Jerusalem of Justice: Thoughts on Yom Yerushalayim

The Executive Director of an Israeli NGO rolls up her sleeves to see her own organization from the staff/activist side.

by Dyonna Ginsburg

I have always loved Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day), the underdog of Jewish holidays.

Few Israelis mark this day, viewing it as sector-specific and pointing to the fact that some of the most public expressions of Yom Yerushalayim assume distinct political undertones. I, however, have always found great meaning in Yom Yerushalayim – enjoying a festive meal with friends, singing Hallel in shul, attending the annual memorial ceremony at Har Herzl for the 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died walking from Ethiopia to Sudan on the way to the Promised Land, fondly referred to as “Jerusalem” by members of the Ethiopian Jewish community – and, therefore, find it unfortunate that many of my fellow Israelis are unwilling to put aside political differences to celebrate our capital city and all that it stands for.

Where does this feeling for Yom Yerushalayim come from?

First, I have always preferred the underdog. I have rarely rooted for the favorite – not in sports, and not in holidays either. (I guess it is not coincidental that I have chosen to focus my energies on fighting for the underdogs in society). I identify and connect with things that do not get the necessary attention and fanfare, including this day, the most neglected of holidays on the Jewish calendar.

Second, in the Torah, Jerusalem symbolizes a city of justice, concern for the downtrodden, the seat of judgment: “Our feet are standing within your gates Jerusalem … for there were set thrones for judgment (Psalms 122).” The Midrash goes so far as to say that the word “Jerusalem” is a synonym for “Justice”: “Justice is called Jerusalem, as it says: ‘Justice shall dwell within her’ (Bereshit Rabba 43:6).” In other words, according to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem is supposed to embody a concern for the underdog. Ironically, then, Yom Yerushalayim, which has been forgotten by many in Israel today, should actually remind us of our societal obligations to pursue justice and care for the “forgotten” in our midst.

In contemporary Israel, it seems almost absurd to link Jerusalem with justice. One might make the claim that Jerusalem 2010 is a poor and divided city at the center of an international conflict, suffering from corruption scandals and political intrigue. How dare we speak of Jerusalem and justice in the same breath?

Even now, or perhaps precisely now, when newspaper headlines mockingly read “Jerusalem of Silver” (a play on words kesef = silver = money) as opposed to “Jerusalem of Gold,” we should remember the wonderful acts of justice that continue to take place in our capital city. Jerusalem boasts the highest concentration of Tav Chevrati restaurants in the country (1/3 of all restaurants in the city); with Bema’aglei Tzedek’s help, Jerusalem was the first municipality to reform its system of hiring cleaning and security personnel; and, as of earlier this year, Jerusalem has become one of the first cities to appoint a municipality-wide advisor on issues of handicap-accessibility.

Today, I had the opportunity to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim in a unique way, bringing our city one step closer to realizing the dream of Jerusalem of Justice. Every year, Hebrew University’s Student Union runs a Student Festival, which attracts over 20,000 students and features music, food, and partying under the night sky until the wee hours of the morning. This year, Hebrew U decided to schedule the annual festivities on Yom Yerushalayim. In turn, Bema’aglei Tzedek decided to run a breakfast discount, in partnership with the Student Union, at 7 Tav Chevrati certified restaurants from 6 AM-8 AM, coinciding exactly with the end of the festival’s final concert. Last year, the Student Union ran a similar initiative. However, then, many of the participating restaurants did not meet the Tav Chevrati’s standards of fair employment practices and handicap accessibility, whereas now all of them did, sending a strong message to both restaurant proprietors and Israeli students that it literally pays to be just.

And, so, I woke up at 4 AM yesterday morning, drove 5 minutes to the Gan Sacher Park located at the foot of the Knesset, and joined Bema’aglei Tzedek staff and activists, who had been up all night encouraging people to frequent socially just restaurants. Concerned that I simply didn’t have the physical stamina to pull two all-nighters in the course of a week (Bema’aglei Tzedek is gearing up for our annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot in partnership with the Menachem Begin Heritage Center taking place this coming Tuesday night), I decided to join the Bema’aglei Tzedek team only at 4 AM. In retrospect, I now see how energizing it was for me to switch modes, if only for a few hours, from Executive Director to grassroots-leafleting activist, and to hear countless Hebrew U students rave about Bema’aglei Tzedek’s successes in keeping Jerusalem grounded to its foundations of justice and kindness. I guess even Executive Directors need to be reminded every once in awhile that we can still cut through the cynicism and inspire people to action.

Dyonna Ginsburg is Executive Director, Bema’aglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice).