Michal and I rarely travel during the holidays of Succot and Passover because of overcrowding on the roads and at tourist destinations. This year we made an exception and had a wonderful day trip in Jerusalem. This was prompted by our plan to attend a fundraising film for OpenDor Media. More about that later.
As has become our usual modus vivendi, we and two friends took the train to Jerusalem’s Yitzhak Navon Railway Station, named after the fifth President of Israel (1978-1983). According to theMarker.com, the Navon Station is the world’s deepest heavy-rail passenger station, the fourth deepest underground station in the world, and the deepest underground station outside the former Soviet Union. Navon’s three very long escalators reach 80 meters (260 ft) below street level!
Our first stop after arriving in Jerusalem was the Museum of Tolerance, which doesn’t officially and fully open until September 2024. Built under the auspices of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, it’s the Center’s second museum based on promoting tolerance. The original museum, built in 1993, is located in Los Angelos.
The three acre, centrally located Jerusalem campus includes a museum, a very large outdoor amphitheater, theaters, cafes, a Grand Hall and communal spaces. Its mission is to, “encourage democracy, promote regional stability and global harmony, combat the roots of extremism and anti-Semitism and advance tolerance and human dignity for all.”
We were attending a special photographic exhibit in the unfinished building. ‘Documenting Israel: Visions of 75 Years’ showcases photographs that document Israel from many angles, covering the entire history from the years before the State’s independence in 1948 until recent decades. First, we saw an informative film covering the subject of the exhibition. Interestingly, the commentary is in English with Hebrew subtitles, a sign that the Museum expects to attract large numbers of tourists to its programs, including exhibits and conferences. The exhibit is free but reservations are required.
Perhaps the most famous of the exhibit’s photographers are by two of the founders of the international photography agency ‘Magnum’: Jewish cameramen Robert Capa and David “Chim” Seymour. Both visited Israel frequently between the years 1947-1956 and closely documented the rise and the initial years of the State of Israel. They both gained world fame due to their exceptional work, often taken during wartime. Their photographs present an optimistic point of view on the new state, declared only three years after the Holocaust – but seriously in the making for at least 75 years.
Other photographers and artists include Micha Bar-Am, whose work was recently the subject of a wonderful major exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Sigalit Landau, Inga Morath, and others. (https://www.artdependence.com/articles/documenting-israel-visions-of-75-years-at-the-museum-of-tolerance-jerusalem/)
Upon leaving the very impressive new building, which was partially designed by world famous Frank Gehry and is built on part of an old Muslim cemetery (which the Arabs had paved over as a parking lot), we decided to have lunch at one of Israel’s most luxe hotels, the Waldorf Astoria, visible just a short distance away. The building was originally constructed as the ‘Palace Hotel’ in the late 1930s by local Muslims, under the leadership of the infamous Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. Although human remains were found in the construction site, the bones were covered up and concealed with the approval of the Mufti. The building’s entrepreneurs and designers spared no expense in adorning the building, whose special architectural features are well-preserved in the current hotel, which was completely rehabilitated and refurbished in 2014.
The hotel had been taken over by the British during the Mandate period and used by civil and military units of the Mandate government. After the departure of the British and the War of Independence in 1948-49, the building was transferred to the Israeli Ministry of Housing and Trade. It was eventually vacated and became a prized location for a luxury hotel, situated close to the Old City and the very successful Mamilla shopping complex, which faces the Old City walls.
We enjoyed an excellent, leisurely lunch. We then took some time to explore the expansive lobby with all its original architectural details restored. The majority of the crowd in the expansive lobby and on the streets near the hotel were Modern Orthodox Jews from New York, based on their accents. The men mostly wore black suits and hats. The women included loads of very well-dressed young mothers with lots of kids in tow. There were also many youngsters and teenagers mingling and exuberantly greeting each other. It was a welcome site to see the city so crowded with tourists.
Turning the corner and walking down King David St., we soon came to the YMCA, built in the mid-1920s. Just opposite the King David Hotel, probably Israel’s most famous hotel, the YMCA was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, a prominent American architect who also planned New York’s Empire State Building. Its design includes eclectic architectural details of Egyptian, Muslim, and other cultures. Quite striking, if not as opulent as the Waldorf Astoria – or the venerable King David.
The mission of the Y, built by the international Young Men’s Christian Association, was to create a cultural and social nexus between Jerusalem’s Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It had mixed reviews among the town’s Jewish population, which feared that its children would be ensnared by non-Jewish influences. Today, the YMCA is fulfilling some of its goals, attracting both locals and tourists, who appreciate its reasonably-priced hotel rooms.
Proof that the Y attracts a diverse clientele is the state-of-the-art fitness center located in the building’s basement. It was recently financed by Sylvan Adams, an Israel-Canadian billionaire who has almost single-handedly upgraded Israel’s sporting status by bringing international sporting events to the country, particularly by sponsoring acclaimed cycling events. He is also a major philanthropist in many other areas. In 2023 Adams was singled out for his accomplishments, receiving the honor to light a torch at the beacon lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl on the occasion of the 75th year of the State of Israel.
Although we had been inside the YMCA many times, we had never ventured beyond the rear lobby doors. This time we did. We were surprised by the wonderful garden with its beautiful mosaics and even a small band of musicians playing klezmer-style and other music. The small park is bounded by modern apartment buildings which complement the style of the YMCA. Michal and I got to dance and we enjoyed watching a number of young girls being taught to do “line dances” by a slightly older young lady. (Some details on the hotel and the Y are from the wonderful “walking tours” guidebook: “Jerusalem… a walk through time,” by Yad Ben-Zvi.)
By this time our last event of the day was approaching, the viewing of the semi-documentary “Exodus 91,” presented by OpenDor Media at the Yes Planet cinemaplex. We hopped on a bus traveling along Hebron Road, which continues south towards Hebron, one of Israel’s four holy cities (Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberius). Minutes later we were enjoying a snack in the large lobby of the venue, waiting for the start of the event.
The film, “Exodus 91,” tells the largely untold story of the 1991 “Operation Solomon.” Both professional and non-professional actors enacted the gripping story of how 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were rescued from war-torn Ethiopia in 36 hours during the month of June, as that country’s government was overrun.
Beta Israel (“community of Israel”) lived in complete isolation from the rest of the Jewish world for thousands of years. They dreamed of a return to Jerusalem, a dream which was initially realized in the 1984 “Operation Moses,” which rescued 8,000 Beta Israel.
Included in the dramatized reenactment of the 1991 operation were some of the actual diplomats, Israeli and Ethiopian, who were instrumental in the very complicated operation. 41 total flights utilizing 37 airplanes were launched on May 21. They brought to Israel 14,200 Ethiopian Jews in only 36 hours! Both Ambassador Asher Naim and his high-ranking Ethiopian liaison, a gentile who had studied in Israel and was rescued along with the Beta Israel, provided cogent comments throughout the film, providing a dose of reality to what could easily pass for a work of fiction. Of course, “Exodus 91” includes some cinematic dramatization to enhance its exposure to diverse audiences.
You can find out more about the very effective, pro-Israel OpenDor communication organization, whose mission is to be the address for the most engaging, informative and inspiring Jewish- and Israel-related educational media, at https://opendormedia.org/about/. Personally, the film reminded me of the fact that our family made Aliyah in the same month as Operation Solomon, but in a way that was so different than the Beta Israel experience.
On the train returning home, we were all exuberant over the many things we enjoyed and learned in one short afternoon and evening. You too can do it ALL in Israel! Plan to visit the Land of Israel the next time you contemplate using your passport!