In many ways it’s just like a local Y anywhere in the world, but Jerusalem’s YMCA is also a significant meeting place for the city’s divided Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations.
The same speech made by Lord Edmond Allenby of England in 1933 at the opening of the Jerusalem International Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) could apply today: “Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity fostered and developed,” were his words that were broadcast to a worldwide audience over the radio.
Today, more than 75 years later, just a few Jerusalem-stone-steps away from the Old City’s perimeter, facing the exclusive King David Hotel where the rich and famous stay, the YMCA offers a pit stop for busy diplomats, young activists, the fitness conscious and parents from every walk of life in Jerusalem.
With its stately entrance, domed ceiling and tiled floors, the Y looks more like a palace than a community center and is widely reputed to be the most beautiful YMCA in the world. It’s a local treasure savored by tourists to Jerusalem hoping for a taste of that special atmosphere that Allenby, whose British Mandate forces conquered Palestine in 1917, boasted about.
“We use a quotation from what he said and apply it today,” says Yossi Eisenberg, the associate general director of the Jerusalem YMCA. “If one reads it today, it seems like it was written in the last few years.” Written in English, Arabic and Hebrew for all members and guests to see, this motto, “keeps reminding us of our mission,” Eisenberg tells ISRAEL21c.
With its swimming pools, exercise facilities, childcare, and cultural programs the Jerusalem Y is in many ways just like any of the 124 YMCA or YMHA member federations around the world. “Last week there was a special concert in honor of the Brazilian president who came to Jerusalem. We have an auditorium that sits 600 people and there was a full house,” says Einsenberg.
East meets west, at the Y
However, the West Jerusalem Y is also coexistence in action. Containing symbols from Christianity, Judaism and Islam, when a member of any of these three monotheistic faiths enters the community center, they can feel a sense of belonging.
“All preach for a better understanding of peace and tolerance and so forth,” says Eisenberg. “Jews, Christians and Muslims can take the different symbols that belong to them. Jerusalem is a city that will always attract Jews, Christians and Muslims and these three faiths need to learn to live together. Providing such a center and hotel and bringing these people together with our various facilities helps people who would not otherwise meet get to know each other.”
Jerusalem’s YMCA is owned by the YMCA in the US. The international organization boasts more than 45 million people. Founded in 1844 in London, its original goal was to put into practice Christian principles that it interpreted as developing “a healthy spirit, mind, and body.”
At the Jerusalem Y, Jerusalemites from both sides of the city are encouraged to do so, by availing themselves of the services offered there. The city is unofficially divided into east and west, with Muslims predominantly living on the east side of the city and Jews in the west. They rarely come into contact with each other.
While east Jerusalemites hold Israeli citizenship, some deny that they are Israeli, preferring to identify themselves as Palestinians. “Our purpose is to create programs to get to know the other,” Eisenberg tells ISRAEL21c.
Drawing the sides closer together
Until 1967, east Jerusalem was part of neighboring Jordan and tensions still exist between the east and west sides of the city. The Palestinians want to claim Jerusalem as their capital, while many Israeli Jews say that Jerusalem, Israel’s capital city, must remain undivided. This disagreement is a source of great conflict.
The West Jerusalem Y aims to draw the sides closer together. On offer are high-level, joint daycare programs for Jewish, Christian and Arab Israeli children.
Subsidies are available to enable the maximum number of children to start early and learn that stereotypes can be broken and bridges can be built between people.
While there is a YMCA in east Jerusalem, it is less of a communal space for interfaith associations and more of a place where east Jerusalem Arab Israelis can enjoy the sports facilities that are sorely lacking in their community.
However, the two Ys in Jerusalem share cooperation on a managerial level, and are supported when necessary by their American headquarters. Today, after a few hard years of intifada and a drop in tourism, the west Jerusalem Y is back on its feet, with its hotel filled to 80 percent capacity, offering what Eisenberg describes as “five star service in a four star hotel.”
Great hopes for the future
The private terraces and café offers a charming, safe and discreet meeting spot for diplomats who want to meet with their east Jerusalem and Jewish friends. “It’s quiet and known to be the best place for Jews and Arabs to come and talk quietly,” says Eisenberg.
Eisenberg is especially proud of the Y’s new director, Forsan Hussein, a Harvard trained business school grad from the Arab village of Shahab who is expected to raise the Jerusalem Y out if its financial slump.
“His is a Cinderella story,” Eisenberg tells ISRAEL21c. “He has a very interesting story. It’s about the village he came from and meeting Alan Slifka, from the Abraham Fund [chairman of the international board of directors]. Slifka provided him with scholarships to attend Brandeis. He is young, brilliant and charismatic.”
In addition to the auditorium and cultural events, daycare, sports, hotel and various cultural programs, the Y also runs an Arab-Jewish youth club with about 90 members.
Other unique programs include collaboration with the respected Wingate Institute to provide courses for swimming instructors for Arabs. There are also language programs in Hebrew, Arabic and English, and summer camps that bring young Israelis to Switzerland, the US and Canada.