The past year will be recorded in history as one of the most difficult years we have known. We are at the start of a new year, in the hope that 2021 will usher in a return to routine. A routine that we miss so much. I would like to share with you three stories from Jerusalem that give hope and inspiration for a more reasonable and optimistic future – a “future” that begins right now, at the start of the new year…
Jerusalem of Humanism
In the final days of 2020 the Jerusalem Foundation launched the Amos Oz Grant for Humanism in Jerusalem. In partnership with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, we set out to encourage initiatives, organizations and individuals working to promote humanism and tolerance in Jerusalem. Amoz Oz wrote, “If I could add another commandment to the Ten Commandments, it would be ‘Thou shalt not inflict pain.’” The initiatives will be chosen from the fields of culture, education and community, programs that involve discourse and dialogue, creative social initiatives and cross-communal encounters, in the spirit of the writer’s words: “These simple words: It hurts you. I know, it hurts me too. Let’s look for something [together].”
Like these simple words, we are seeking simple actions that create meaningful encounters among different groups in Jerusalem. This is the essence of the Amos Oz Grant for Humanism.
Last week late at night I saw a glimpse of what we are looking for in this grant – a simple, direct interaction that should be nothing more than a natural human act. I was accompanying a family member to Shaare Zedek Hospital. We had to wait for many hours. The emergency room was overcrowded and the atmosphere intense and anxious. Corona has struck Jerusalem hard, raising tensions and pressures among all the people seeking treatment and the staff trying to give answers.
In the midst of the commotion, one scene caught my eye. A Palestinian Arab resident of the city from the Shuafat refugee camp – not a young man, was at a loss. He seemed not to know what to do, where to turn, what treatment he needed or how to find his way in the long maze of hospital corridors. Then suddenly, like a scene unfolding before me in a film, a very young, delicate-looking doctor, whose dress identified her as an observant Jew, addressed the stressed man with infinite patience, guiding and reassuring him in a soothing and caressing voice all in … fluent Arabic.
He, too, was visibly surprised, almost astonished, and those long minutes seemed to transform into the first signs of healing of a much deeper wound. Minutes of sanity, humanity, compassion; minutes of a beautiful, respectful Jerusalem, a Jerusalem that listens, that offers hope. A city that honors differences, that celebrates the fascinating diversity and sees it as a great asset for the future. A city of day-to-day human acts of connection and kindness, a city that lives, breathes and inspires. A Jerusalem which is at the heart of Amos Oz’s work.
Miar is currently an eighth-grade student in the Middle School of IASA, the Israel Academy of Science and Arts, or as we like to call it – the “School of Excellence.” The school was established with the support of Teddy Kollek and the Jerusalem Foundation over 25 years ago in order to bring together, in Jerusalem, the most outstanding science and arts students from all over the country. The teachers, educational approach, level and range of subjects have made the school a beacon of excellence that is famous throughout the country.
We met Miar when she was a sixth grader at the Mallawia Girls’ Elementary School in the Old City of Jerusalem. The school was visited by members of the “Learning Together” program – a group of Jewish and Arab school principals who work together to promote joint Jewish-Arab learning and dialogue in Jerusalem schools, through programs for principals, teachers and students.
Shared Living is the basis of the Jerusalem Foundation’s work. Anyone who is familiar with the Foundation’s work knows how seriously we invest in Shared Learning; “Learning Together” and “Shared Learning Ambassadors” are just a few examples of our initiatives in this area.
Suad Da’as, at that time the principal of the Mallawia School where Miar was studying, is a member of the “Learning Together” group. Another member of the group is Anat Maoz, director of the IASA Middle School. It is not easy to impress the principals, but when Miar introduced herself, she enchanted all the principals – Jews and Arabs – with her poise, and personality and especially with her big dreams for the future. The big ideas of “Learning Together” joined with the big dreams of Miar.
Miar and her family live in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. It is a single-parent family with financial difficulties. The entire family, including grandmother and grandfather, admire Miar’s talents, hard work and strong and captivating personality, and they support and encourage her.
Suad and Anat took it upon themselves to guide Miar on a new path that was difficult and challenging but offered opportunities for great success in the future. With basic Hebrew but good English and lots of confidence, she entered IASA in seventh grade, joining the group of the most outstanding students in Israel.
Today, Miar is already an eighth-grade student at IASA, fluent in three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English. Thanks to her ambition, determination and hard work, Miar has become one of the student leaders. It has not been an easy or simple road. Even the daily commute from the Old City to the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood is a challenge. Her grandfather offered to take the bus with her every morning and afternoon. Miar is delighted with the new world that has opened up for her; she has integrated socially and academically and keeps in touch regularly with Suad.
Miar’s future and dreams are ahead of her, dreams that begin with small moments like the special encounter with the “Learning Together” group.
Photo credit: Herlinde Koelbl
Doubling the light
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have focused on providing support to the weakest and most vulnerable populations in all parts of the city: the elderly, Holocaust survivors, people with disabilities, youth and children at risk. The Jerusalem Foundation has been able to see the big picture and assess the city’s needs on an ongoing basis – this led to a beautiful program whose value doubled and multiplied.
Due to COVID, residents of the Akim organization – people with disabilities who live together in the community – cannot participate in their regular employment and activities. The counselors and mentors try to find a variety of activities for them, mostly on ‘Zoom’, but the residents want to find the sense of self-worth that they have at work, to feel that they are needed and contributing to their surroundings.
Hence the idea for a miraculous collaboration was born, with the support of the Jerusalem Foundation: Akim residents prepared and packed special gift packages for hundreds of isolated elderly Holocaust survivors throughout the city. Some of the residents of Akim distributed the gifts to the elderly in person.
The encounter was meaningful for both groups – it is not clear who was more moved and who were the givers and who were the receivers…
Even in the midst of great difficulties and unusual challenges, one can find inspiration for hope and optimism.
These early days of 2021 are perhaps the most difficult period since the outbreak of the pandemic as we see a solution on the horizon and impatiently wait for the vaccine to be available around the world.
With all the challenges, I hope that much better days are indeed just around the corner. I wish you all a Happy New Year, a year of health and hope. I know we will all be most grateful to be granted the simple wish of a speedy return to normal!
Jerusalem Foundation President