Increasing the Appeal of Living in Jerusalem

Emily Bernstein is under a good deal of peer pressure. Each time she hops the coastbound bus from Jerusalem to visit her friends, upon her arrival they ask her eagerly, “So, Emily, when are you going to move to Tel Aviv?”

Jerusalemites congregate at New Spirit's annual gathering of  young communities. Photo courtesy of New Spirit. Jerusalemites congregate at New Spirit's annual gathering of young communities. Photo courtesy of New Spirit.

Bernstein has made the uncommon choice for a young person in Israel, she says; she’s chosen living in Jerusalem over living in Tel Aviv. With its steaming beaches, its thumping nightlife, its splashy arts scene, it’s easy to see how Tel Aviv seduces Jerusalem’s many college students after graduation. But Bernstein is part of a cadre of activists, politicians, and students who believe that making Jerusalem a pluralistic Jewish community, and a more attractive choice for young people, is imperative for the future of not just the city, but the country.

“In many ways, Jerusalem is central to Israel’s character as a Jewish state, so it should be a welcoming and desirable place to live for all Jews,” says Sarah Biser, chair of UJA-Federation’s Task Force on Jewish Peoplehood in Israel. “If we can get more young people living in Jerusalem, that’s a key step towards making the city and the country more vibrant and pluralistic.”

In 2003, a group of idealistic Hebrew University students came together to stem the tide of young people trickling out of Jerusalem every year. They started the nonprofit Ruach Hadashah, which translates as New Spirit, so named because of their aim to give a new spirit to the experience of living in Jerusalem. Some young Israelis are discomfited by the city’s burgeoning religious population, while for many others the main issue with living in Jerusalem is the challenge of finding jobs in the city after they finish school, New Spirit has found.

Eight years later, New Spirit has three successful core programs: the Young Communities Project, which integrates young adults into underprivileged neighborhoods where they live, study, and volunteer together; the Young Artists Cultural program, which aims to involve young people in expanding Jerusalem’s art scene; and the Internship Program which has helped over 1,000 students find places to apprentice in their field of choice.

Scaling Up Successes

“We are very much optimistic about the future, and truly believe that we have built the perfect infrastructure for reviving the city,” says Elisheva Mazya, CEO of New Spirit. “Now we just need to expand everything that we do. As these programs grow in scale, they can reverse the trend of the negative migration out of the city.” While it initially focused solely on helping students, New Spirit has come to address the needs of Israelis between the ages of 18 and 30. The organization also works closely with Yerushalmim, another UJA-Federation-supported organization that helps create a more welcoming community for young families living in Jerusalem.

Bernstein is effusive about her passion for living in Jerusalem. Two years ago, after graduating from the University of Florida, the 23-year-old made aliyah and promptly began her master’s degree in conflict resolution at Hebrew University. The first week of school she heard about New Spirit’s internship placement program from a friend and decided to investigate.

Now, in addition to being on the receiving end of New Spirit’s programs, Bernstein volunteers with the organization, particularly focusing her energies on strengthening the community of young, recent immigrants like herself who are living in Jerusalem. So even if her Tel Aviv friends don’t understand her zeal for the City of Peace, Bernstein knows she’s in good, and increasingly plentiful, company.

“The Jewish people did not push to establish a country in Uganda. They wanted it established it in Israel, with all of its historic attachments. The national anthem explicitly states Jerusalem’s eternal importance,” she says. “Yet to maintain Jerusalem’s importance, it needs to remain representative of the country. It needs to lead. Change and reform needs to take place. Young people need to continue to revitalize the city and leaders need to continue implementing their visions for it.”

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