Jerusalem, an ethnically diverse city, is beset by inter-communal tensions and poverty. Predominantly Arab East Jerusalem suffers high unemployment and high crime rates, while pockets of economic desperation also dot the mainly Jewish western half of Israel’s capital.
Of a plethora of NGO’s active in narrowing the socio-economic gaps, the fledgling Jerusalem Communities Mosaic Project, which is working to establish new folklore fairs where traditional craftspeople can sell their merchandise, stands out for its non-violent pro-activeness.
“Women from the various struggling communities lack the tools to improve their lives,” project director Hilia Eyal-Mor Tsedaka tells ISRAEL21c. “We want to combine community development with attracting tourism.”
The innovative venture was the only Israeli project to win an honorary mention in the recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) concept design competition, “Just Jerusalem: Visions for a Place of Peace” that focused on creative solutions to the city’s social-economic plight, ahead of some 500 applications.
Haifa-born Tsedaka, 29, studied special education and conflict resolution before moving to Jerusalem five years ago. “I quickly became fascinated with the diversity of colors, cultures, sounds and smells in this city,” she recounts. “I experienced first-hand the beauty of religions, and how traditions can become a bridge between people.”
After a while, she also came to learn more about the suffering of the various communities, notably the poverty and desperation of many immigrants from traditional backgrounds.
“Ethiopian, Bukharian, Yemenite and other immigrants have experienced a clash between modern lifestyles and traditional family structures,” she notes. “The youth are moving away from tradition – many researchers have shown a connection between distancing from tradition, and crime and drug use, primarily in the second generation. Meanwhile, family structures are changing as women increasingly want to support their families, to create a better reality for their children.”
Tsedaka launched the project last September with a pilot cooperation at Beit Catarina, (a center for peace building in the mixed Jewish-Arab Abu-Tor neighborhood sponsored by the interreligious Katharina-Werk community of Basel, Switzerland), together with an Abu Tor Arab women’s learning center and Education for Life, a NGO that teaches nonviolent communication.
Some 20 Jewish and Arab women meet weekly to study non-violent communication in Hebrew, Arabic and English. “We discuss practical ways to promote the women’s needs without causing antagonism within the family, at work, with children and with men. The Moslem women are learning how Islam actually promotes women’s rights, despite what other Islamic leaders may have presented. A large portion of the Jewish participants are religious, reflecting the increasing interest in religious tolerance,” says Tsedaka.
The project’s staff is especially sensitive to the specific needs of religious communities, and many hail from these communities themselves. “This is crucial,” says Tsedaka, who is all-too aware of lingering tensions.
“A social divide separates Jews and Arabs, while the tensions between religious and secular Jews are tangible and urban alienation pervades,” she explains. “Without a common goal, they do not meet. People are afraid of loosing their identity, of having to let go of their belief systems, their resources. We are helping them preserve their traditions.”
She adds, however, that celebrating cultures is not enough to bring real change. “They need concrete tools,” she says. “By giving them the basics of business management and opportunities to sell their merchandise in the fairs, we are creating a mechanism that enhances both community empowerment and the city’s economic wellbeing.”
Empowerment is more than a mere buzzword to the diminutive Tsedaka. “Women need these tools to better their lives, status and financial situations,” she says, zealously.
Offering business mentorship will have positive knock-on effects, she insists. “From an inter-cultural dialogue perspective, the communication skills that we’re teaching in business management classes reveal the basis of every human interaction. How can we work together instead of competing against each other? How can women cooperate with each other to promote women’s rights? How can communities or neighborhoods cooperate to promote residents’ needs, for the common good of Jerusalem?”
The first Jerusalem Communities Mosaic Project folklore fair will be held next summer, after the initial courses bear fruit. “Since the fairs will be established by the communities themselves, they will take an active role in enriching the cultural face of Jerusalem, and connect with the wider community,” says Tsedaka. “The weekly fairs will rotate venues, enabling diverse communities to open a window into their lifestyles while generating both internal and international tourism.”
An annual two-week fair is planned near the Old City walls, where each community will have a tent that Tsedaka calls “a living museum demonstrating their unique cultures.”
The second Abu-Tor group is convening this month, with nearly 30 Christian and Moslem Arab, religious and secular Jewish women participants.
Tsedaka says that for now, financial limitations hinder the project’s quick expansion into other communities and sectors such as youth. Yet she and her carefully selected staff have the energy and patience to see the vision become reality.
“My social-perspective stems from a nonviolent belief that change can be achieved by promoting values of tolerance and inter-dependence within different belief systems,” explains Tsedaka. “Only by involving all of Jerusalem’s communities in its cultural-commercial life can we minimize tension, diminish poverty, create sustainable inter-community ties and raise city spirit.
“We want to give East Jerusalem residents and ultra-religious Jews the opportunity to become part of the city’s culture and economy. Happy people don’t start riots. Partners co-create.”