to go and what to do on their night out in Jerusalem, so they went to the only street they knew: Ben Yehuda. Instead of experiencing Jerusalem’s happening nightlife in Machene Yehuda – by which my Israeli friends from Tel Aviv have been completely amazed – these young travelers, searching for quality, authentic experiences during their year in Israel were sent to eat at some tired tourist trap.

Getting to know Jerusalem’s hot spots and cultural scene undoubtedly takes some serious effort. That’s why we started Jerusalem Village – a grassroots organization that provides a new “welcoming experience” for young internationals, introducing them to the plethora of Jerusalem’s unique and often slightly hidden elements that exist for young adults. We make it our business to know what’s going on in the young adult community and help newcomers find the experiences and connections they seek. Benji Lovitt, your next tour of Jerusalem is on us!

Emily Ziedman made Aliyah to Jerusalem from the U.S. in 2010, has an M.A. in Nonprofit Management, and is co-founder and board member of Jerusalem Village.