When Israelis fear getting knifed on the streets of Jerusalem, it may seem odd timing to initiate cultural and civil coexistence programs in Israel’s capital.
But Tehila Nachalon feels the time is more than ripe.
“Neither we nor the Arabs will disappear,” she said. “But the tragedy is that neither side accepts that. We don’t internalize that we are required to live here together.”
Nachalon learned a lot about organizing programming that builds community togetherness during her six years directing the Israel office of the former Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey.
She left that post three years ago, but the native Israeli took with her an appreciation for tolerance, pluralism, and devotion to improving society against all odds.
Nachalon currently runs a leadership development center that uses Jewish texts to teach future movers and shakers in Jerusalem. She also serves as a paid consultant to many organizations and bodies.
But the mother of five — with an extremely supportive husband — also devotes a hefty amount of time volunteering for two organizations in Jerusalem that she helped found. The organizations work to advance Jerusalem for all its citizens: secular and Modern Orthodox Jews as well as Muslim and Christian Arabs.
Nachalon, who is Modern Orthodox, founded the Yerushalmit Movement in 2009 with Rachel Azaria, who became a Knesset member in March, and Marek Stern, whose father was an MK. Nachalon remains an active board member involved in the movement’s nonprofit organization, which is separate from the political party that elected Azaria and her successors to the Jerusalem city council.
The Yerushalmit Movement leaders initially focused on ending the trend of young non-ultra-Orthodox families leaving Jerusalem because of a lack of affordable housing, quality schools, and the increasing domination of the haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews, in the city. The organization has also fought for women’s rights, going to court to force bus companies to allow ads showing women on buses that go through haredi neighborhoods.
For the past two years, the organization has focused more on building relations between Jews and Arabs and secular Jews with their haredi counterparts.
Supporting Jewish-Arab coexistence is hardly considered trendy during the current wave of violence, in which Palestinian attackers have stabbed Israelis on a bus, near police headquarters, near Lion’s Gate, and in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood. On Oct. 27, a dual American-Israeli citizen wounded in a terrorist attack two weeks earlier on a Jerusalem bus died of his wounds; Richard Lakin was 76.
But Nachalon and her Jewish and Arab colleagues refuse to let the tensions or their differences ruin their friendships.
“We see what Jerusalem looks like now as how the rest of the country will look in 15 years, due to demographic trends,” Nachalon said. “We need to focus on relations with Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox to change Jerusalem into a community of communities.”
To that end, Nachalon and her friends in the Yerushalmit Movement have been organizing weekly dialogue and singing sessions in downtown Jerusalem’s Zion Square. The sessions started after a haredi Jew stabbed to death a teenage girl who came to the Jerusalem gay pride parade on July 30 to show solidarity with gay friends.
“I said people can’t be murdered on the streets of Jerusalem,” Nachalon recalled in a statement that sounds more significant in retrospect.
Nachalon also helped found the Yeru-Shalem coalition, which acts as an umbrella group for cultural, environmental, and religious pluralism organizations and community administrations that deal with civil society in Jerusalem. Yeru-Shalem started cultural activities on Shabbat for secular people and their children who complained they had nowhere to go and nothing to do in a city that largely closes down for the Sabbath.
Yeru-Shalem is planning Yeru-Shabbat, an all-day festival at a Jerusalem park on the Sabbath of Nov. 15, to which all sectors will be invited.
“The Midrash says that Jerusalem was not allocated to a tribe when the rest of the land of Israel was divided among the 12 tribes, so we must be as inclusive as possible,” Nachalon said.
Yeru-Shalem recently took upon itself the task of changing the dialogue concerning Jerusalem between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The organization started a Facebook page called Inclusive Jerusalem, which bills itself as an international forum for the advancement of Jerusalem as an open and inclusive city, a center of the Jewish world, and a bridge to other cultures and religions.
“We want people around the world to know that Jerusalemites are about more than Jewish-Arab tension, ultra-Orthodox extremists, and war,” Nachalon said. “There are many positive forces in Jerusalem. There is no city with so much activism and cooperation, but people do not hear enough about that, and they hear too much about the haters. The question is to whom we give the microphone.”
‘Give people hope’
Nachalon cares what the Jewish world thinks about Israel, especially after her experience building ties between the Central NJ region — which covered Union County — and the Jewish state. She still maintains close ties with many top community leaders from New Jersey, whom she regards as family, and fights for them to have a say on what happens in Israel.
“We don’t coordinate the Jewish people enough in our decision-making in Israel,” she said. “They don’t see our activism enough. They don’t see the impressive idealist native Israelis who give people hope.”
Nachalon said that is also true of inspirational Arab Israelis in Jerusalem, whom she has met through interfaith dialogue groups and leadership building programs. She has maintained her close ties with them on a personal level, though there are very few Jewish-Arab coexistence groups meeting during the ongoing wave of violence.
Nevertheless, Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem come into contact regularly; some 30,000 Arabs from the eastern half of the city work in Jewish neighborhoods in the city’s western half.
“The economy of the two sides is intertwined,” Nachalon said. “The city is a lot more mixed than people think. People on both sides are afraid. It’s tragic.”
Nachalon said she opposed a decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet to erect roadblocks limiting the exit of residents of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem from which terrorists have emerged and attacked.
“Closing neighborhoods doesn’t advance anything,” she said. “Most of the residents there are not terrorists. Such moves only make them more extreme. The key to defeating terrorism is living daily life and moving on.”
Nachalon lamented that there is not more discourse between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. But she expressed confidence that there would be soon.
“My hope is to find a way to cooperate more as Jerusalemites,” she said. “We have the same transportation, infrastructure, and sewers.
“Like it or not, we are stuck in the same elevator.”