Our Mission as a Jewish Peoplehood – Focused Community Organization

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[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 20“The JCCs as Gateways to Jewish Peoplehood” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Elan Ezrachi & Shaike El-Ami

The two of us began our leadership of Ginot Ha’ir Community Council in 2001. Shaike was a recent appointment as the CEO of the Council[1] and Elan was on Sabbatical in New York. We met while dancing together at the Kabbalat Shabbat service at Bnei Jeshurun, a vibrant synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that draws many Israeli visitors. Shaike asked Elan if he would join the Board upon his return from the Sabbatical. Several years later Elan assumed the role of Board chair.

This was a beginning of our journey. Together, as a lay chair and a professional leader, we imagined and actualized our dreams and values regarding the Community Council. On the one hand, we were and still are leading a local community organization. We are accountable to our residents. We provide services in the areas of early childhood, culture, sports and leisure, arts and crafts, after-school enrichment programs, day camps, seniors’ activities and many more. We are a thriving community organization in the heart of Jerusalem.

But here comes the other part. We ARE based in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is not another location. It is the heart and soul of the Jewish people. Moreover, Jerusalem is the hub of global Jewish activities: pilgrimage tourism, Jewish organizations headquarters, leadership programs, global Jewish gatherings, etc. And within Jerusalem, Ginot Ha’ir is a community organization that is located right in the center of all this. We contain the iconic neighborhoods of Rehavia, German Colony, Talbia, Katamon, Yemin Moshe and more. This is a responsibility.

When we started our work together we coined a slogan: we are the JCC of the Jewish people. Yes, our first priority is our residents. But our residents are unique. Many of the people who reside among us are heavily invested in Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood.

We are hosts to multiple pluralistic Jewish organizations and synagogues, many of our residents are immigrants from western countries. So as a community organization we are positioned to imbed the idea of Jewish peoplehood into our daily practices.

One of our signature activities is the pluralistic Kabbalat Shabbat at the First Train Station (the old Station that was converted into an attractive cultural and culinary center). Since 2012, in the summer months, between May and September, we conduct an inclusive cultural and musical event that is open to the public. And the public is a mixture of locals who come from all our neighborhoods and a lively assortment of Jewish visitors from all over the world. There, under the open tent, they all meet, sing, dance, hug each other and welcome the common Jewish feature: Shabbat. They don’t know one another, nor do they speak the same language. But the shared experience transcends all those differences.

This is only one example of our mission. Our commitment to Jewish peoplehood runs across many of our programs. As we build our multiyear plans as well as the yearly calendar, we see the Jewish people in our prism. We have been involved in multiple partnership programs with Jewish community centers around the world, exchange programs, hosting interns, and providing networking for visiting individuals from around the Jewish world. Many of our programs are in English and French as we try our best that our publications will be translated.

Being a community center in the heart of Jerusalem is a responsibility. This is a message we also have to convey to out constituency. Not every single resident of our neighborhoods understands the importance and the significance of our Peoplehood mission. We need to educate our people that part of being a “Jerusalemite” is the readiness to make Jerusalem a welcoming and embracing place. We don’t want Jewish people around the world to relate to Jerusalem as a spiritual Disneyland. We want them to engage with our communities and our multiple social innovations. We believe that as a community organization we can serve as a connector between the Jewish people and the real Jerusalem, the city that manifests the return of the Jewish people to its ancestral land and the creation of a modern democratic entity.

[1] The city of Jerusalem has a unique community organization system: the city is divided into 28 councils, each one with an elected board. The councils provide services to the residents of their geographic areas, as well as representing the interests of the residents in front of the municipality. Ginot Ha’ir is a council that serves 50,000 residents in the heart of Jerusalem.

Elan Ezrachi, PhD, is the Chair of Ginot Ha’ir Community Council and the recent author of “Awakened Dream – 50 Year of Complex Uni cation of Jerusalem” (in Hebrew).
Shaike El-Ami is the CEO of Ginot Ha’ir Community Council and a professional leader in the network of Israeli community centers.