Exactly 30 years ago this month I fell in love with Jerusalem. I was 21. I also fell in love, but that’s another story with a happy ending, which is how I come to be an American living in London writing this piece. I was on a postgraduate programme (WUJS) where one spent the first six months in Arad learning Hebrew and the second six months doing work experience, or real work if you got lucky, in order to get the authentic taste of milk and honey.
I really didn’t care what I did, I just knew I wanted to do it in Jerusalem. I interned at the Truman Institute at the Hebrew University and worked at Steimatsky’s bookstore on King George. In the spring of 1984, inflation was so high that there were no prices on the books. We got computer printouts every Sunday with the prices for that particular week — which meant no one came into the store until Friday to buy anything. This left lots of time for heartfelt conversations about everything.
Thirty years later, the economy is more stable, but the conversations are still heartfelt. We live in London, but we spend lots of time at our home in Baka. I think my daughter would prefer if it was Tel Aviv – but my spirit, and now my work, is in Jerusalem.
It would be impossible to write about “my Jerusalem” and not declare a personal spiritual connection. The phenomenon is that everyone has a connection. It’s not just my Jerusalem. It’s the world’s Jerusalem.
What happens in Jerusalem resonates everywhere else. But it’s inhabited by people who are, in the main, trying to live their ordinary lives. I have met the most inspirational people and seen some incredible projects – as diverse and varied as the population of the city itself.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Adina Bar Shalom, this year’s recipient of the Israel Prize, for her work setting up the Charedi College — an institution which enables Charedi men and women to get vocational degrees which ultimately make them employable — a game-changer.
Then there is Suheil Omari, the director of the Abna Al Quds community centre in the Muslim Quarter where they have a football pitch, (yes, in the Old City) and a community garden. The Muslim Quarter is home to 30,000 residents. Thousands of local children suffer from poor schools, insufficient classroom space and minimal welfare support. The centre is a refuge in the neighbourhood amid intense crowding and poverty.
And Lena Nemirovsky, the inspirational director of the Jerusalem Conservatory Hassadna, which has become one of Israel’s top institutes of musical education for young people. Lena is committed to giving each child who walks through their door the gift of music — whether nurturing youngsters with exceptional talent or opening the world of classical music to children of Ethiopian descent, or those at risk or with special needs, on the Risk to Opportunity programme.
And Hagai Atia, director of the community centre in impoverished Kiryat Mordechai, who is running a time bank – a sophisticated barter system which gives local residents the opportunity to give and receive services that they could otherwise not afford.
Everyone has an opinion about Jerusalem. As Yom Yerushalayim approaches I’ll have long heartfelt conversations about the reunification and the political correctness of the day. But the one thing I am sure of is that Adina and Sohail and Lena and Hagai’s commitment to the residents of Jerusalem will carry on while the world debates their fate. There is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done — and they are doing it.