Seeing the need
Every year, over 1,500 new young immigrants arrive in Jerusalem to pursue Hebrew learning, higher education, and professional work, while hundreds of thousands of young adults visit Jerusalem on long or short-term programs such as MASA and Birthright.
We asked some of them what they think of Jerusalem:
- “It’s an ultra-orthodox city, way too religious for me.”
- “I love Jerusalem, it’s a beautiful city. I try to go every so often and visit the Kotel, but I could never live there.”
- “I’m in Jerusalem for ulpan, but all of my friends are in Tel Aviv, so I go straight there every Shabbat. There is nothing to do in Jerusalem.”
- “The Tel Aviv nightlife is just so amazing, and I heard there are only two bars in Jerusalem.”
- “We didn’t know what to do for the evening, so we just got Falafel on Ben Yehuda Street.”
- “There are too many Anglos! I came to Israel to meet Israelis, so I moved to Tel Aviv.”
- “I don’t like programs, they don’t feel natural. I prefer to sit in a coffee shop or bar and meet people there. They always invite me for Shabbat dinner. The experience feels much more authentic.”
Such reactions deeply concerned us. The next generation of Jewish young adults was not connecting to Jerusalem in a big way, and we knew that the city had way more to offer than falafel on Ben Yehuda!
Why didn’t young internationals connect?
We identified several elements that inhibit the development of strong connections to Jerusalem:
Jerusalem has forever been positioned as the “Holy City” to visitors and immigrants from abroad, and the experience of young internationals has typically been limited to included historical and religious sites.
But while today’s young visitor is no doubt curious about Jerusalem’s historical, political, and religious contexts they are especially looking to connect to the city via authentic cultural experiences among native peers. The ability to have such an experience in Jerusalem has not been widely communicated to the global community.
A “Shabbat experience” in the home of orthodox or ultra-orthodox religious families became a common activity for young internationals in need of a hot meal when most establishments close on Shabbat. While pluralistic Shabbat activities are growing in Jerusalem’s Israeli community, they have typically not been marketed towards newcomers, leaving many to feel stranded and alone, without a community that shares their values and traditions.
Access to cultural and social scenes
Most young adults arrive in Jerusalem unaware of the many cultural and social offerings in the city. This is because advertisements for events and opportunities are mainly published in Hebrew, and many are spread via Facebook or word of mouth only. The most unique young adult initiatives are grassroots and low budget, so a lot happens “underground.” Young artists and activists are producing new concepts all the time, so even we have to work hard to stay on top everything that’s going on.
Access to the Israeli community
In the current community structure of Jerusalem, young adults from abroad and native Israelis rarely cross paths. Visitors and immigrants sometimes feel restricted to the ‘bubble’ of the international community in Jerusalem and Israelis tend to avoid stigmatized tourists and immigrants.
Being so removed from the young Israeli community deprives young internationals from making important connections that help them understand the city from a native perspective.
How we started
And so in 2010, we launched the first Community Shabbat Dinner as an opportunity for young newcomers to network with their native Israeli peers and celebrate Shabbat in a way that was authentic to the city, yet representative of their pluralistic values.
As the Community Shabbat program took off, it became clear that while the program was fulfilling a basic need for young internationals in Jerusalem, many other challenges needed to be addressed if pluralistic-minded visitors and immigrants were to remain connected to city.
Generously funded by the Jewish Foundation of Central New Jersey, Jerusalem Village subsequently launched a series of small pilot programs between 2011 and 2013 in order to learn and develop effective ways of breaking down barriers between newcomers and the city’s unique community.
In January of 2013, Jerusalem Village was granted funding by the Leichtag Foundation to undergo a strategic planning process, including extensive research through an international survey of Young Adult Jews, synthesis of effective program models, and a growth plan for the next five years.
Jerusalem Village today
Jerusalem Village seeks to help young newcomers connect to the Jerusalem community, build roots in the city, and develop a sense of belonging by providing access to resources and networks that already exist in the young Israeli community.
Jerusalem Village also expects that native Israelis will benefit from getting to know young adults from Jewish communities around the world, and encourages them to help strengthen connections between the global Jewish community and Jerusalem.