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Jerusalem Village: Encounters that Change Lives

Jerusalem - and Judaism - are for all Jews, says Lisa Barkan, founder and director of Jerusalem Village
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men wearing covering on their hats to protect them from the rain at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on a rainy, winter day.  (photo credit: Nati Shohat / Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men wearing covering on their hats to protect them from the rain at the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City, on a rainy, winter day. (photo credit: Nati Shohat / Flash90)

When you go out at night in Jerusalem, the city is abuzz with young Jews from other countries. Birthright groups hang out in town, participants in Masa programs sip hot drinks on Emek Refaim, and new olim (immigrants) get together, swapping stories and opinions in many different languages. Hearing them, one could easily think that Jerusalem is the most happening place in the Jewish world, the place where young Jewish adults get to know their peers.

Sadly, living in the same city, and even sitting in the same bar, isn’t always the same as getting to know each other. Many visitors never meet their Israeli peers at all, and go home thinking of Jerusalem as nothing but a holy site with some falafel stands. Even olim who actually live in the city feel like they live in a bubble, and wonder somewhat wistfully what goes on in the “other”, Hebrew-speaking, Jerusalem. “It’s sometimes very hard to get out of the oleh chadash (new immigrant) bubble,” Fanny Sommer Katz, who immigrated five years ago from Switzerland, explains. “It’s something that may not happen under natural circumstances.”

Lisa Barkan, founder and director of Jerusalem Village, felt that this was too big a “fisfus,” a missed opportunity, to ignore. She was saddened to meet many newcomers and visitors who didn’t feel at home in Jerusalem, and didn’t have access to its cultural and social scene. The situation seemed particularly wasteful, since Lisa feels strongly that Jerusalem has boomed under the aegis of mayor Nir Barkat. “Good things are coming to the city of Jerusalem,” she declares, and mentions high-end culture, religious diversity, high-tech, and different kinds of entrepreneurs. “You’ve got this vast richness of people, you’ve got unlimited culture, you’ve got any kind of educational opportunity possible, we live mamash in Gan Eden (really in paradise).” Lisa founded Jerusalem Village to make this “Gan Eden” accessible to visitors and olim in their twenties and thirties.

Lisa describes herself as ‘a people person.’ “I’m the kind of person that, standing in line in the supermarket, I would make friends with the person in front and the person behind me.” Her organization creates opportunities for Jerusalem’s young adults to do exactly that: Socialize with the people around them, whom they might otherwise see without actually meeting. To that end, the organization offers a variety of events and programs, from “off the beaten track” tours of Jerusalem to parties where new immigrants can mingle with native Israelis.

Jerusalem Village organizes parties where olim and sabras can mingle
Jerusalem Village organizes parties where olim and sabras can mingle

Many organizations put on events in order to teach or further their particular cause. The main goal of Jerusalem Village’s events is to create an opportunity for spontaneous interaction. Hamutal Sadan, a native Israeli who participated in a Jerusalem Village event, says that this makes a big difference: “The real magic lies in the fact that it’s not a scripted program, not an organized encounter between Israelis and olim with guiding questions and ice-breaking games. It’s really just a time to sit, eat, drink, and chat. As relaxing and fun as it gets.”

Hamutal participated in what Jerusalem Village calls “Shalom Al Lechem – a relaxed shabbat meal with friends.” The idea is deceptively simple: a native Israeli and an oleh co-host a Friday night dinner in one of their apartments. Each host invites 6-7 friends. The hosts plan and cook the meal with the organization’s trendy chef, using a portable kosher kitchen. The result is a fun, festive experience, and an opportunity to meet new people and form new friendships. “The meals create connections between people who otherwise wouldn’t have met,” says Avital Blass, the organization’s chef. “Good food and wine open people’s hearts.”

Hamutal co-hosted the meal with Fanny Sommer Katz. Fanny enjoyed the experience and the opportunity to meet Israelis and speak Hebrew. “I would recommend the program to newly arrived olim, because it’s very hard to push yourself towards the Israeli environment.” Hamutal thinks the program would appeal to anyone who likes people and good food. “You don’t need to be the most outgoing person, because the situation itself causes people to open up and have a good conversation.” Having spent some time in France, Hamutal understands the olim’s need to interact with locals: “It’s always fun to meet local people in a good, friendly atmosphere. I craved to meet locals, improve my language skills, get to know the local style and slang. Even just to have people be nice to me in an alien place where I was alone, without the family and friends I grew up with.”

