At two meetings in Scotch Plains on Monday night, Feb. 7, local Jewish leaders heard how, in the poor areas of Jerusalem, a group of young Israelis are working to improve living conditions while learning more about being Jewish, and the city’s central role in shaping that identity.
The program, run by the organization New Spirit-Students for Jerusalem, is financed with the help of a $35,100 grant from Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey’s Outreach and Engagement branch. This year, 15 percent of the funds disbursed from the annual campaign were designated for programs geared to building “Jewish peoplehood.” Most went to local agencies, but New Spirit and one other Israeli program also won grants.
The program was described by Elisheva Mazya, New Spirit’s chief executive officer, and the organization’s founder and cochair, Yakir Segev, a business owner and member of the Jerusalem City Council.
Addressing the federation’s outreach and engagement committee, and then its board of directors, the two Israelis handed out brochures about New Spirit. On its front page is the question: “Will there be a next year in Jerusalem?” Its goal is to “breathe new life into the city” and to ensure that it remains an attractive, welcoming venue for Jews of all kinds.
“My mother asked me why I don’t find something to do closer to home,” said Segev, who comes from southern Israel. But Jerusalem, he said, is central to what it means to be Jewish — for the Diaspora as well as for Israelis. The city, he felt, was in danger of losing its character, as the ultra-Orthodox population grows and other sectors dwindle.
“Last year, 40,000 young adults left the city,” he said, “the kind of people who should be forming its backbone — educated, pluralistic, tax-paying people, and this has been going on for 10 or 15 years.
“We are trying to keep it attractive to the rest of its shareholders, and to tourists.”
Without such efforts as New Spirit’s, he said, “within two or three years, the city could become one-third Arab, one-third ultra-Orthodox, and one third other.”
The same thing is happening in Haifa, he said, “but that doesn’t matter.” When his audience muttered in disagreement, he clarified what he means — that Jerusalem plays a unique role in Jewish continuity.
Mazya came from northern Israel to study philosophy, economics, and political science at Hebrew University, thinking she would be in Jerusalem for three years and then go elsewhere. “I fell in love with it,” she said, and opted to work with New Spirit.
“We have been seeing very frightening trends in Israeli society, with fewer and fewer young people feeling a connection to Jewish identity,” she said. Those who move to Tel Aviv, with its wide-open culture, don’t need to think about that identity, she continued; in Jerusalem, it is a vital issue.
New Spirit works with the belief that those involved with social activism become invested in the place where they live. Offering internship opportunities, employment support, and rent subsidies in socio-economically depressed areas, it aims to enrich arts and academic offerings in the city, and to keep graduates from going elsewhere.
The organization encourages participants to form mutually supportive communities in poor neighborhoods, volunteering with after-school programs, youth centers, and other services as they explore their Jewish identity.
“We aren’t just interested in counting heads,” Segev said. “We want them to be engaged, to feel they are a part of the Jewish nation, and to recommit to the Zionist values which have become a bit vague in Israel over the past few decades.”
Since its inception, New Spirit has involved around 25,000 young people in its activities. In the past three years, they have established 15 communities in poor neighborhoods, with a membership of more than 240 people.
Five of those groups came to the New Spirit leaders with a proposal to start a gap year program. They recruited students, who are now doing things like developing community gardens and running High Holy Day programs for kids, while also spending two days a week studying Jewish texts.
Federation executive vicepresident Stanley Stone thanked the speakers and said that from now on, federation members visiting Jerusalem would be sure to stop by to see New Spirit’s projects. “What they are doing is beginning to transform the city in an unbelievable way,” he said.