Fanny notes that meeting olim benefits the native Israelis as well. Her ex-roommates in the Hebrew University never met a new olah before her. “They knew about olim chadashim and saw them in the streets and supermarkets, but didn’t know them. They were really happy to see the other side of Israel, the people who wanted to come to Israel, and build it, and help improving it. It’s fascinating for them to meet young people who are motivated to do that sort of thing.”

olim and sabras share good food, wine, and pleasant conversations in Shalom Al Lechem Shabbat meals
Olim and sabras share good food, wine, and pleasant conversations in Shalom Al Lechem shabbat meals

Lisa believes that by fostering such encounters and connections, her organization does more than contribute to each participant’s personal well-being. The connections help the Jewish people as a whole. The Israeli participants gain an understanding of world Jewry, she says, and become more pluralistic through their exposure to other people. As a participant in a program for olim and native Israelis told Lisa, “one of the best parts of the program was our differences. Because that is what Jerusalem is all about – addressing diversity and using it as a building point.”

World Jewry, in Lisa’s opinion, gains better leaders. At a time when people’s Jewish and religious identity becomes less and less community-centric, their leaders need to inspire them through their own experiences. Lisa believes that a strong and lively connection with Jerusalem is critical for their ability to do so. “The challenge of Jewish identity, and I would say Jewish identity connected to Jewish activism and Jewish life in the diaspora, has to be strongly connected to Jerusalem, in order to sustain itself, and be rich and based on content, and not just ra ra ra Israel let’s wave a flag. The richer their connection to Israel is, the better their leadership will be.” Sadly, despite the global Jewish community’s continued investments in Jerusalem-based programs, the future leaders of world Jewry leave without actually gaining strong and rich connections.

Lisa sees her organization as the way to amend this situation, and supply the leaders of tomorrow with “the rich background, the pluralistic perspective, and–most importantly–the very strong connection to Jerusalem,” that will make them good leaders. “The one Friday night that they’re here, there are two options. They can either go to the Kotel, and be set up with a religious family that maybe speaks English and maybe doesn’t, and whom they will probably never see again. Or they can come to one of our shabbat programs, where they can sit with other young adults who are all doing cool things.” Because Jerusalem Village events bring together “a collection of people doing different things, you have multiple connection points…and you become part of this community. Once you come to a Jerusalem village event, your connection is much more alive, it has a future.”

Lisa speaks of her organization with passion and enthusiasm. She started developing it at an extremely difficult time in her life, when her husband Jeremy was dying of cancer. The project was her way to “keep active mentally” and have a creative outlet while caring for her husband. It gave her an opportunity to bring together causes and ideas she cared about, “world Jewry, young adults, being pluralistic and open,” instead of being weighed down by her difficult situation.

Jeremy Barkan passed away two years ago and left a legacy of kindness and charity. Lisa continues his legacy by leading Jerusalem Village with vision, passion, and energy. She built an environment that encourages creativity in everyone involved. Avital Blass testifies that “Lisa is very open to new ideas, so there is room for creativity.” In fact, the organization helps olim to run workshops and events that express their own passions and visions.

Lisa herself overflows with creativity. Many of the new ideas are her own. “If you see some of the really wild ideas, they usually come to me when I’m on my treadmill,” she explains. The idea of using a portable kosher kitchen to create the Shalom Al Lechem meals, for example, came to her in he middle of a 5k run. “This is what I always think about: how to keep it rich and interesting and exciting.”

If you wish to host a “Shalom Al Lechem” shabbat meal, organize an event, or become involved in a different way, check out the Jerusalem Village site at: www.jerusalemvillage.org. You can also follow the organization through its Facebook group.

About the Author
Rachel is a Jerusalem-born writer and speaker who's in love with her city's vibrant human scene. She writes about Judaism, parenting and life in Israel for the Times of Israel and Kveller, and explores storytelling in the bible as a teacher and on 929.
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